Interview: Shappi Khorsandi talks 'reclaiming patriotism' in latest show

Rachel Wakefield

In a recent tweet, comedienne Shappi Khorsandi states: "As a 12-year-old refugee, 30 years ago, I got my 'leave to remain' in this brilliant country," next to a picture of a Home Office headed letter from 1986. "Lucky old Britain," she quips.

Shappi is not one for dwelling on the trauma of her arrival in Britain, but she does let slip the fear she felt as a child escaping the once safe environments of home in Iran and arriving in a Windsor B&B and being ‘very scared’.

Her family fled Iran, after Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power during the Islamic Revolution in 1979, because of the death-threats aimed towards her father, Hadi Khorsandi, following the publication of his satirical poems. The threats didn't stop when her father reached these shores, because of his anti-establishment jokes he was put on a list of people to be assassinated. When Shappi was seven, she recalls coming home from school to find a policemen telling her father that the family had to go into hiding. They had uncovered a plot to assassinate Hadi.

"After that, Dad had to look for bombs under the car every day. He would always look at me and say, 'I have no idea what a bomb looks like. To me, the whole thing looks like a bomb'," she recalls.

That razor-sharp wit and deliciously, mischievous delivery is Shappi's signature deadpan, black comedy; but, when I ask how she's found the strength to deal with the traumatic experiences in life, she joyfully expresses: "I have unshakable optimism and absolute faith that humans, mostly, are utterly wonderful."

In a comedy career that began nearly 20 years ago, she has managed to rise above the stereotypes, including being a female comic and the awful assumption, because she's from Iran, she's probably a Muslim ("which I'm not," snaps Shappi, "I was bought up an atheist.") to become a much-loved, BBC Radio 4 household name.

Shappi states she's celebrating the 40th anniversary of her arrival in Britain with her latest tour: "Shappi Khorsandi: Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing To Morrissey".

She describes the show, which will be at The Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames, on Thursday, November 10, as reclaiming patriotism and sending a love letter to her adopted land. "Please don't come if you're a skinhead (though naturally bald folk are welcome)."

Her genuine personality shone through our interview; but not before we were interrupted by a grizzly toddler, wanting her ‘Pom-Bear crisps’ and mummy's love.

Here is Shappi's Q&A:

Q: I hear you've recently passed your driving test. Congratulations!

SK: Thank you. I have a VW Golf, but I've only been out in it once, with my neighbour beside me for support. I hope to venture out in it again soon in spring 2018.

Q: It seems an obvious question, but what was the spark of inspiration behind this tour (Was it dancers’ knees or an 80s singer’s bottom)?

SK: Oh it was all the referendum nonsense when the media were muddling patriotism up with being bloody 'orrible. England is MY country too. I love her and loving your country doesn't mean you want to throw newcomers back into the sea.

Q: Are you looking forward to your Henley-on-Thames show?

SK: I'm hoping they will make me their Queen and build me a modest castle near the River & Rowing Museum.

Q: Do you have a rider for the Kenton Theatre?

SK: Pork pie AND sponge cake thank you very much. I also insist on a kind old lady sitting in my dressing room and calling me 'poppet'. I find that sort of thing very soothing.

Q: Tell me about your debut novel, Nina Is Not Ok – it’s a dark subject matter, what reaction were you hoping from readers?

SK: Reader’s reactions so far have blown me away. Truly. I've been so touched by the beautiful, heartfelt reviews it has got. It has a very dark subject matter and it has meant the world to me that people 'get' the story.

Q: Tell me about the Humanist Association – I understand you’re the society's patron?

SK: Yes, I am the president of the British Humanist Association. I was raised 'religion free' and have always been an atheist. The BHA campaign to get the voice of non-believers heard and I enjoy being a part of it.

Q: You’re a mum of two – how do you manage to get on with the stuff of life as well as your intense work schedule?

SK: I was lucky enough to get self-cleaning, self-feeding children who have infinite patience with their mother. I'm a single mum and we are a little team with amazing friends, neighbours, my parents and our au pair. We tumble along happily.

Q: You’re not one for self-pity, but you have had to deal with a lot of traumatic experiences in your life, how have you found your strength?

SK: Unshakable optimism and absolute faith that humans, mostly, are utterly wonderful.

Q: What was it like growing up with a famous dad?

SK: My dad is a hard act to follow. Yes, we had to go into hiding in 1984 and it made me terrified he'd be assassinated. It wasn't the sort of thing you could share at 'show and tell'.

Q: What motivates you to get up on stage and make people laugh?

SK: It's a compulsion, an addiction. I can't not do it.

Q: What is your greatest fear, and how do you manage it?

SK: My greatest fear is the fear all mothers have: that my children might become estate agents.

Q: What have been some of your failures, in comedy, and what have you learned from them?

SK: Ha! How long have you got?

Q: How do you write your comedy?

SK: It's noticing the silly things and laughing at myself.

Q: How do you deal with tough crowds?

SK: I've been lucky. People have come. Henley, don't let me down!

Q: What sacrifices have you had to make to be a successful comedian?

SK: Missing parties. We work when everyone else is playing.

Q: What creative advice has been the most important to your success?

SK: "If you get a bad review ignore it, if you get a good review, ignore it." My dad.

Q: What do you primarily enjoy doing in your career, is it live comedy, writing books or recording a comedy show?

SK: Live comedy gives me a joy and satisfaction I can't describe. It makes my blood flow.

Q: What’s your favourite BBC Radio 4 show that you’re involved in and why?

SK: 'Just A Minute’ - as I'm brilliantly terrible at it.

Q: Excluding your comedy, whose do you admire the most?

SK: Richard Pryor's.

Q: Who is the funniest in your family?

SK: My son and daughter are, like most children, comedy geniuses.

Q: What phrase do you most over-use?

“Can I just say...”

Q: What’s your all time favourite joke from your childhood?

SK: Man: 'My neighbour is Irish'

Woman: ‘Oh really?’

Man: 'No, O'Reilly'.

Q: What makes you happy?

SK: Drawing with my kids

Q: What truly makes you laugh?

SK: Misunderstandings. I once saw a woman put coins in a Big Issue vendor’s cup thinking he was begging. It was full of coffee. She was mortified when hot coffee splashed up and she ran off to buy him a new one with a croissant. Me and the Big Issue guy cried laughing.

Shappi Khorsandi: Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing To Morrissey is at Kenton Theatre, Henley-on-Thames on Thursday, November 10. Visit www.kentontheatre.co.uk or call 01491 575698.

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