Ahir Shah - "It was the good old days, where you could leave your front door unlocked and everyone had polio"
Stuart Rolt of BN1 Magazine caught up with Ahir Shah ahead of his new tour to chat about comedy’s core principles and whether the good old days were really that good…
By the time he’s dispensed with the obligatory winter cold, Ahir Shah will be cracking on with a major UK tour. And, he’s especially looking forwards to his Brighton & Hove date. “I like standing on the seafront looking wistful. It’s one of my top five hobbies,” he playfully tells me. Entitled Duffer, his current offering earned him a second Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination last year with its warm and philosophical look at death, family and migration.
A large chunk of inspiration was drawn from a 2017 trip to India. “Initially I went to do a stand-up tour of a few different cities, then visited some family members – including my grandmother, who lived in the UK with our family. She raised me until I was five, when she was deported.” His nan’s gently mocking nickname for the young Shah, which translates as ‘clown’, lends the show its title. First presented just as the Windrush scandal was unfolding, the show demonstrates injustices like these are not a new phenomenon. The experience, paired with an acceptance this was probably the last he’ll spend time with his grandmother, has taught him familial time is precarious and to appreciate it more than ever.
An enormously in-demand talent (he’s racking up plenty of writing credits in addition to his own stand-up work), Duffer succeeds because its writer is well-informed and can speak from experience. It’s a lovingly thought-out hour of tackling hypocrisy and a questionable obsession with the origins of a certain Queen song.
Although his shows cover a variety of social issues, he claims to be “more small-p, rather than big-p, political.” Avoiding the folly of evaluating complex subjects in a short space of time, he concentrates on smaller situations surrounding them. “There are actual human consequences of large-scale decisions, which most of us in our day to day lives will never have the power to implement or affect. Seemingly abstract pieces of policy can have over-arching effects on people.” In an age of social echo chambers and catchphrase-obsessed politicking, Shah delivers stories of reality and consequence. The increasing over-simplification in mainstream media seems to be hampering reasonable debate, but comedy can could offer a vehicle for ideas. “Question Time is designed to give us all a special preview of hell. But, making people laugh is the victory condition of comedy. The means by which you do that and the themes you want to explore are entirely up to you.“
Shah wholly regards himself as patriotic. Britain is his country, and the only place he truly wants to live. “Consequently, it really hurts to see it damage itself in the way it seems to be.” There is a concern over our nation’s precarious sense of self-identity. Whatever the causes, the country has found itself in the middle of a weird post-imperial reckoning with its position in the world and what it means to be British. There’s a commonly-held aspiration to smoothly return to the glories of our history. Nobody knows if this is feasible, or even particularly desirable. “It was the good old days, where you could leave your front door unlocked and everyone had polio, it doesn’t really seem that ideal.,” he sighs. “Being pointed in the direction of this imagined past is taking away from a potential future. This vison of the old days is standing in the way of making good new days.”
For all his detailed examinations and thoughtful delivery, Shah doesn’t pretend to hold an array of easily digestible solutions – even if he could squeeze them into an hour of potent comedy. His work just reflects his fears, fascinations and bewilderments at the time of writing. He’s been able to manifest these feelings as comic interludes and, perhaps, not feel quite so isolated by them. There is a little uncertainty as to how he even ended up in this position. “It was genuinely one of these things when you wake up and think ‘how did that happen?’ I didn’t really make many conscious choices, but I am a comedian now.”
There is mindfulness over his duty to comedy’s core principles. Responsibilities like entertaining an audience, and hopefully making them laugh at regular intervals, are taken seriously. After that he’s afforded a large degree of freedom – from the whimsical to the polemic. “That’s always the most beautiful thing to me. The sheer multiplicity of directions you can take from such a simple premise.”