From countless TV and radio show apperances including; Mock The Week, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Have I Got News For You and flagship Radio 4 programmes, it's impossible to have not enjoyed the work of Shappi Khorsandi.
The widely acclaimed comedian and author joined us at NMP Live for an exclusive interview where we discussed learning the value of comedy, her favourite corporate material and how her daughter is also her pension plan.
You can watch the full interview here or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Shappi Khorsandi
Growing up, we knew as children that whatever trouble we were in, if you cracked a joke and made my dad laugh, you were forgiven. Because our dad held a sense of humour in such high regard, such a deep respect for a quick sense of humour, a quick wit. So that was really a huge part of our family culture. And also my dad is a very well known Iranian artist, a writer, poet, showman as well. And with no exaggeration, they used to have parties, my parents in the '70s and '80s, every night of the week. Either we would be taken to a party with our parents or they would have a party. And our life was quite chaotic in that way.
And what my dad started to do was notice that I did impersonations. So he would get so excited. There'd always be a point in the evening where I'd hear, "Shappi, come and do your Thatcher impression." And I would be in this room where everyone's smoking over this little kid that's doing an impression of Margaret Thatcher. And then everyone would laugh. And I talk about this in my routine, that then my dad would look at me and go, "oh, it was worth having children after all," because that was when our dad was the most proud of us is when we were making everyone laugh. And so I think I learned that making a room full of people laugh is a very valuable thing.
How much of your childhood has influenced your life today?
The fact that we fled Iran and my dad could no longer have this wonderful career and this really lovely lifestyle that we had there when we became refugees, I do remember it. It had a profound effect on me, because suddenly Iran was so far away and it was in trouble. There was a war on every single day. My parents would spend on the phone knowing that Tehran had been carpet bombed, and they're ringing to see if they can still get in touch with family. So that made up a huge, there was a huge lot of stress and anxiety connected with that.
And looking back, I think that being refugees is a very different state of mind to being an economic migrant. Because the sense of responsibility to maintain your culture and the idea that you will go back one day is very strong.
What I remember is as a child, knowing that Iran was somewhere that we were going to go back to, more and more feeling utterly embedded in English culture, because I was a reader and I like people and I wanted to be part of the gang. And I started speaking like this from a very young age because my parents frankly spoke so foreign and some people would be unkind to them in supermarkets. So I thought as a child, if I spoke like this, then it would sort of make up for the fact that my mum had just gone to the five items or less queue, fewer queue, in the supermarket with a massive shopping trolley, not quite adhering to rules and regulations the way British people do.
And so I really felt locked between two cultures in a way that I was quite obsessed with when I was younger. And when I first started doing standup, it was quite discombobulating for me to sort of figure out how to navigate it.
Because on the one hand, everything I knew at home was steeped in Iranian culture, but I was performing to a pub load of people in Leeds on a Saturday night who really couldn't give a stuff about the Iranian revolution. So, you just had to learn at the age of, how old was I? 23 when I started standup, that how to sort of talk about my own life without making people feel excluded and without people feeling that they were in some blooming lecture about Middle Eastern politics.
To an extent looking back, I kind of hung myself on a hook. Because then radio producers and TV producers got quite excited about the fact that, oh, she's an Iranian refugee and this happened, and then everything I did on TV and radio, the bits they edited in were the bits about Iran. I remember doing shows and they would say to me, "do Iranian jokes." And then of course you get people going, "all she does is talk about Iran." So, like every performer, I sort of had to sort of navigate my way through my own sort of naval gazing and then work out a way to bring in everyone into my world.
Did you ever have second thoughts about performing publicly?
Yeah, I did. See, what happened to us when I was a kid, when I was 11, terrorists were sent over from Iran to shoot my dad, from the government itself, Iranian government itself. And Scotland Yard got wind of it and they looked after us, protected us.
That fear never leaves you.
The job of a terrorist, killing is the tip of the iceberg. But the job of a terrorist is to instill terror. And that incident when I was 11, never left any of us. And I will admit that there's been times where I've been so overly fearful of being known publicly. I had one letter, no, I had about three letters, to be fair, I had three letters anonymously from somebody who was creepy, and I moved house. I don't mess around. If I feel unsafe, I go.
And I think that really comes from that really odd week I had when I was 11, when we came home and two massive tall police officers said that we had to leave immediately. And yeah, I'm conscious of it. It's never something I would forget.
How do you juggle your career with being a single mother?
So when you are a working mother, working single mother, in my case, you kind of tumble along. You're here, there, everywhere. You're working, working, working. You’ve got to pay the mortgage, get all the food on the table, I'm doing it all for my kids.
Then one day, my daughter was four, and she was doing impersonations of people. And her impersonation of me was this, "mummy's got to go now. Bye, bye. Mummy's late now. Got to go. Bye, bye, bye." So she condensed her mother into the person that's always saying goodbye. And my heart just, I just died.
But then I thought, you know if I put the hours together, a 9-5 mum, she has her own struggles and issues with time, like just getting home at bedtime. I take my kids away with me sometimes and it all works out. And what I found wasn't guilt that I'm leaving my children, because I always left them with people who adore them and love them. But it was more like what am I missing out on? Childhood goes like that.
And I think that's the thing that bothered me more than anything is the fun that I have with them. And it's really, really hard. And there's no easy answer other than to say, my daughter is a fantastic impressionist and she's my pension.
Aside from stand-up do you give keynote talks?
So I have given serious talks on diversity and on the merits of learning a second language and being part of two cultures. And that has been really, really interesting for me because I've got, I think my take on diversity might be very different to other people, what other people would imagine my take to be.
All my life, I've had people really interested in my background, "and you're from Iran and you were refugees, and they tried to kill your dad in London?" And all of this. Now I so often meet people who then when I talk to them, they'll go, "oh, oh, I'm just really boring. Oh, we can trace our family back to William the Conqueror. I'm just so boring."
And I was speaking to somebody who could trace their family tree back to William the Conqueror. We're talking about diversity. And in our conversation, I found out that this person that I was speaking to who is very English and very much of the mind that I'm the interesting one because I'm the foreigner, I've found out that their parents broke up when they were small, their dad left, they never saw their dad again. And this person's mother had what we used to call back then a nervous breakdown, was sectioned. And for two years, the person that thought I was so interesting, went into foster care until eventually being reunited with their mum.
And I was like, ‘wait a minute. So you've had that experience and you think you are boring? Because that experience has taught you to see the world in a different way. You understand emotions that a lot of other people don't understand. Your scope for understanding other human beings is massive. Perhaps that's why you are sort of interested in mine.’
So, diversity is something that's bigger than what we think is. It's diversity of your life experience.
And we are going through a process at the moment, and I understand why, because we've only just started to properly address the colour thing. I don't even know what to call it. Ethnic minority, person of colour, writer of colour, woc, woc, I call myself, I was called a writer of colour, makes me sound like a crayon.
But we sometimes can miss the fact that we are all diverse. And if we are able to share our stories, it's not a matter of you're interesting, I'm not, you're different, I'm not. Some of us fit in the gang or we don't fit in the gang for a million reasons, not necessarily the geographical space that you originated from.
How do you choose your material for corporate shows?
If I'm doing a tour show, I know I can stay on the same theme, the same subject for ages. I know that I can make it very, very personal to me. But for a corporate, I pick material that is much more accessible and everyone's experience. I'm much more likely to talk about pets or relationships or popular culture. So it's not really about me. It's more about us, about everyone.
Just a bit more general, relatable is the word I'm looking for. There was no need for any of that waffle. Relatable, much more relatable, instantly relatable material. And also like, I was on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. I have so much fun at corporates talking about I'm a Celebrity. Because even if you haven't seen that show, you've heard of it. And so it's a really fun thing to be able to talk about something everyone knows about.
I love telling people who aren't in showbusiness, what it's like, the reality TV shows are like. So I tell them that in Celebrity MasterChef, the longer you stay in it, the more money you get. And so I knew when I did it that I needed to get to the third round in order to give myself enough money to take maternity leave. I was pregnant. So I cooked really well, got through, got to the third round, got my maternity leave money, and then I made a sandwich.
So I tell them about stuff like that. And I'm really honest. It's like, why would you do I'm a Celebrity if it wasn't for the money? It's like, I really want to sit on a rock for a while and have some bugs thrown down my pants. You don't. So telling them that I'm a Celebrity, you get paid the same amount, no matter where you come in the competition. Of course I went out first. I won. I got a two week holiday on the Gold Coast.
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