In conversation with Ahir Shah

By Flo Clifford

As Britain slowly emerges from nearly two years of life in hibernation, with most human interaction through a screen, we can celebrate the return of live theatre and comedy: finally, we’ve got something to laugh about. Ahead of the Durham stop on his 2021/2 tour, DRESS, I spoke to Ahir Shah, a London-born stand-up comedian. Shah has been twice nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, is a veteran of numerous sell-out tours, and has performed on everything from Live at the Apollo to Mock the Week.

Shah started doing stand-up aged 15, “more than a half-lifetime ago,” at his dad’s suggestion. He continued throughout school and uni, embarking on a comedy career uninterrupted but for the pandemic, when “stand-up was functionally illegal.” Naturally this time as an “active public health risk” was challenging, but Shah recounts that as attempts at Zoom comedy got underway, he was sceptical. “Everyone was getting all of these webcams and microphones – I was very adamant that, ‘you’re all going to look very silly, when three weeks from now, everything’s back to normal!’ But that was me being extraordinarily Panglossian. We did the Zoom things for ages; they definitely had a time and a place; they made me feel like I was going fully insane, so I’m at least grateful that we’re able to do it in person again. I feel as though ‘that live experience could have been virtual’ is a bigger leap than ‘that Zoom could have been a text.’”

The last couple of years have been so massively absurd that comedy weirdly fits well with it

Shah reflects that “the last couple of years have been so massively absurd that comedy weirdly fits well with it, because once we get over the fear and sadness that articulated a lot of what we went through, there is a ridiculousness and silliness to take from it as well. I, like everyone, have no interest in dwelling on or living in that period. Equally, I think it’s interesting that we went through a collective, gigantic psychological shock, so there is a balance to be struck.” Another topic of his material is politics, but he says that “I think that we’re currently led by a man that’s too self-satirising to make much of… I don’t con myself into thinking that political humour or satire is going to be anything other than something that makes us feel a bit better, but I think it’s good for all of us that we’re allowed to come out and say, ‘what these guys are doing is insane,’ particularly at the moment.”

That brings us onto the live experience of comedy itself and his recent tours. Shah describes his favourite moment onstage in recent memory as “the 6th June 2021, when we were finally able to film my last show [of his 2019 tour, DOTS], which was supposed to have been filmed on the 31st March 2020. As you may recall there were a few things which distracted our ability to do that! Being able to get properly back onstage and to do that thing which had been hanging over the entire pandemic experience… I felt like a comedian again.”

He describes the “sheer breadth” of places on tour as one of the most exciting things about the job: “I’m coming to Durham, I’ve also been to Denmark, I wish I knew more places that alliterated… Delhi! I think that’s the really fun thing – as long as you remember and don’t find yourself accidentally telling a joke about John Major to a bunch of Danish people, you’re alright.” He recounts his only previous experience of Durham as “just to watch the cricket, and I’d not slept, so it was a deeply confusing experience – but it’s a very nice town and it’s lovely to be able to explore the length and breadth of the country again in a way that I’ve really missed.”

I think that being a stand-up comedian sounds about as sensible as anything else really!

We turn to discussing student life. Stand-up at university, for him, “felt really valuable.” Unlike some of his friends, who had a clear idea of what they wanted to do post-uni, for Shah “the undergraduate thing was much more about working out what I was into, as much as anything else.” What he was really interested in turned out to be “jokes – to a strange degree! I hope that now people are able to be together again and congregate that they’re going to have more time and space to be able to work that out – that’s so much of what [university] is about. You can do a lecture over Zoom, but you can’t work things like that out.”

He notes that the pandemic’s effect on young people was “a hundred times more full-on than whatever impact it had on me. Anyone who had to cope with the last two years in any sort of educational setting – I’m so in awe and sorry that that had to happen!” I ask if he has any advice for students interested in having a go at stand-up, to which he quickly replies: “Stay off my fucking turf! No, I think under normal circumstances I would say ‘what a fascinating life choice that would be,’ but given the state of the labour market and housing market and everything else that you’re going to be graduating into after a degree, most of which had to be conducted via a computer screen, I think that being a stand-up comedian sounds about as sensible as anything else really!” Ultimately, as he sums up: “We’re all fucked: may as well have a laugh about it.”

Image credit: The Other Richard

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