I’ve always looked up to comedians, and people who write funny stuff. It’s a tough job – making people laugh. So, I’ve also, understandably, been a fan of Urooj Ashfaq, her journey and her work. Particularly, because for a world who thinks women are not funny, Urooj is an answer back. However, this is not only about making a point, she’s funny, despite that. Her sets are always relatable, and to many of us, her success feels personal for some reason. Probably because we’ve all witnessed her grow.
Of course, coming from a fan, all of this sounds a little too good. But that would change when we look at her journey closely. Her latest solo, ‘Oh No!’ and her recent achievement at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival are some examples. This exclusive interview with Urooj Ashfaq is about that, and more.
Knowing her graph, we also know that a lot has changed for the comedian and that definitely took a lot of hard work. So, we asked her about how performing at shows has changed for her.
“When you start at open mics, you build material and you start doing solos as well. When we have a new thought, we perform for 10-10 minutes and we tighten those bits. How it has changed is that now I have my own audience. How it hasn’t changed is that you have to go back to open mics, so you have a nice test of your material. That’s what has changed since 2016.”
She also shared a shortened premise of her solo, ‘Oh No!’, and it sounds like everything we’d want to hear.
“It’s the first hour I’ve ever written. It’s basically a collection of jokes I’ve written, but there’s a theme to it. It’s about me, about therapy, about childhood issues and how they manifest in your adulthood. It’s also about relationships.”
All comedians have a preferred venue or the type of audiences, where they feel comfortable performing. Understandably, it’s not always ‘corporate offices’. So, we asked Urooj’s opinion on corporate shows, and a performer‘s experience associated with them.
“They’re usually quite tough, because I don’t have any corporate working experience; and my humour is not office friendly. Nobody wants to laugh about their emotions in front of their boss. There hasn’t been a worst experience yet, because these audiences have always been polite, I just feel bad about them. So, they’re fine, not so bad.”
While the internet is a great place to find and put out content, it also has its cons. For instance, the many opinions in the form of comments. Urooj talked about reading comments and how she sees them.
“Initially, I read for a week or two, then I stop. If you put out work on YouTube, you kind of are curious to see if your assessment of what you’ve put out is more or less aligning with other people’s assesment. There are some nice comments and some not so nice comments, which is fine. I think if you’re taking the compliment seriously, you’ve to take the rudeness seriously. So it’s best to take everything with a pinch of salt.”
She also talked about writer’s block.
“I actually don’t do anything. I start enjoying myself, I watch TV. I just do the same bit again and again, I go on stage with the previously written bit. In time, the writer’s block goes away. Then there are other things to do. Like you can change the order of your bit, that’s one way. You can just kind of improvise and play games with yourself on stage. Of course, you have to get off stage, listen to your recording and then write. When you listen to yourself, you realise that you could have said something more, and then you can write that down. But shaking things up is how you deal with writer’s block.”
Talking about the society, and the growth of comedy as a field, she also put emphasis on what we’re doing right and not.
“I think our biggest strength is that we can find our own audience. That we are not dependent on critics, reviewers and comedy clubs. Which is great, but I think here you can put your stuff on YouTube and people can find you. I think, you can build a career off of that. You are not fully dependent on people in managerial positions.
I guess we could have more diverse representation of different social classes, of people who identify with different genders. I think we have that, but not enough. Because the Indian comedy scene is new and there are fewer comics compared to our population.”
As women, there’s always some level of sexism that we have to deal with in all fields. So, for someone who has been touring often for her shows, we wanted her opinion on what it’s like for women in comedy in today’s time.
“I think I’ve had a fairly smooth experience because of the women who faced sexism before me. There were pioneering female comics who got in there, did the work, made it normal for women to be touring, for women to be doing comedy. They all did that work, so when I came into the scene, people were like, “Oh let’s hear what more women have to say.” They were curious, actually, as opposed to angry or annoyed.”
“I think the male backlash or sexism that I experienced was from the audiences. And it’s not live show audience also, because they’re there to laugh, which is such a sweet thing. It’s the online audiences who’d anyway not buy tickets to my show. They don’t like the picture of a woman on stage, with a mic. The thing is, I can’t really tour before I base my audience. So people who come are the ones who have seen my YouTube videos, so they are not coming with rudeness. It’s all online, and online hate or disdain from men is something that women face across careers. If you’re a woman with an opinion, they don’t like it.”
She talked about being an introvert, and how that works for her as a comedian.
“I’m quite introverted. I’m decent in social situations also, but I feel exhausted. Like, when I’m in a social situation, I can be very good, but I wanna go back home. So I spend a lot of time home.
The reason performing on stage is okay is because I like making jokes. The thing I had to get over was the fear of public speaking and the fear of bombing. So, you have to get over the humiliation of bombing, because that’ll keep happening. Being on stage is a skill, it’s performance art – it’s work, and I love it. However, being in a social situation means, you have to be a person. And I find it harder to be a person than to be a clown.”
Urooj Ashfaq also always comes up with the most relevant sets. So we HAD to ask where they’re derived from.
“I’m actually not very mindful of where my jokes come from, because right now I’m just trying to have jokes. I’m in the phase where I want to be as funny as I can. But I tend to draw from myself only, my life experiences. The reason that I find it easy to draw from that is because I know myself the best. (Giggles) Also, there are a lot of topics that I can’t talk about, so I talk about myself, instead.”
She also talked about how she puts in some thought when it comes to posting on social media.
“Main thought is, I don’t want to get into any trouble. I don’t mind feedback, or even hate. But what I do mind is repercussions that could get me and my family into trouble. So, I do put in quite a bit of thought, and I think all comics do that now. Some comics actually get their jokes vetted by lawyers.”
Urooj is an extremely talented comic, but if you’ve seen her performing, she’s also someone who has great advice; or at least creative advice. All of this is always disguised in her sets, so we thought of situations particular to a lot of us.
[It’d help if you read these exactly how Urooj would – you know how.]
1. You think you are in a casual relationship but the person wants you to meet his family.
“You have to uh, casually break-up before meeting mom and dad.”
2. A relative comes to attend one of your shows.
“Oh my god, I’ll change my whole set.”
3. Your dad wants to talk to you about investments.
“Tell him to do on my behalf, please. I don’t want to hear the same lecture again.”
4. A friend asks you to perform for a show, pro bono.
“Depends on how close they are, I’d probably do it.”
5. The landlord does not want you (a single woman) living with your partner, but it’s a great house.
“I’d tell the landlord that this is my brother.”
Phoebe Waller Bridge attended one of her shows at the fringe. Of course, we had to know about THAT experience in her words.
“She’s so nice, and I can’t believe she came to watch the show. She is so funny and kind. I was very happy, I was like, “I’m done with the fringe can I go back now?” To sum it up, it was awesome.”