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Steve Ullathorne

Tez Ilyas Interview

31 January 2016 Lydia Cooper

Following a smash hit run at the Edinburgh Fringe, comedian Tez Ilyas brings his ‘Tez Talks’ show to London this February. In his show, which turns out to be a Muslim conversion course, Ilyas attempts to educate his audience about being a British Muslim. He chatted to London Calling about industry prejudice, his writing projects and his top London recommendations.

London Calling: Your new show ‘Tez Talks’ is happening at the Soho Theatre soon. Why should we go and see it, and what’s it like being on tour?

Tez Ilyas: The show is the one I took to the Fringe last summer and it had great reviews - some people came back to see it twice! It’s a big silly show with a lot of heart. Stand-up comedy is probably the least glamorous profession though. It’s you on a stage saying ‘What do you think of this?’ And the people laugh. And then if they don’t laugh...well.

LC:  Your show deals with the treatment of Muslims in Britain. It’s very topical at the moment, there are constant news stories - David Cameron saying Muslim women must learn English or be deported, a school flagging up a boy for spelling ‘terraced’ as ‘terrorist’...will this kind of thing feature in the show?

TI: The show’s concept is that I induct my audience as potential converts to Islam. It’s their integration module, a guide to becoming proper Muslims in Britain. There’s definitely a play on the current narrow world views that some of this country have, expressed in politics and the media.

LC: You do post and retweet a lot of things related to race, feminism, social politics... How important do you think it is that comedians with a profile engage with these issues?

TI: You should do it if you genuinely care. A lot of people go through life without an opinion on these things. But if you have a profile, you should use it for good.

LC: What was it like performing with Imran Yusuf, Nish Kumar and Aatif Nawaz on the BBC Asian Network comedy show? And what comedians do you admire?

TI: I know these guys from the circuit anyway, so that was great. I have a very broad taste. It ranges from Jimmy Carr to Peter Kay to Stewart Lee, and everything in between. I love a lot of writers, like Matt Stone. In terms of women, Sarah Pascoe is great. She’s good at pushing it to the edge. Sarah Millican never fails to impress. Sarah Silverman as well, in terms of how to get away with things on stage.

LC: As we speak you’re currently in a basement at the BBC. You’ve done some work for the BBC Asian Network, and some radio comedy too. What are you up to at the moment?

TI: BBC people saw my Edinburgh show and asked me to go on a Writers Room course called The Comedy Room, a six-part course where we’re learning to develop and write script projects. I’m actually working on a sitcom at the moment, so it’s useful to avoid the pitfalls. If it ever gets made, the premise is that it’s set in a shisha café up north, run by three very mismatched cousins who all want the café to succeed for very different reasons, and how they conflict with one another.

LC: There’s been a lot of controversy lately about comedians stealing material. Has anyone ever done that to you? And how do you avoid it yourself?

TI: My act is quite niche and personal - there aren’t that many young British Muslim comedians around at the moment on the circuit! It would be very weird for a white guy to steal the idea for it. In terms of my own stuff, I just write what I think is funny. Obviously I drop it if someone’s gone there first, there are only so many jokes out there! It’s all about being individual and cutting anything that goes too close to anyone else.

LC: I really enjoyed your Muslim Santa Claus and Ramadan sketches.

TI: In my new material I talk about British drinking culture and how that affects me. I guess the show considers how Muslims fit into contemporary Britain.

LC: What’s the worst show you’ve ever done?

TI: There were so many when I first started out! Even now, shows don’t go entirely to plan. Sometimes you just don’t click with the audience and they’re not in the mood. It’s scary! You have to dig yourself out of the hole. It’s awful watching a comedian die on stage. When I’m watching someone live you do get the biggest kick out of watching that happen sometimes. If I’m in the situation myself it’s less nice!

LC: You grew up in Lancashire and currently live in London. Any good recommendations?

TI:  Yes, born and raised in Blackburn and I’m based in Clapham now. In Greenwich there’s a great comedy club called Up the Creek, one of the oldest in the country. Free comedy every night at Angel Comedy at the Camden Head. You can never go wrong with The Comedy Store, of course. Top Secret Comedy in Covent Garden - there’s so much! In terms of food, the best curry house in London is Tayyabs, near Whitechapel.

LC: What are your plans for the year ahead?

TI: I’m headed to the Fringe with a new show, which I need to actually write...


Tez’s show Tez Talks is at the Soho Theatre 3 - 6 February. Get tickets here.


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