Stand-up comedian Shappi Khorsandi has appeared on Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Radio 4. She talks to Miriam Zendle about faking confidence, her love of Edinburgh and how to die onstage in style...
When did you decide you wanted to work in comedy?
I always wanted to be a performer – I used to do Margaret Thatcher impressions to my parents’ friends to make them laugh. In the family I grew up in, if you made my dad laugh, you got some validation, so I think [that’s when] it was ingrained! Career-wise, I struggled through my 20s. I had a chronic eating disorder, couldn’t settle and just ran on adrenaline. I turned 32 in 2006 and went into recovery. It’s no accident that that’s when my career started to take shape.
How do you cope with dying on stage?
Dying is a humiliation unlike any other. It really is dreadful, and that’s what makes comedians different, that desire to get back up on stage after you’ve been booed off. You learn not to let it affect you, but when you first start, how else can you take it? Talk to other comedians who’ve experienced it, and remember that your favourites all feel that feeling and still will from time to time.
Should comedians be themselves, or build a comic persona?
My live shows are really intimate. On television that’s trickier: it helps to be very structured – set up, punchline – but you can do that to lure people into your live shows, where you can be more yourself. Some comics have a very nervy persona, but that’s also learnt – they’re still in control. One of my favourite comics is Paul Foot, whose whole persona is jumpy, but it’s perfect, and he owns it. It’s not all about bombast and bluster. Getting your persona down pat is the hardest part of the job.
Tell us about your latest Edinburgh show, Dirty Looks and Hopscotch.
This year I went out with a musician who was leading a double life with another girl. I basically met a proper sociopath. Dirty Looks and Hopscotch is about little girls and how we raise them, about finding yourself, at 38, flattered because a rock star asks you out, no matter how many clues he lays as to the fact he isn’t the Prince Charming you hoped he might be.
I’ve been going to Edinburgh [almost] every year since 2006. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, a part of the year I absolutely adore. The trick is to go up with a show that you 100% have your heart and soul in.
What advice do you have for budding comics?
Fake confidence if you don’t feel it, because as an act, you have to look comfortable in your own skin, otherwise people won’t trust you to look after them. Always face the audience and don’t look at your feet – these are two very easy things to forget when you’re in the firing line!
These days, anyone can go on Twitter and tell you they don’t like you. Never Google yourself. I truly believe it’s a form of self-harm.
To really keep an edge on your stand-up, do gigs where people haven’t necessarily come to see you, on a shared bill, when they just want to be made to laugh. For that, when you can’t charm your way out of things because you’re playing to your own fans, you have to stay match fit, like an athlete.
You can only rehearse and “get good” in front of an audience. Haul yourself out onto the stage again and again and die and die until some level of consistency is achieved. I compare comedy to the priesthood – it’s a calling, you’ve got to be totally uncompromising and ruthless with yourself if it’s what you want to do, want it like you don’t want anything else. That’s something you can’t fake.
Shappi Khorsandi will be performing nightly throughout the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at the Pleasance Forth at 8.30pm. Follow Shappi on Twitter.