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Samar Maguire

Edinburgh Fringe Comedy: Interview with Bilal Zafar

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The night Bilal Zafar made his stand-up debut was quite something. He was 21 and funny amongst his friends and family, but this gig was out of his comfort zone. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he admitted, as we sat on a bench recounting the moment. “I had no experience of talking on stage, or speaking into a microphone.”

He had entertained the idea of performing and often spoke of it, but the reality seemed outlandish. “My material was rubbish and I didn’t put the practice in either.” Despite this humble emphasis, Zafar had prepared some material, and to his credit, made the effort to pen his script across his wrist. But “when it was time to finally speak I got really freaked out. My mind went completely blank. I forgot everything. I looked down at the notes I had written on my wrist, and saw that they had melted. The ink had run through my sweat,” he recalled, letting out a nostalgic laugh. "The only thing I could think of at the time was to just be honest, so I told the audience about what happened to my lines and they laughed.”

All roads lead from Edinburgh

Zafar has been performing stand-up for over a year now. Whilst he rightly feels that accolades deserve only relative importance, scaled back from the ultra-hype of popular culture, the East-London born comedian has won numerous awards over the year. These include London’s Comedy Cafe New Act Night, Rawhide Raw Competition and Manchester’s “Beat the Frog” at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club. Having saved up his part-time concierge earnings in Manchester, he is now at the Edinburgh Fringe with various opportunities to learn from headline acts as well as show his face in 5-10 minute slots. “I’m going there to learn from my favourite comedians and get a feel for the atmosphere - to get my head around the festival, so when it comes to starting my own full show I’ll be ready.” He reminded me of the success that John Cleese and Stephen Fry had as they began their careers in Scotland. “It’s going to be amazing. . . It’s the biggest arts festival ever.”

Monotony guaranteed

Zafar enjoys the perfect timeliness of delivering humour, has a knack for self-depreciation and a natural ability to improvise. His calm manner verges on monotony, in that dead-pan engaging way. It is hard to anticipate his next move, and his stillness leaves the listener gripped as elements of his personality characterize his routines.

Influences

When reflecting with Zafar on his influences, the East-Londoner shared fond memories of satirist, Chris Morris. “I used to listen to a radio series called Blue Jam which was the thing that originally got me into comedy,” he said.

“It showed me how amazingly creative you can be. There was nothing else like it. None of my friends were into it. Most of them didn’t even seem to get it. It was a really weird comedy, but one of the funniest things ever.” He was quick to separate himself from other performers, describing a tendency that young comedians have in imitating other acts, stifling the development of original routines.

“I try not to watch too much stand-up on YouTube. Stewart Lee, for example, is a person that a lot of young comedians are influenced by to the point that they actually talk like him, but everyone can tell -- and it does get painful.”

Race and UKIP

Bilal reflected on his role as a comedian and the material he wishes to expose. “I want to say something important but I’m still not sure how” he laughed. “I’ve gone into quite weird towns in the country and said to the audience that they live in a lovely place, but then asked them if there is some sort of catch and if this is UKIP or something. It tends to get a few laughs.” 

As a Pakistani-Brit, Zafar has been reluctant to use race-related material for “easy laughs”. “In my first year, I didn’t use one racial joke. It surprised people, because there is so much of it. But now I do have a couple bits which are more interesting and creative, more about how people see race than anything else.”

The Fringe and the future

Whilst comedy brings him laughs, his future depends on finances. “I want to get paid,” he stated matter-of-factly, with his hands sprawled out like a beggar. Having worked 10 and 15-minute sets, as all start-ups do, he aspires for the extra 5 minutes and income. “I need a 20 minute set, and then I’ll probably be paid for comedy.” Whilst working two gigs a week in the North West for free, he’s writing material for a solo show in the hope for a headline act at the Fringe. I want my own fliers and reviews. I want real people to watch my show.”

Find out where Bilal is performing here: https://twitter.com/Zafarcakes