'Laughing is the common ground'

Shappi Khorsandi on comedy, motherhood, and being left wing

Shappi Korshandi.

Shappi Korshandi.

NO MATTER where you go, or who you meet, everyone loves to laugh, and if you can make them laugh, and tell them about life in a way that strikes them and makes them go 'That's exactly how it is', you can connect with anybody. It's what Shappi Khorsandi's comedy aspires to and achieves.

Shappi Khorsandi was born in the Iranian capital of Tehran in the 1970s, where her father Hadi was a comedian and writer who often came up against the censors because of his work. The family settled in London towards the end of the decade, with Shappi's father still travelling between Britain and Iran. Initially the family welcomed the 1979 revolution against the dictatorship of Shah Reza Pahlavi, but following the Hadi's publication of a satirical poem about the Revolution, no return to Iran was possible.

Britain has remained Shappi's home since, and comedy seems to be very much in the blood. Hadi remains a professional, working comedian, and both Shappi and her father, along with her brother, Payvand, have performed stand-up in the USA. Yet despite this, Shappi's main influence in pursuing comedy came more from the TV programmes she watched as a child.

"I think being obsessed with The Muppet Show had a lot to do with it," she tells me. "I wanted, ideally, to work in The Muppet theatre with a tantruming pig, flying fish, and chickens running about. The comedy circuit has been closest thing to that."

Since her emergence on the comedy scene in the late 1990s, Shappi has established herself as one of Britain's finest comics, playing festivals such as Edinburgh and Glastonbury, as well as achieving critical acclaim. She has also appeared on QI, Mock The Week, Have I Got News For You, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, and Live At The Apollo; presented programmes on BBC radio; written a best-selling memoir, A Beginner's Guide To Acting English; and can boast an honorary doctorate from Winchester University and the James Joyce Award from UCD.

Next for the British-Iranian are three shows at the Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway this weekend, where she will perform her show, Because I'm Shappi, which looks at her motivations and approach to life. "Close your eyes and run towards it; tends to be my mode of operation," she says. "Sometimes I run in to a tree, sometimes I'm okay. I have an insatiable desire to connect with people. No matter how different they are to me on the surface, I know we can find common ground. Laughing is the common ground."

One of Shappi's great routines satirises the still, indeed depressingly, common method of needing to classify women who are comedians as 'female comedians' or female stand-ups ("Journalists ask 'Is it harder being a female comedian?' I don't know I've never been a male comedian, Oh look I'm a woman again!" ) as if such performers are still a novelty or need to be gendered. "The worst is 'comedienne'," Shappi laments. "I worked hard to earn the job title 'comic' and that's what I am. Women comics are not a genre. Also, crucially, we are not gerbils, no need to sex us."

Shappi has, throughout her career, written, commented on, and addressed political issues in British society. "I have always been left wing, it's my nature," she says. How does she view these opening weeks in Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the British Labour Party?

"Jeremy Corbyn kept me Labour throughout the bloodthirsty Blair years," she says. "I thought 'As long as we still have principled people like Corbyn, I'll hang in there. I first met Corbyn almost 20 years ago when I did a speech about homeless youth. He watched a community theatre show I was involved in. He was the smartest, kindest guy. That all said, I'm not going to eulogise now he's in power. Let's see."

Shappi has two children - Cassius and Genevieve. In an 2011 interview with The Guardian, she said described motherhood as "a wonderful and terrifying adventure" that "makes you into a lioness". What strengths has she gained from being a mother and what has the adventure taught her so far? "I don't lose sleep over any of the nonsense I used to lose sleep over before," she says. "I've learned from my kids that nothing matters more than running around and having fun and everyone is invited to join in as long as they are nice."

How, though, does she cope with the challenges of being a working mum and what advice does she have for people in similar circumstances, trying to balance parenthood with a career? "Just get on with it," she replies. "Be kind to yourself when you mess things up, accept you will forget things, you'll be late, you'll drop the cake, but you're a bloody hero so enjoy it!"

And what do Cassius and Genevieve think of mum being a comedian? "My being away a lot is not fun for them," she admits, "but they know 'Mummy tells jokes so she can buy us chocolate’."

Shappi Khorsandi headlines the Róisín Dubh tomorrow at 7.30pm and is among the comics supporting Jason Byrne in The Black Box on Saturday at 8pm. For tickets and booking see www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com Tickets are also available via OMG @ Zhivago, Shop Street, and www.ticketmaster.ie


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