Shappi Khorsandi interview: The Iranian-born comedian on youthful rebellion, and the sanctity of Billy Bragg

Khorsandi has performed one-woman shows for a number of years and is encouraging smokers to take part in Stoptober

Oscar Quine
Saturday 03 October 2015 08:19
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Khorsandi says: 'I do think that my generation and the generation above me were more tribal'
Khorsandi says: 'I do think that my generation and the generation above me were more tribal'

You're fronting an anti-smoking campaign. Were you ever a big smoker?

I grew up in the Nineties so binge-drinking was more of a problem for me than smoking. But back in 2002, I was in a show with Russell Brand and these pretty girls would go around the bars and if there was an empty pack of cigarettes on the table they would take it away and give you a free packet each. We were skint twentysomethings so we were like, “Oh my god you get free cigarettes!”

There's all this research that young people today are drinking, smoking and generally rebelling less. Should they be a little feistier?

I do think that my generation and the generation above me were more tribal. I think not having live music played on television and people not buying albums has changed things. People can get whatever they want now from around the world in little bitesize chunks but there isn't that commitment to a tribe like there used to be. People no longer go off the rails just because their heroes do.

What did you listen to growing up?

The Cure, Depeche Mode. I was obsessive about Leonard Cohen – I still am. Billy Bragg was the man – still is the man! I actually think he's the Dalai Lama.

The need to make people laugh is a compulsion. You’re always seeking a bigger laugh

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How's that?

He's pure goodness. I got to play the Left Field tent at Glastonbury which is his tent now. And it has been one of the joys of my life, hunched up over a cup of tea backstage, chatting to Billy Bragg.

Why do you think comedy seems to have a left-wing skew?

“Left-wing” does tend to be something that's more inclusive. Comedians want to go into a club and make people laugh and it doesn't matter to us what social class that person is, what job they do, what race they are.

Your brother and father have dabbled in stand-up too. Is there competition in the family to be funny?

Not so much competition, but wit is really appreciated and valued. If you're cross with someone and they say something that cuts through, you're just like, “Nice one, you can have that”. Growing up, if my brother or I said something funny we would get more attention from our dad than if we got 10 out of 10 in a spelling test.

Do you feel pressure to be funny if you're out socially?

I used to. Before I was a comic I was really loud, but since stand-up has become my profession it's sated that part of me. I truly believe that the need to make people laugh is a compulsion. You're always seeking the bigger laugh.

Why do you think it's so powerful to be able to make people laugh?

It's partly because to be made to laugh you need to be relaxed – you can be really tense and someone can say the funniest thing and you can't laugh. There's a trust and there's a break of tension when someone makes you laugh. If someone's making you laugh, you can't dislike them.

Who's the funniest person you know?

My dad. His brain gets to the punchline 100 years before everyone else's. It's quite phenomenal to watch. I remember being with him at a party in Texas and he was being remarkably cheeky, saying things that were so intrusive, but his understanding of human nature means people laugh at things that they didn't know they could.

Which gigs are your favourite?

The gigs that are the best for me are when the audience looks like one mass. It's the gigs that I'm struggling at when I feel like, “God there's a couple of people over there, there is one person over here and here's a hen party”. When I see the crowd as separate and disjointed I'm like, “Oh man, I didn't quite ride this the way I meant to”.

Biography

Shappi Khorsandi, 42, has performed one-woman shows for a number of years. Fleeing Iran after the Islamic Revolution and the publication of a controversial poem by her father, the satirist Hadi Khorsandi, the family settled in London. Khorsandi now lives in Richmond with her two children, one of whom is from a previous relationship with comedian Christian Reilly. She is encouraging smokers to take part in this year’s Stoptober and quit for 28 days from 1 October

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