From Glastonbury to CBeebies and assassination attempts to divorce, comedian Shappi Khorsandi talks to JODIE JEYNES about her life and career.
Shappi Khorsandi is taking her son to Glastonbury this weekend.
It’s the first time the Iranian comedian has taken her three-year-old to the festival, though she has attended every one since 1996.
Shappi explains: ‘I went last year and the weather was so glorious, it was amazing. I pitched-up next to another comic with two little children and I kicked myself that I didn’t take my son.
‘I found out that Andy Day from CBeebies is going to be there, so I got in touch with him and asked if I could introduce my son to him. I’m going to be the coolest mum in the world that day,’ continues the 38-year-old, who was born in Tehran and now lives in Richmond.
Though taking a toddler to a festival might sound quite adventurous to some, it’s nothing to Shappi, who had a very bohemian upbringing.
The daughter of an Iranian comic, Shappi and her family fled Iran after an article her father had written criticising the ruling regime saw him branded an enemy of the state.
The danger didn’t disappear when they moved to London. Soon after they had to go into hiding when a plot to murder her father was uncovered by Scotland Yard.
‘The failed assassination shaped our lives,’ explains Shappi. ‘We were really happy go lucky before. But the job of terrorists is to instill terror in you. Killing you is by the by. It shattered our central nervous system,’ she remembers.
But Shappi’s childhood wasn’t full of fear. Much of her unusual situation actually proved to be quite fun.
‘We grew up during the Iran Iraq war, so – like a lot of Iranian families – we were a half-way house for people sending sons out of the country to avoid National Service. And, because the hospitals were being bombed, people would come to England for private medical care and they would stay with Iranian families.
‘Our house was always full of strangers staying with us. It was glorious. My parents were party animals and there were always parties late into the night, even on school nights.
‘I remember trying to sleep in the bath tub once, to get some peace. There was very little privacy.
‘But I had freedoms that a lot of kids don’t have.
‘My family are very unmaterialistic. They place much more emphasis on human relationships than relationships with things like furniture.
‘I’ve inherited that from my parents and I’m very grateful for it.
‘It must be a bind worrying about wallpaper borders,’ she continues.
Shappi is raising her son with similar values and artistic freedoms.
‘I let my son paint on the walls and I just leave it there,’ she explains, before clarifying: ‘He knows he’s not allowed to do it in other people’s houses.’
She talks about her son a lot (although asks that he not be named in the media, as the request of her ex-husband). And she says she is worst on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when her little boy is with his father.
These are the days which Shappi allocates for writing her comedy.
‘I have accepted that, as a mum, I’m not going to have the same creative output, because I’m not prepared to make the sacrifice it takes.
‘When I’m 80, I’d rather look back and think I’ve missed out on work than missed out on my son,’ she explains.
‘Let’s face it. In a few years he won’t stand the sight of me, so I want to make the most of our time now,’ she concludes.
Shappi says she’ll write her second book when her son goes to school in a year. Her first, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English, was released as a paperback last year.
‘If he’s at school, it’ll be like a proper working day for me,’ she explains. ‘Writing a book, you’ve got to treat it as a proper nine to five job. You need to be absorbed. Comedy is different. You can snatch an hour here or there,’ continues Shappi. And that’s exactly how she’s been working on her next show, to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.
Shappi admits that she spends much of the time she is supposed to be writing on Twitter instead.
‘I’m a bit Twitter obsessed. Like most writers, I’m an horrific procrastinator. I would have written my book in half the time if Facebook didn’t exist,’ she laughs, then corrects herself.
‘No - that’s rubbish. Before Facebook there was dusting and hoovering. I grabbed an old pot of paint and brushes and painted the kitchen wall the other day, when I was supposed to be writing.
‘I was the same at school. I never got round to doing my homework until the bus journey to school.
‘These days I’d be diagnosed with ADHD. I find concentrating extremely difficult. And I’m dyslexic, so that makes writing even more difficult.’
Shappi combats her concentration problems with Gershwin.
‘I find it helps to listen to music you don’t normally listen to. With silence you get lost in your own thoughts and with music you normally listen to, you get lost in that,’ she explains.
While Shappi is writing her next show (and listening to Rhapsody in Blue), she’s still touring her last one, The Moon On A Stick.
‘I just go to theatres that book me. I’ve been touring at a gentle pace now for two years and that’s how I plan to continue,’ she exclaims.
Portsmouth is the last date on her run and Shappi thinks that’s a good thing for us.
‘As the show gets more and more cooked, you discover more about yourself as a performer,’ she explains.
‘For me, stand-up is all about live shows. If anyone says “I’ve seen you on YouTube” my heart sinks. You’ve got to see comedy live.
‘TV shows are brilliant. Not because you’re on telly but because then people will come to your live shows,’ continues Shappi who has appeared on Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, 8 Out of 10 Cats, Have I Got News For You and Let’s Dance For Comic Relief.
Shappi’s Moon On A Stick show is another personal performance, dealing with the upheaval and lifestyle changes she experienced becoming a single mother after her divorce last year.
‘Pretty much all my material is personal. I’m quite Tracey Emin in that way,’ says Shappi.
‘But I’ve got to stress that it’s not a show bitching about husbands at all. I’ve got enormous affection for my ex-husband. We are great friends.’
‘The show is about the silly side of being a single mum: not knowing how to date, when is the appropriate time to introduce a partner to your children and how to reconnect with your flirty side.’
Shappi admits that previewing this show a year ago was a bit too early for her on a personal level.
‘I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned that in the eye of the storm, of a divorce, it’s probably best not to talk about it on TV.
‘But we’re nothing as human beings if we don’t constantly learn.
‘Now I understand that you need to be in a good place and over it before you start talking about it on stage. I should have been talking about fluffy bunnies and supermarket shopping last year.
‘But comedy is a form of self expression. It’s become tangible now because it can be stored on YouTube, but in essence it is transient and you yourself are moving through your material.
‘When you write a book, you’re committing to every word, but comedy is changeable. That’s partly what makes it so exciting.’
Shappi reveals that, though she loves what she does, she wants ‘to do something different now’.
‘I’m in talks with various producers (lots of talks, lots of lunches). I’m doing some drama writing for Sky and I’m presenting a documentary about food called Spice World. It’s about the different influences world cuisine has on our food.’
Her ultimate ambition, however, is to present a wildlife documentary. ‘If I got to make a documentary about gorillas, I would die happy,’ she explains. ‘But if you go to your comedy agent and say that, he’ll just ask if you’ve had too much sugar today.’
Shappi would also like to work in children’s television, having recently worked on CBeebies.
She says: ‘From July 4, for a whole week, I’ll be reading the CBeebies bedtime story. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and thing I’m most proud of so far in my career,’
...the best new comedian she’s seen lately
Liz Frances Hobbs is brand new, a little chick, and she will go far. She is extremely dark but very likeable and knows how to bare her soul on stage.
...the weirdest moment of her career so far
I was asked to do an office do, an AGM with about 20 people, held in the office. I came on after a woman who talked about their accounting for the last year and I performed by the photocopier.
...her favourite one-liner
I don’t know about a one-liner, but my favourite quote of all time is from Oscar Wilde. ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’
...clubbing in Portsmouth
I went to Uni in Winchester, so I used to go to Southampton and Portsmouth nightclubs, because there weren’t any in Winchester. I had a couple of hideous nights out in Portsmouth and I cut my comedy teeth at Portsmouth Jongleurs.
Where and When
Shappi will be performing in the Cabaret Tent at the sold-out Glastonbury Festival this weekend and when her tour comes to the New Theatre Royal next Saturday (July 2).
Tickets for the Portsmouth show cost £14 from (023) 9264 9000 or newtheatreroyal.com.
Her food documentary, Spiceworld, screens in the Autumn and she’ll be reading the bedtime story on CBeebies all week from Monday, July 4.