Ahir Shah is an example of what it would be like if your politics professor was also a quick-witted stand-up comedian. In recent years he has been making a name for himself not just through his jokes, but also for the way in which he uses them to explore the political landscape and comment on the social issues facing us today. In 2014 Shah won the award for Best Show at the Leicester Comedy Festival, and since then his career has been rapidly progressing: touring to both Australia and Canada last year before returning to the Edinburgh Fringe with his show MACHINES, which received well-deserved critical acclaim and reflected on everything from artificial intelligence to the strange and almost nonsensical ways in which society defines adulthood and growing up.
This year, Shah returns to the Fringe with his new show, CONTROL, which he describes himself as “a show about freedom, fascism, complacency, complicity, resistance, and milk.” We at culturised caught up with him in order to find out more about how he understands the political utlity of stand-up comedy, and also what it’s like to be a comedian in the age of the internet.
What was it that attracted you to stand-up comedy?
I first gave stand-up a go when I was at high school, so there wasn’t really anything attracting me to it beyond the fact that it seemed like a bit of fun. I’d grown up watching a lot of comedy with my dad, and he suggested that I give it a go; when I was a teenager he was always getting me to try new things, and this one happened to stick. The half-term I spent learning contemporary dance at his behest, less so.
Over the last few years of watching more stand-up comedy, learning more about the art form, and (hopefully) becoming not entirely terrible at it, I’ve fallen in love with a variety of elements of stand-up. There’s an immediacy to it that no other art form has: you say something, and within a fraction of a second you know whether it’s any good or not. Ideally, there’s a beautiful uniqueness to each performance, the sense that what is happening in that particular room at that particular time with this particular group of people will never happen again in exactly the same way. (It’s not for nothing that in conversation we often excuse our shit anecdotes with the get-out clause, “You had to be there.”)
Most importantly, in my view, is the unparalleled level of freedom that stand-up offers the performer. Lenny Bruce once simply stated that the role of the comedian is to make the audience laugh. This means that to an extent comedians all share the same ends, but the means with which we achieve those ends differ wildly. Emo Philips is trying to make you laugh, just as Louis CK is trying to make you laugh, but the means by which they go about it are hugely divergent.
I’m a political comedian, and as far as I’m concerned stand-up is the best way I know to get my thoughts and opinions out there. It certainly allows me to reach a wider number of people than, for example, academic political writing would have. As long as I make the audience laugh, I earn the right to say another sentence. I’ve justified breaking the silence.
Your brand of stand-up is unashamedly political, do you see stand-up as a political medium?
I think there’s always going to be something inherently political in stand-up, being as it is so bound up with the idea of freedom of speech and expression. That said, there are of course plenty of comedians whose work you would very much struggle to label “political” in any meaningful sense, and that in no way detracts from how great they are as performers. (Tim Vine is probably the least political comedian I can think of, and equally I can’t think of any comedian who brings more joy to his audiences. The two facts may well be linked.)
Stand-up does provide a brilliant platform for political speech. I feel as though many politically-minded comedians may have been essayists or lecturers in a different time; stand-up is just a (relatively) new form of expression for a very old impulse.
I guess it’s slightly akin to how the poets of yesteryear are the rappers of today, and those who would have been great playwrights are instead writing HBO series. Political stand-up is the medium for the person who, years ago, would have been doing some combination of writing essays, speaking at public meetings, and shouting drunkenly at the moon.
As a result of the political angle you bring to a very personal art form, it is no secret that you’re both left-leaning and staunchly anti-Brexit, have you found this has had an effect on the crowds you get in different parts of the country?
Certainly when at the Edinburgh Fringe or on tour, audiences will have done some research about what they’re like to get and are therefore generally going to be comprised of people who think at least vaguely like me. To an extent this is a bit of a shame, because beyond the (not at all unimportant) confirmation that you’re not entirely alone in a way of thinking, I don’t think people get a great deal out of an hour of nodding. Consequently, I try to incorporate some level of heterodoxy in my shows to save the entire thing from being a gigantic smug circlejerk.
I’ve also performed to audiences and parts of the country where my views are very much in a minority, and I think the results are all down to tone. Unsurprisingly, if you’re approaching people who disagree with you with an air of nothing but haughty hostility, you’re not going to get very far. If you’re playful, if you try to show that you’ve at least tried to see the other side of an argument, and merely give an honest account of where perhaps you differ from the crowd you’re in front of, I’ve found that almost all of the time people will give you a fair hearing and enjoy themselves. There’s a lot to be said for the fun both audience and performer can have when doing political comedy in front of an “away crowd”.
You also have a very active Twitter presence; do you think this is an essential for a stand-up comedian in the age of the internet?
Social media fulfils a few different roles simultaneously, though I don’t know if any of them are “essential” as such. It’s definitely an extremely useful marketing tool; from that perspective, even if you’re only on Twitter to plug gigs and stuff like that, it’s probably worthwhile. In terms of #posting #hot #content, it’s mainly a tool for procrastination if I’m honest.
Importantly, were it not for Twitter, I would never get random strangers telling me that I’m not funny. I wear this as a badge of pride. Apparently, I’ve forged a successful career in a difficult and competitive industry despite being entirely unable to do the one thing that the whole job is reliant on. You’ve got to respect that kind of hustle.
It says on your website that you started “doing comedy occasionally at the age of fifteen (i.e. too young)”, what is the age that you think people should start trying to perform stand-up comedy?
I don’t really know whether fifteen was too young, to be honest. I was terrible, obviously, but it was still quite fun being a novelty and getting snuck into places I wasn’t supposed to be allowed in to, at any rate. But certainly I feel as though at fifteen I didn’t really have anything to say – who does, at that age?
For young people, if you go to university that’s probably going to be the best place to start trying out comedy, if only because you’ll have a friendly, sympathetic audience and hopefully be able to make friends with other people of your age who have similar artistic interests. That was my experience, certainly, and a similar thing is probably true for many different art forms.
I think I was probably about twenty-four when I wrote the first bits of comedy which I still feel actually have a decent and valuable point to make in addition to having good jokes in them. (Admittedly, I’m only twenty-six now, so my retrospective assessment of those bits may change wildly over the next few years.)
I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules with regards to age, though. I’ve seen and heard things by twenty year olds that I’ve thought were fantastically interesting and affecting, I’ve seen and heard things by forty year olds that I’ve considered a tremendous waste of time, and vice versa.
What can we expect from your show this year, CONTROL?
It’s basically about the major political shifts that have characterised much of the Western world for the past year. Battles that I thought had been fought and won by my parents and grandparents’ generations are now having to be refought, and the fault line between the people we tell ourselves we are and the people our actions show us to be seems deeper and starker than it has been for decades. Combine with that a massive generational divide and a reluctance to engage with the history that has brought us to this place, and you’ve got a pretty sweet comedy show, baby.
In my last show, MACHINES, I talked about how globally it felt as though we in the present were being tugged in competing directions by a possible brighter future and the resurgent worst of the past. At the moment, the past appears to be winning, and so I’ve written heaps of jokes about it.
As a Fringe veteran, do you have any advice for aspiring stand-ups or fresh-faced comedians putting on their first Fringe show?
The two pieces of advice I wish I’d been given when I was starting stand-up and before I went to Edinburgh for the first time would be firstly, to get as much stage time as you can before doing Edinburgh, so that when you do it for the first time you’re properly ready. Secondly, I would wholeheartedly recommend doing the Free Festival rather than any of the big paid venues through production companies, as in a lot of cases if you end up doing things the latter way it will feel like everyone is making money but you. Paradoxically, the only way to make money out of comedy in Edinburgh seems to be to give it away.
When you are ready, just make sure you put enough work into whatever it is that you’re doing so that you’re properly proud of what you’re bringing up. Then, when it’s done, put enough work into the next one that you can look back at what you once regarded as the pinnacle of your abilities and go “Christ, what the fuck was I thinking there?” Rinse and repeat. Good luck.