Theatre: Heard the one about the late-night Yorkshire pud?

Jeff Mirza is an Asian alone in the world of stand-up comedy. By Roy Bartholomew
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The Independent Culture
"You can't get on stage and tell sex gags all night. You've got to do better... because the audience, they look at you and they want to hear something fresh, something original ... and you'd better make them laugh." Jeff Mirza is recounting his experiences as the only known Asian stand-up on the alternative comedy circuit. He's just played a set at the Comedy Cafe in east London and now we are sitting in what appears to be the comedians' relaxation lounge. It's a hot, spacious room above the club, wondrously garish, with dayglo coloured walls. Mirza is ensconced in a zebra-skin armchair.

He tells gags about Indian revellers in Bombay staggering out of English restaurants at 1am, vomiting Yorkshire pudding. "I like the idea of turning a stereotype on its head," he says. A favourite is the one about a little Indian man who stands up to his racist neighbours. He gets into his car, with his whole family, and drives around the place shouting through a megaphone: "We're here, we're not leaving and you never had it so good!"

Until quite recently, live comedy did not feature as a popular cultural product among Britain's Asian and Black communities. And even today, despite big reductions in grant allocations (which have brought about the closure of several minority theatre companies), drama, poetry and dance still reign as the major forms through which writers from the ethnic minorities express themselves and agitate for rights.

Over the last 15 years, that cultural landscape has changed - thanks partly to the growth and development of the alternative circuit. In the black community especially, live comedy venues have been established and cult figures like Leo X Chester - in addition to groups like the Posse and the Bibi Crew - play sell-out shows across the country.

British Asians, however, have lagged behind in the comedy stakes. And apart from Jeff, no talent of note has yet emerged on the stand-up circuit. He believes this has more to do with the career choices people make than with any lack of talent. Traditionally, Asian youths aspire for success in areas such as law, medicine and business, "which is not a bad thing entirely," Jeff says. "I just think that it's probably gone too far that way - we need fewer doctors, more gardeners."

Six foot tall, with the look of a mischievous cherub, Mirza seems to have always enjoyed being rebellious. It's no surprise to learn that as a schoolboy he courted a reputation as a wise-cracking idler. By 19, the rebellious streak had subsided as his family's expectations bore down on him. He worked hard, attended university, taking a degree in civil engineering, followed by a master's in systems engineering.

Three years ago, he decided to work as a full-time comic and resigned from his secure job as an engineer in the family firm. For a time the action bewildered his devout and close-knit family of British Muslims. Mirza is unrepentant. "Each of us had to hold down a respectable job," he says, a note of tiredness creeping into his voice. "My father is a consultant engineer, so my sister had to be one - she's a chemical engineer. My brother, he's a structural engineer, like me. I understand what our parents wanted - security for all of us. But, I mean ... where's the fun in that?"

But choosing to tell jokes for a living is no soft option. "I'm very much out here on my own," he says, sounding serious. "I mean, there is no major British Asian stand-up I could use as an influence, no one who's handled questions about what being both British and Asian is all about. So there is a kind of disadvantage in that. But at the same time it's a great opportunity to make your own way, without help."

n Jeff Mirza appears at the Comedy Cafe, 66 Rivington Street, London EC2 (0171-739 5706) tomorrow

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