Sajeela Kershi has been making people laugh since stepping onto the comedy circuit in 2006.
The London-based comedian has appeared in acclaimed live shows, has written for radio, promoted new talent, hosted events and tried her hand at acting.
Sajeela, who says making people laugh is what keeps her going, is currently playing a 70-year-old Muslim mother in multi-faith sitcom Mixing on Radio Scotland. She is also looking forward to her latest live show Immigrant Diaries, which was inspired by the recent media attention on immigration. Sajeela wanted to redress the balance in her own way and that is how the show was born.
Eastern Eye caught up with the comedian to find out more about Immigrant Diaries, her comedy inspirations and forthcoming shows.
Tell us a little about Immigrant Diaries?
It’s a show celebrating the contribution of immigrants from the world of comedy, entertainment and beyond, and hearing their true stories. The show has been received better than I could ever have imagined. We have had sell-out shows like the Southbank’s Alchemy Festival last year. During the interval, our audience was eager to share their experiences. Stories connect us and humour helps us to laugh at ourselves, and as a result, the scary unknown ‘other’ now becomes one of us.
Was it difficult injecting comedy into such a serious subject?
Not really. I mean, it’s not necessarily a laugh every minute show. The ‘funnies’ in the stories are more organic than writing a standard set-up, punch-line formula. Surprisingly for a group of people who are used to spilling the entire content of their lives on the stage, comedians are actually anxious about doing a true story. They feel more vulnerable without the safety net of stand-up and sometimes it’s the first time they will share having an immigrant heritage (I’m speaking mainly about white comics). But it’s exactly that willingness to share something personal so generously that audiences react to so well.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
There are so many, including at the beginning when I ask what nationalities we have in. With an all-white audience it can take a while to draw it out of them, but it’s lovely when you see the penny drop and get responses like, ‘actually my great granddad was Polish’ or ‘my mum’s half Indian’. Then the whole concept of what ‘immigrant’ means to them shifts and they question what exactly does it mean to be British. In that moment the room is united as one and it sets it up for stories that will unfold.
Who are you hoping this show connects to most?
Immigrant Diaries is for absolutely anyone and everyone who likes to hear a good story, including team Farage. I think those who fear immigrants most are probably ones I would love to see at the show. They can see the human side of that elusive scary phantasm they have created in their heads of ‘these bloody immigrants’. I would like to think the show is a light-hearted, positive antidote to the anti-immigration discourse.
Tell us about your next show Shallow Halal?
Yikes, I’m still writing it. I want to include the recent Charlie Hebdo story so I will be doing my work-in-progress of the new solo stand-up show in Leicester on February 19, then again at the Brighton Fringe in May. It’s about sitting on the faith fence – offence, religious loopholes, Dawkins-spouting atheists, extremists, Mullahs, militants and moderates. Hopefully, people will enjoy the banter and an hour in my company, which is like #StockholmSyndrome – what’s not to like?
What are the biggest challenges you face on the comedy circuit?
Trying to make a lucrative living, booking gigs, and at times sexism and ageism, which can make you feel like the invisible woman.
Where do you draw most of your comedic inspirations from?
Most of my comedy in the past few years has come from my own experiences and the way I view the world being a British-Asian Muslim, about being the outsider. (Laughs) Yep, it’s all about me me me. Hey, stand-up is cheaper than therapy.
Who are your comedy heroes?
Dave Allen, Richard Pryor, Bill Hicks, Joan Rivers (pre those remarks just before her death) Rik Mayall. (Whispers) Ssshhh, I see dead comedy heroes.
Who is the funniest person you know in real life?
My mum. She’s funny without intent. She is absolutely hilarious when she’s angry, as she is this tiny woman who shouts things that just don’t make any logical sense.
What is the secret to great comedy?
That is the million-dollar question, right? Well, I guess it would be timing, and making the audience laugh and think.
Are you under pressure to be funny all the time?
I don’t like being introduced as a comic at parties and social functions. It’s horrible because the first thing people say is, ‘tell us a joke’ or ‘I know a really funny joke’ (which is usually awful) followed by a very proud ‘you can have that one’.
I was once on a train on the way back from a gig and a group from the event were sat next to me, repeating my jokes from earlier. They asked me to tell some more – it felt like a hostage situation. They were cross I wasn’t the same person I was on stage. Believe it or not, I’m more shy offstage.
Finally, why do you think we should come to see Immigrant Diaries?
Hey, it’s a night out where you can hear great stories from very talented guests, laugh, cry, meet new people and not to mention, it’s a great two-fingers up at the extreme right. Plus you get a free ‘I Heart Immigrants’ sticker, which I advise you stick on the back of a racist.
Immigrant Diaries is being staged at The Criterion in Leicester on Thursday (February 5). Visit www.comedy-festival.co.uk for more.