An Interview with Shappi Khorsandi
by James Rampton
Stand-up comedy has undergone a huge transformation over the last 20 years. Shappi Khorsandi, one of our best loved comedians, reflects that: “It’s really changed. It’s got cleaner and more sober and a lot more career-minded. You meet 20-year-olds on the comedy circuit now who have a five-year plan. I’m sure stand-up is something career advisers at top private schools are telling their students to do. ‘You don’t want to go into the money markets or the law. You want to go into stand-up’.”
Things have certainly changed a great deal since Shappi began her career as a stand-up two decades ago. “I feel very thankful that when I started out in comedy, it was punk,” she says. “The ultimate aim was to play the clubs, not telly. That’s why my new show is a love letter to the comedy clubs.”
In “Skittish Warrior… Confessions of a Club Comic,” Shappi looks back fondly on the late 1990s when she first made her name on the comedy circuit. A really gifted cultural commentator and dazzlingly sharp-tongued observer, Shappi is a brilliant live performer. During the past 20 years as a stand-up, she has attracted numerous critical plaudits.
The comedian makes for delightful company. In person, she is as warm and witty as she is on stage, and an hour in her company simply flies by. Shappi, who is also the best-selling author of two well received books, A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English (2009), and her debut novel, Nina Is Not OK (2016), outlines the inspiration behind “Skittish Warrior… Confessions of a Club Comic.” “This is the 20th anniversary of me being a stand-up – I know, I don’t look old enough! The show is a good opportunity to look back on how it all began. It talks about the bits that stand-ups don’t usually talk about, those behind the scene moments where doors get slammed in your face. It’s about rediscovering that early passion. It’s a celebration of the comedy circuit.”
“I’m not a very good schmoozer”
Shappi recalls that when she was starting out in comedy, “I was a nervous wreck. It was terrifying. I would phone the Comedy Store for an open spot, and if they picked up, I would put the phone down. I was treading water for the first 10 years. It’s a sort of madness to carry on doing something that is so precarious. But I always knew that there was nothing else along my Yellow Brick Road!”
“Skittish Warrior” will home in on those moments where Shappi was her own worst enemy. “I’m the queen of sabotage! You go through your early career thinking the best thing is to be very famous, but the chances I’ve had to become very famous. I’ve completely scuppered!”
The stand-up goes on to give an example. “I was a guest on 8 Out Of 10 Cats, but I started daydreaming and completely lost the thread. When Jimmy Carr asked, ‘Shappi, what do you think?’, I didn’t know what anyone was talking about. I was daydreaming about becoming famous on the job that would have made me famous if I done it better!”
In addition, the comic admits, “I’m not a very good schmoozer. When I was young, I’d meet a top agent and think it would be hilarious if I told them about gigs where I had died on my arse. That didn’t inspire them to propel me further.”
Shappi recollects one occasion when she signally failed to schmooze. “I was invited to a showbiz party. Looking around the room, I had clearly only just made the cut. The only person beneath me was a woman who was an extra on EastEnders. Thankfully, I met a guy who told me, ‘I live upstairs. The celebrity only invites me to his parties so I don’t complain about the noise’. I chatted to this guy the whole time about his dog. I didn’t chat to anyone else or get any famous people’s phone numbers.”
So, the comic continues: “This show is about the funny side of failure. It’s an ode to being an underdog. We celebrate the underdog. I have to do. I don’t have a choice!”
Shappi hastens to add that “Skittish Warrior” is a fun show. It reflects her deep sense of contentment with where she is at now. “It’s not doom and gloom. I’m perfectly happy. I’m not cut out for a tabloid level of fame. After 20 years, I feel completely comfortable with the fact that I’m vulnerable. It’s OK to say, ‘I’ve messed up so many things’.
“It’s about realising that if you didn’t get something, it wasn’t what you wanted anyway. If it was very important for me to do well on panel shows, I wouldn’t have been daydreaming on panel shows! I look back on my career and see all the times I’ve sabotaged it. But if I had really wanted it, I would have got it. I’ve got two kids, and I really wanted them. It may sound cheesy, but they’re my greatest successes.”
In the show, the stand-up, who has also headlined in her own Comedy Store Special for Comedy Central, astutely points out the pitfalls of celebrity. “It’s about really understanding what a full-time job it is to be famous and to stay there. It has to be at the cost of everything else. Instagram posts don’t post themselves!”
Two years ago, Shappi reached a whole new audience when she appeared in ITV’s I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out Of Here! She says she has no regrets at all about starring on the reality TV show. “It changed my life. Because you’re hungry and have nothing to do in the jungle, it forces you to look at your life. While I was in there, my life was going on without me. I realised there was no other life I wanted, and I desperately wanted to be back in it.
“Some people may see ‘I’m A Celebrity’ as crass, but it bought me time to re-evaluate my life. I realised what I didn’t want – to be on the front page of The Sun. That’s not worth anything. Doing stand-up, writing plays and books – those things have value and they were the things I wanted to come back to.”
“I get an absolute adrenaline rush on stage”
Shappi, who has also appeared on Live At The Apollo (BBC ONE), Mock The Week (BBC TWO), Channel 4’s Comedy Gala At The O2 (Channel 4, 2010 – 2016), Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow (BBC ONE), The Graham Norton Show (BBC ONE) and Have I Got News For You (BBC ONE), achieved her aim when she came out of the jungle. She has written a play based on Nina Is Not OK, which will be staged soon.
Shappi also teamed up with fellow comedians Jenny Éclair and Natalie Haynes to pen a new musical comedy called Women in Power. Based on The Assembly Women by Aristophanes, this ran throughout September last year at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.
But above all, Shappi is relishing her return to stand-up. She thrives on the buzz of live performance. “That’s the most exciting part. It’s the joy of the job. I get an absolute adrenaline rush on stage. For me, it’s always been about the live stuff.”
Finally, what does Shappi hope that audiences will feel as they leave the theatre at the end of “Skittish Warrior… Confessions of a Club Comic”? “I hope people will take away a great sense of warmth and a lot of heart. The show is saying it’s OK to be exactly who you are. The only person you should ever compete with is yourself.”
With a laugh, she adds, “That’s quite wise. Write that down: ‘Shappi wisely said’!”
Shappi Khorsandi’s national tour of “Skittish Warrior… Confessions of a Club Comic” tours the UK until June 2019, including dates at Leeds City Varieties March 29 and Hull Truck Theatre June 21. Tickets are available at shappi.co.uk