An Interview with Tez Ilyas

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Tez Ilyas’s sharp wit and observations about the state of the UK today are hard to separate from his identity as a young, northern, working class Muslim. His show, Teztify, kicks off its UK tour at the end of March, where he examines just what these labels really mean.

Culture Calling: Hi Tez, thank you for talking to Culture Calling. Can you tell us a bit about the show?

TI: I’m looking at perceptions that people have of me. I carry these labels round with me, like northern, working class, Asian, Muslim, so it’s about what those things actually mean to me. There’s a couple of strands; on one strand I explore what those labels mean and then, on another strand, there’s a running story that goes through the show, which is technically a fictionalised account. It’s a story that takes place with my niece and nephew in McDonalds in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, which I know doesn’t immediately lend itself well to humour, but it’s this tale that takes place in the wake of that awful attack. So one strand is this story, the other strand is exploring the identity that I have. But it’s all quite silly and bizarre. I have a whole five minutes about chickens, which I don’t want to give away, but is literally just me going ‘how come there’s so many of them?’ and I’ve stretched that out over five minutes.

CC: So did events like the Manchester attack drive you to write a show like this?

TI: I was already mid-way through writing the show when that happened, and obviously it was awful, it was a horrific thing. But what happened afterwards was that there was a big spike in Islamophobic hate crimes so that inspired that side of the show in a morbid, dark, humorous kind of way.

CC: These things aren’t necessarily comedy topics, but how can using comedy make a difference?

TI: I think comedy, especially that British sense of humour, kind of unites us. Everybody - whatever walk of life we’re from, whatever creed, colour, sexual orientation, gender type -we all have a shared sense of humour and I think that is the one thing that actually unites everyone here.

CC: Your tour runs from the end of March to May - how do you find being on the road for so long? How does sense of humour differ in different areas?

TI: It’s fun going round the country. As I said, there is a unique British sense of humour that envelopes everything and then each place has their unique thing. Bristol is a really nice place to gig because they get everything and really enjoy it, or at least in my experience it’s been like that. This year I’ve been quite careful to pick the places that I want to go, because I did a tour last year which I enjoyed a lot, but I ended up in some places that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to go myself. So this year I’ve been a bit more careful in selecting the places that I wanted to go to, and I’m really looking forward to going to them.

CC: What made you choose certain places?

TI: I think I prefer big urban towns and cities, just because I think they’ll be more my audience and more welcoming of my brand of humour - without wishing to be too alienating.

This is your third show - how does it compare to previous ones?

TI: I think unfortunately some of the issues I talk about in TEZ Talks are still relevant today, which is great for my career but not so great for my mental wellbeing. I think as a performer I’ve grown a lot; this show’s a lot less structured, a lot more fluid, than that show was. I’m a better performer on stage which helps sell a show better. I’m exploring wider issues now, like other parts of my identity, but the issues in terms of what it’s like being a young British Muslim; unfortunately those things are still relevant.

CC: How do you find moving a show from an Edinburgh run to a nationwide tour? Do you find different places garner different reactions?

TI: It can be tricky. I think in Edinburgh people are more willing to accept a show that has a narrative theme to it and is exploring different ideas, more so than other parts of the country. If you’re living in other parts of the country and you see a comedy show advertised, you’re expecting to see a comedy show, not a narrative filled semi-theatre piece. Which I think sometimes means you have to find that balance between satisfying Edinburgh audiences and critics but also making sure the show is fit enough to go on the road, satisfying audiences around the country that are non-Fringe goers. It’s a tricky balance.

Image Credit: British Comedy Guide

CC: You’ve recently moved back to Blackburn - how do you find the comedy scene there?

TI: I’m in London a lot, so I stay with friends when I’m down there and then when I’m up here I’m picking up a lot more gigs. There’s a striving scene up north which I’m trying to get a foothold in but people have been really welcoming and it’s been really nice. It’s always nice to gig and come back to my own bed in Blackburn. It’s cold up here though, it’s been snowing today.

CC: Recently we’ve seen you in BBC Three Sitcom Man Like Mobeen and performing in One Voice at The Old Vic - does your stand-up background help you when it comes to acting? How did you find that move to straight acting?

TI: It was weird. I didn’t go to drama school or anything like that so for me this transition is surreal and bizarre. I feel like I’m cheating a bit because I’m getting these opportunities that people who would have gone to drama school would die for, so maybe I’m not even appreciating them as much as I should because it’s not something that I’ve worked 10 years for. But it’s really fun and I’m really enjoying it and enjoying all these opportunities. Yesterday I did a TEDx talk in Manchester and I’m really enjoying all these opportunities that are coming my way, and all these different things on stage that are slightly different to doing stand-up. And that experience was amazing, I didn’t know I had it in me but the feedback was so nice from people.

CC: Has stand up helped that transition?

TI: Yeah, in terms of standing in front of an audience, no matter what size. There were 1000 people in that night [at The Old Vic for One Voice] and I rarely perform to audiences that big on the stand-up circuit, but it’s just standing in front of an audience and saying things. I think preparation is key. I spent 10 days learning that monologue, hour after hour, running the lines, because I didn’t want to mess it up and I knew I was working with such amazing professionals on that bill. And the same with my stand up, whenever I’m doing a show I make sure it’s thoroughly prepared so that when I’m on stage I know what I’m doing. The standing in front of people thing never really fazed me, even at the beginning.

CC: How was the TEDx talk?

TI: Oh, incredible. My twitter just blew up afterwards. Again, that was like 2 and a half thousand people in Manchester, it was brilliant. But with that, because I was writing it myself, I put a lot of stand-up and jokes in it, I thought, I’m gonna play to my strengths.

The audience were amazing and I had such a great time and I’m looking forward to seeing what the video will look like.

CC: You call your fans ‘Tezbians’ - are there any fun (or weird) fan experiences you’ve had with your ‘Tezbians’?

TI: You know what, unfortunately, I don’t think I attract those kooky stalker types - mainly because it would make for great material. I get people who like and retweet and comment on every single thing that I do, I do have that, but I haven’t got anyone requesting my underwear or used socks or anything like that.

CC: Are there any stops on the tour you’re particularly excited for?

TI: Home town of Blackburn of course! I think Manchester’s going to be great, Bristol’s going to be great, and I’m doing Brighton on my birthday, so hopefully that will be really good. Glasgow’s always good fun as well.

I’m looking forward to visiting every single city that I’ve chosen, I feel bad that I’m even leaving any out. Every single stop I’ve chosen on this tour I’ve chosen deliberately because I like gigging there or I feel some sort of resonance with the city.

CC: What next?

TI: I’m going to Disneyland this summer with my nieces and nephews. They don’t know that but it should be fine, they’re too young to read anything that’s not Spot the Dog. I’m not going to Edinburgh this year - I’m taking a year off from the fringe for the first time in ages so I’m looking forward to doing some gigs in London and club gigs around the country. And then I’ve got some development things with some TV people which are a little bit too early to talk about, but they could be potentially exciting. And just carrying on trying to be the best comedian I can be.

Tez will be on tour with Teztify 27 Mar - 25 May. You can find more info and book tickets here.