Sameena Zehra

Comedian

"Comedy can be silly and fun, a release, an escapism. It can also be a call to arms. Comedians, like all artists, have a lot of power - traditionally, the court jester was the one who could move with ease between all classes and types of people, the one who could break bread with a beggar, and tweak the nose of the Emperor. That is still true."

By Isabella Ford 

Interview from 2016

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Education History​​:

  • University of Delhi
    Degree: Psychology BA (Hons)

  • Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi
    MA
    in Literature

Employment History​​:

  • Actor

  • Behaviour Management Consultant

  • Comedian

Q&A

When did you realise that the comedy industry is what you wanted to get into?

I was an actor for many years and I enjoyed that collaborative creative process very much. I worked mostly on new writing and live performance. I did the occasional TV/movie bit, but reluctantly - only when I was really strapped for cash!

 

Eventually, I realised I wanted to have more control over my creativity and the way in which I said the things I felt I needed to say. Comedy is the perfect medium for this - I think of something, I try it out, I wander around Open Mic nights honing it, and then I book a venue and go do it.

 

I like the immediacy of it, I like the control - the lack of censorship. The very first time I performed a five-minute comedy set, I felt I was home - I had found the medium that worked for me to express myself.

 

Men pretty much dominate a lot of mainstream comedy, with (roughly) only 25% of comedians being female - how have you found being a woman in this industry? Why do you think that this percentage is so small?

Men pretty much dominate the mainstream of any industry you care to name, much as they do in the world in which we live. Different women deal with this in different ways and the percentage is small for the same reasons it is small elsewhere: women don't get the same number of opportunities, nor do they get the same encouragement.

 

If we look at comedy in particular, you will see line-ups up and down the country that have a bulk of men on them and only one or two women. Suppose one of these men is crap, and so is one of the women. Two things happen - the women are seen in isolation, and therefore as a template for all women, whereas one man among seven or eight doesn't stand out as a template for all men. This reinforces a confirmation bias that 'women aren't funny'.

 

Secondly, when men fail, they are given a second chance more readily than women, so they get stage time to practise more, hone their craft, get better. Women can fail once or twice and they will find it very hard to be booked again.

 

Although I am speaking of comedy here, you can take these basic principles and replicate them across company boardrooms, the Houses of Parliament, or the trucking industry - it is not unique to comedy.

 

As for my personal experience, my route into and journey through comedy has not been traditional. I started with a five-minute set and then I went straight to a full hour show at Edinburgh Fringe - a steep learning curve! But that was my preferred way to do it.

 

I skipped over the step that most comedians make, of perfecting their sets in ever increasing time slots - ten minutes, 20, 30, eventually leading up to full hour-long shows. This can take anything from a year to five years, and some comedians only ever travel the circuit without making the leap to a solo show.

 

Because I chose the particular journey I did, I haven't' been at the mercy of promoters in quite the same way other women are. It also means that it will take me much longer to build a large audience following, but I am content with that.

 

Your performances comment on a lot of controversial issues across the world in today's society, from rape to attitudes to Muslims - do you think that comedy provides a platform for issues such as these to be discussed?

I think comedy is an incredibly elastic medium and straddles many genres. Like a lot of art, music or writing, there is something for every personal taste, both in performing, and experiencing it. Comedy can be silly and fun, a release, an escapism. It can also be a call to arms.

 

Comedians, like all artists, have a lot of power - traditionally, the court jester was the one who could move with ease between all classes and types of people, the one who could break bread with a beggar, and tweak the nose of the Emperor. That is still true.

 

I'm not sure I would describe what I talk about as controversial, in and of itself. I feel I am simply exploring concepts, ideas, the things that all our lives are made of - my opinions may be controversial in the sense of being somewhat outside the norm, but I hope that's what makes it fun and interesting for the people who have to sit through it!

 

Where would you suggest a young woman who wanted to break into the comedy industry should start?

There is no single answer to that question. It depends why a person wants to be a comedian, what they hope to give, and what they hope to achieve.

 

My basic advice would always be to live with integrity and joy. Know why you are doing it, and the right path for your journey will suggest itself.

 

Some basic things are helpful - understanding stage-craft, learning from others, observing and questioning. Find the people who inspire you and ask for their advice or coaching. One of the things that has been infinitely useful to me is to have two people whose ability and opinion I very much respect, and use them as my constant sounding board when I am writing a new show.

 

I tend to work in a very solitary way, others find it better to collaborate.

 

Practise, practise, practise.

 

Which women personally inspire you?

Maya Angelou, Nellie Bly, Noor Jehan, Mhairi Black, Rosa Parks, so many women I have met whose names you will not recognise. for their courage, their strength, their compassion, their laughter, their determination, their joy, their intellect, their practical jokes, their ability to live with love instead of fear.

 

What do you like to read?

I will read pretty much anything, but the genre that I am most drawn to is crime fiction. especially when it introduces me to a milieu, in a way that gives me a social history, or an insight. I love history and I love puzzles, and when they come together that is fantastic! Reading is a magical experience, I can never get enough.

 

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Of course. And I have a very short fuse with anyone who claims to care about equality whilst simultaneously trashing feminism.

 

What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life that you would like to pass on? 

I'll reiterate - live with integrity and joy. "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time" - that's Maya Angelou! 

 

Do not waste your time with other people's successes, failures and opinions. Recognise how powerful you are, and use that power for the best in you and everyone around you.

 

Choose your battles - you will meet arsebiscuits along the way. Do not waste your time trying to change them, or bring them round - conserve your emotional energy for those who know how to cherish and savour it.

 

Mostly... be not afraid.

 

Follow Sameena's Twitter: @sameenazehra

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