Classic Interview: Ahir Shah

Classic Interview: Ahir ShahHBO Max Show

I interviewed Ahir Shah in March 2020 to promote the filming of his hit show for HBO Max later that month. The interview ran in the Evening Standard on March 16 – you can read the original version here – and, well, you know what happened next. The gig was cancelled. The show was finally filmed earlier this year. at the Vaudeville Theatre. Shah is also going out on tour later this year. Click here for his dates.

 

Ahir Shah may be the country’s most serious comedian. The frivolity of one-liners or observational humour about man drawers are not for the 29-year-old Londoner. He is in the business of digging deeper, finding the funny side of topics as pertinent as politics, philosophy and mental health. I should underline at this point that he is also very funny.
 

“I’ll take it as a compliment. Though fundamentally all comedians are clowns,” he laughs when I pass on my theory. Maybe it is partly due to his cultured, professorial accent. “I sound as though I’ve been colonised by my own voice,” he quips. We are backstage at Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room, where he is due to do the most important gigs of his career. On March 31, he performs his acclaimed show Dots to be filmed for new American streaming service HBO Max. Today Waterloo, tomorrow Hollywood?

“I think I will be secreted on the channel,” he adds modestly. The performance will initially be available in America and hopefully eventually the UK. “It’s streaming in the US and overseas territory controlled by the United States. I told my father and he paused and said, ‘You mean Guantanamo Bay?’” Satire is clearly in the Shah DNA. 

The Southbank dates mark the end of a troubling phase for Shah. Dots should have been his happiest set yet. He was on a roll after two Edinburgh Comedy Award best show nominations. He had appeared on Live at the Apollo. But in early 2019, life got in the way. There were family problems and then a difficult split with his girlfriend. A breakdown followed. The monologue evolved into a timely, highly relatable meditation on how nothing in life is fixed.

“It’s about faith, love and feeling very uncertain,” he explains. “Everyone on Twitter and everywhere seemed so goddamn sure of everything. Like if you don’t vote for this guy, then you’re evil. I would love for things to be that simple and I just don’t feel that way anymore.” His parents are Hindus and, despite being an atheist, he started to think that maybe religion was an answer. “It’s so much more terrifying if we’re all just muddling. I was contrasting my position with my dad’s position of, ‘When I die, who cares? I’ll come back as a sparrow’.”
 
This was not the first time depression had overwhelmed him. Shah has been on medication through much of his twenties. “I didn’t know that it was odd to occasionally just be actively suicidal. I thought that’s what being human is.” He will not go into detail but has clearly gone through dark times. He is currently on an anti-depressant and is in a better place at the moment. He certainly seems cheerful during our conversation and excited about the future.
 

Maybe his problem is overthinking. This intense, self-confessed nerd is certainly analytical. He grew up in Wembley and went from Preston Manor, a state school, to Clare College, Cambridge where he read PPS. He jokes on stage that his school “sent more people to ISIS than Oxbridge”. In 2015 a pupil was stopped at Istanbul airport alleged to be heading to IS-held territory. The school had recently brought in rules that Friday prayers must be in English with a teacher present to lessen the risk of radicalisation.

Despite emotional issues, he had a sense of achievement. “I remember walking down a street with my friend and saying, ‘There are people here whose parents spent a quarter of a million quid on their children’s education and we’ve ended up in exactly the same place’.” But throughout his life he has had a sense of dislocation: “I’m a British-Indian and in Britain I’m seen as Indian and in India I’m seen as British. It’s like, where do I fit in?”

Shah is the perfect example of the clown paradox — the person prone to sadness whose job is making others smile. Luckily for him, however, his comedy has been part of the cure. “Being able to make a room full of people experience happiness makes you happy. It’s a cliché but laughter is the best medicine. Laughter is just nice!”

After Dots he intends to take a break from writing new stand-up material. The title was chosen at random to meet the Fringe brochure deadline. Now it feels as if the dot refers to a full stop. Closure. He is currently concentrating on a television idea. “It’s trying to tell the story of different generations of immigrant experiences. Immigrant communities tend to get seen as sinister monoliths on the news, whereas at home it’s mum and dad. I want to be able to tell the mum and dad story.”

He is not about to quit stand-up though. HBO Max may even make him a star in America. He laughs at the prospect: “Comedy is just a hobby that got vastly out of hand.”

ahirshah.com

 

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