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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 March 2006, 12:27 GMT
British Muslim takes laughs to the US
By Kiran Bharthapudi
New York

Shazia Mirza
Shazia hopes her British sense of humour will win over American fans
When comedian Shazia Mirza began her recent performance on a very cold evening in New York city, her opening lines did not receive instant applause or laughter.

The audience just looked at each other with shock and uneasiness, unsure whether it was okay to laugh at what they were hearing.

"I can't believe this is America. You've watched comedy before, haven't you? You've been out of the house before, haven't you? Why are you acting like its 1944?" she joked, urging her audience to lighten up.

Ms Mirza was performing at a business conference in Manhattan for an audience of more than 350 South Asian women dressed in black business suits.

"A lot of these Asian women, they've never watched comedy before; they were surprised to see me, they just wanted to look at me, but eventually it seemed they enjoyed it," she says, reflecting on a rare performance for an audience who were also women from the same ethnic background as herself.

I just want to be a comedian. I don't want to be a brown comedian, an Asian comedian, a Muslim comedian, I want to just be a comedian who makes people laugh
Shazia Mirza
However, she is well aware that it is not the women who share her ethnic background but white urban middle-class Americans who will rate her talent and determine her success in America.

Ms Mirza was introduced to the mainstream American audience in 2003 by a featured article in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, and in 2004 her appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes helped her gain momentum in comedy circles.

'Labels'

Ms Mirza has performed in several big cities across America in the last few years, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Detroit.

However, her gags remain a lesser known commodity in the US and she has a long way to go before her American popularity parallels her stardom in the UK.

Though she acknowledges that humour does not always translate from one part of the world to other, she is confident her reliable British sense of humour will hold her in good stead in America.

"I am very British; I have a British sense of humour. I have performed in New York enough to know what the audiences like, and it is exactly the same as in London."

Shazia Mirza
Shazia's act included a regional feel and American stereotypes
With the prospect of an imminent comedy tour across the US and aspirations to perform on American television, it certainly appears as if Ms Mirza is making an effort to change her image.

"How many more labels? I need more labels. Don't you think I need more labels?", Ms Mirza, with her trademark hijab or headscarf noticeably absent, quipped to begin her performance, when introduced to her audience as "the first ever Muslim female stand-up comedian from Britain."

"I just want to be a comedian. I don't want to be a brown comedian, an Asian comedian, a Muslim comedian, I want to just be a comedian who makes people laugh," replies Ms Mirza, when I ask her if she is comfortable being branded.

When I question her about her challenge to renounce "labels" - considering her comedy material is full of skits about her being an Asian Muslim woman - she is quick to point out the very English material that she has added to her performance arsenal.

'My women'

"In England, I was invited to meet the royal couple. The Queen wrote a letter which said that she and Prince Phillip are inviting me to the Buckingham Palace. I met the Queen. It is surreal to meet the Queen. I grew up with this woman.

"This woman is on the back of my money. I lick this women's head on the back of my stamps everyday. I have friends who have snorted cocaine through this woman," she joked, and an outbreak of laughter ensued.

Four years into her career, Ms Mirza realises she no longer can rely on the shock value of her being the first Muslim female comedian.

"People are used to it. Its not a big deal anymore" she points out.

She is also making sure her material has a regional feel, spoofing the American stereotypes at several instances during her performance

"I'll keep it short, because we got a question and answer session, its America. Only in American you have Q&A after a comedy session" she remarked at the end of her performance.

"I thought Shazia was very funny. I like her shocking sense of humour. She touches on religious, cultural, political and personal issues, which is an interesting combination" said one South Asian business woman in the audience.

On an evening in New York, when Shazia Mirza performed for an audience she called "my women," she managed to shock them, provoke them, offend them and at the end of the day win them over.

However, time will tell if she will be able to win over mainstream America.


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