The ever-sharp-witted comedian Shazia Mirza brings her extensive, award-nominated tour Coconut to Welsh soil. Weighty themes of race, identity and survivorship are present, she explains to Deniece Cusack, with inspiration for the latter coming from reality TV of all places.
How do you combine a tropical fruit with the concepts of survival and racial identity? There’s actually a simple answer, according to Shazia Mirza, currently in the midst of a huge UK-wide tour. The name of this tour, Coconut, was born from her time on Celebrity Island With Bear Grylls, its main theme of course being survival – in particular, the survival of women.
“Women are just better survivors,” she tells me. “It’s something we’re all feeling at the moment in this post-pandemic uncertain world”. And what better way to get through it than comedy? The fact that only two men made it to the final of the show yet every woman contestant was still standing by the end is something she clearly felt needed to be dissected through humour and satire. According to rave reviews for Coconut so far, we should count ourselves lucky she did.
Citing comedic heroes such as Les Dawson and Kenny Everett, her many TV appearances demonstrate Mirza’s comedic stylings are equally quick-witted and smutty – intertwined, however, with enough intellect and sarcasm to give her an edge on her male predecessors. Her stage presence is strong, confident, direct and unashamedly cutting. A former biochemistry student and science teacher who got into comedy purely “by accident and out of boredom”, she explains she loves writing and comedic writing seemed to be her natural vocation.
Having also busied herself with writing of a more journalistic kind after establishing herself on the standup circuit (she’s been a columnist for the Guardian and the New Statesman at various points), now Mirza has projects coming up that will expand her repertoire beyond newspapers and panel shows. One is a new comedy pilot produced by Sky, which will explore men’s mental health issues. On the importance of using comedy to explore such themes, Mirza observes, “Laughter is therapy. Exploring these issues through comedy often makes people more comfortable discussing them in real life.”
It takes real talent indeed to be able to write and perform comedy around such sensitive issues and invite people to open themselves up. Ricky Gervais did it with Netflix hit After Life, focussing on gut-wrenching grief, while Aisling Bea examined the stigma around mental health in This Way Up and turned it on its head. It seems we have a host of Avengers-style comedians at the moment, battling to bring forth and open up these common problems that have been kept behind closed doors for too many years.
Not so obvious to everyone is the other meaning behind the title Coconut, a term often used to describe people as ‘brown on the outside, white on the inside’. Mirza cleverly peppers her comedy with stories of how it feels to be a British Asian woman without the results being preachy, or even overtly political. Not exactly self-deprecating, but you definitely get a sense she gets in there before the bigots can; always a clever way to make hatred insignificant. Does she feel pressure, as a woman of Pakistani heritage, to discuss such important topics and, as such, to be viewed as a role model in the public eye?
“People put these labels on you, they put you in a box,” she says, but goes on to add that she doesn’t give in to that pressure. In her typical ‘put that in your pipe and smoke it’ demeanour, she concludes: “For me, it’s about hard work and personally, putting out good material comes before a public persona.”
words DENIECE CUSACK