A far (and fiercely funny) cry from the call centre – Eight years since reaching the Funny Women Awards final in 2011 the seriously sassy, “wonderfully subversive” Sadia Azmat talks to Alumni Awards Coordinator Gemma Higgins about commissions, collaboration, connection, doing what you love and the need to stay true – not just to your comedy, but to yourself.
Gemma Higgins: Congratulations on No Country For Young Women being nominated in the Listener’s Choice category of this year’s British Podcast Awards Sadia! How does it feel to have been recognised before you’ve even finished the second series?!
SA: We constantly get mad love from our listeners but are so excited with the nom is a nod from the industry. It means a lot because, as with so many podcasts, what we are doing is really unorthodox and original so we are humbled and elated for this to be recognised and to have been selected.
GH: You launched the show (with co-host Monty Onanuga) in 2018 and since then have enjoyed global success with your exploration of balancing British and ethnic identities in day to day life. You speak to brilliant guests (such as Nicole Krentsil, Candace Carty-Williams, Stephanie Yeboah, Munroe Bergdof, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and 2009 Funny Women Awards winner London Hughes) about everything from art, belonging, shame and mental-health to faith, self-care, feminism and twerking. How did the idea for the podcast come about?
SA: Well, first may I say how wonderfully supportive the BBC is and a dream to work with. I was fortunate enough to meet a commissioner there who had seen my BBC short Things I have been asked as a British Muslim. Then we discussed the concepts for a podcast i.e sex and race and I asked my friend Monty to join me and the rest is history.
GH: For anyone out there who’s not heard it before, what can they expect? How do you choose your topics and what do you hope listeners will take away from the conversations?
SA: They can expect honest and frank analysis of life from the perspective of two sassy women. We get inspiration from everywhere but the topics tend to be anecdotal and what’s going on in our lives at the time. We also discuss stories in the news from time to time and also unresolved issues be it related to race and relationships. We’re both single don’t you know!
GH: The Sunday Times described you as “hilarious and insightful”, however it was by chance that you were introduced you to your comedy mentor, the phenomenal Deborah Frances-White while working in a call centre (now that’s a good call). When did you realise you were funny?
SA: Well now you’re making me blush! I’ve always been pretty outspoken and the journey I’ve been on professionally has been about framing it such that it’s comedic. Sometimes it isn’t what you say it’s the way you say it. I seek pleasure in eliciting laughter and I think we’re all funny in the right situation, when we’re relaxed, with friends, vulnerable etc. etc.
GH: Your Edinburgh debut, Please Hold – You’re Being Transferred to a UK Based Asian Representative (which Deborah directed) was swiftly followed by a performance at the Desi Central Comedy Tour in Glasgow only a matter of months later and then at the Cape Town Festival the following year – yours was a whirlwind rise to fame! How did you find suddenly finding yourself on stage having been ‘behind the scenes’, or so to speak, at the end of a phone line before then?
SA: It’s about connecting with people and so basically rather than one on one – like in the call centre – comedy allows you to connect with a group of people at the same time. I guess it’s cliche but I’m very fortunate to be doing something I love and I mean at the time I was practically giddy whilst I acclimated myself to all the new surroundings and experiences.
GH: You returned to the Fringe in 2014 with I Am Not Malala, an observational set reflecting on the impact Malala’s media presence made on the depiction of Asian culture in Western society and received an overwhelming response. It’s clear you approach your comedy has connection at its heart – what do you think it is that allows you to do so with such ease?
SA: I think good comedy has truth at its foundation. All my inspirations Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Louis C.K, Dave Chappelle, Patrice O’Neal and so many more have this in common. The world we live in is not so nuanced and that’s where stand-up comes in. It’s a glorious way of reminding one another how similar our experiences and views are despite the way we are taught to see things or how they’re presented.
GH: A huge part of your charm is the way in which you disarm the audience with your ‘sweet and unassuming’ demeanour before pulling out something more risque, and core to your narrative is the debunking of Muslim stereotypes. How would you describe your style to anyone who’s not seen you perform?
SA: Steve Bennett of Chortle described me as “a wonderfully subversive act” which I think really captures my style quite well.
GH: You made a seamless transition to our screens in the wake of Malala, appearing on Sky News’ Morning Stories and This Week, are a regular on the Bend It TV YouTube Channel and made your own short film (Things I have been asked as a British Muslim) for the BBC as part of their British Muslim Comedy Series – do you find one medium feels more instinctive or suited to your comedy than the other?
SA: I’m open to it all as we live in a digital world. I think the medium depends on what you’re doing so for sketches it needs to be visual. Whereas stand-up can be both visual and audio. I did notice a change when doing the podcast, as I have a partner versus being a solo stand-up act. There are other differences as there isn’t a live audience laughing back at you. Working on different mediums is a good way of being a better craftsman and there’s room for them all, as long as you’re doing something you’re passionate about that’s what counts.
GH: How different did you find creating a film for broadcast to developing a solo set for a festival run? Would you like to do more production work, and if so, is there anything in the pipeline?
SA: The film was produced by Babycow who are amazing and so great to work with. They made it an excellent shoot and it was a great experience. Whereas the festival shows were self-produced and were a lot more work in terms of promotion combined with the creative elements of putting the show together. I think it helps to have a knowledge of the different processes involved in putting a production together as they all inform one another. At some point yes I would love to be more involved in production. Right now I am focusing on writing and performing but working closely with production houses and so getting involved through collaboration.
GH: What – or who – convinced you to enter the Funny Women Awards?
SA: Funny Women are a really friendly and approachable organisation that want to nurture fresh comedic talent. I did my first ever comedy gig at a Funny Women Asian night and it went so well. So I got to know Funny Women through that and I was sold!
GH: Clearly, a LOT has happened since reaching the final in 2011. How do you feel your comedy has evolved or changed in the past eight years?
SA: Haha! This is a loaded question. Someone said to me that being a comedian is like being a doctor you’ve got to do it for like at least seven years to learn your craft. I’ve changed so much as a person in the time. Comedy is character building and truly an examination of self and truth. I thought I was so honest when I started but the art form really forces you to ask yourself the difficult questions. I’m so fortunate to be doing this for a living and I think I’ll always be a student. I love to learn. I think now I’ve really understood what I want to say.
GH: So much of your work sees you engage, discuss and debate highly emotionally, culturally and politically charged topics that have the potential to cause conflict and confrontational response, yet your composure never wavers. How much do you feel your time in the call centre accounts for the ability to remain calm, objective and empathetic around enormously personal and often divisive subjects?
SA: To be honest, it’s more about not caring than caring. The ability to be unphased is about resilience which comes from experience and just gigging loads and dealing with different audiences/situations.
GH: Your career has seen you mentored by, gigging alongside and collaborating with a whole host of incredibly talented, seriously funny women. Who has you laughing hardest right now?
SA: Desus & Mero right now have me fighting for air.
GH: The 2019 Funny Women Awards have just opened for entry! What would you say to anyone out there thinking about putting themselves forward?
SA: Be you. Don’t try and impress anyone. Stay true.
GH: Steve Bennett may have captured her style, but Suzanne Black has captured what she’s like to be around. Sadia Azmat really is just “lovely company”.
Click here to vote for No Country For Young Women in the Listener’s Choice category of the 2019 British Podcast Awards (voting closes on Wednesday 15th May at 5.00pm)!
Catch Sadia with headliner London Hughes at our Funny Women Awards Showcase on 23rd May at 7.30om at the i360, Brighton. For tickets click here!