Comedian Tez Ilyas

Tez Ilyas Q&A: ‘We’re still a little bit non-PC up north’

The British-Pakistani comedian is raising money for Muslim Hands, a charity building new homes that are future-proofed from flooding. Photograph courtesy of Tez Ilyas

The comedian and actor on why he teamed up with a charity to help the vulnerable in Syria and Pakistan, and his love of Usher

Tez Ilyas, 40, is a British-Pakistani stand-up comedian from Blackburn who first began performing in 2013. He is best known for weaving his own experiences of growing up as a Muslim in Britain into his performances. 

Ilyas launched his own solo show, Tez Talks, in 2015. It proved extremely popular, and he went on to perform at Edinburgh Fringe Festival that year. In 2016, Tez Talks was turned into a BBC Radio 4 series, eventually running for three seasons. The comedian also made his acting debut the same year, appearing alongside Guz Khan in the BBC Three comedy series Man Like Mobeen. He is also the author of the Sunday Times bestseller, The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13 ¾, published in 2021. 

Earlier this month, it was announced that Ilyas will be headlining the comedy stage at Deva Fest, a three-day music, food and lifestyle festival in Cheshire, in August. He lives in Blackburn.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve performed in cities across the UK, in Europe, Dubai, Australia and Canada. Where are your favourite audiences?

Most UK cities are great. Bristol is really fun. I also love performing in my hometown of Blackburn. I prefer northern UK audiences. I think we generally have a more friendly demeanour. I also think that up north we’re still a little bit non-PC and we have a slightly broader sense of humour, so we laugh at stuff that’s slightly closer to the bone. I still get great crowds down south, but I’m noticing that political correctness is starting to creep in a little bit, which is very annoying.

What are the best and most challenging aspects of your job?

I’m not working a 9-to-5, which means I get to sleep in and have lie-ins all the time. I’m quite a lazy guy, so that’s my single most favourite thing about this job.

The worst part is travelling. There are a lot of long, lonely road trips. Sometimes I’ll travel for hours, just for half an hour of work. It’s what I signed up for, but it can be quite annoying.

You’re well known for interweaving politics with comedy. Do you ever worry that your material won’t land?

There’s always a danger that any material won’t land, because audiences are fickle. Sometimes it can take a while to hone a good gag. It’s not always the case that you write something and it’s immediately stage-ready. It can take weeks and months to perfect, and that has to be done on stage.

British audiences are pretty good at having empathy and I always do it from a point of view that I’m entertaining, rather than lecturing. When I’m performing, I either try to bring people on my journey and for them to see things through my eyes, or I try to be super-sarcastic and subversive, both staples of British comedy.

Do you have any plans to go back on tour soon?

I’m going back on tour in autumn 2024. It will be a big, nationwide tour and I’ll be announcing dates later this year.

Have you ever faced any discrimination in your line of work?

Maybe, probably, but nothing overt. If you’re a brown face within my industry, there is possibly a glass ceiling, but I don’t know how high that ceiling is. If I’ve ever lost work or not been given work because of my identity, that’s never really been made clear to me. Comedy is a meritocracy. If you can make people laugh, nobody can deny that. 

If you could change one thing about the entertainment industry, what would it be?

If I could wave a magic wand, I would make it so there were more stories told on TV and in film about people who look like me, so that we have more acting opportunities, but I don’t think that is an overnight fix.

What have been your highlights of 2023 so far?

Live At The Apollo airing in February, turning 40 in April, and just spending more time with the people close to me. For the last 10 years or so I’ve really been concentrating on work, but I got married last summer and since then I’ve been spending a lot of time with my family, which has been great.

Congratulations! Would you like to share any advice for newlyweds?

Being married means you have someone that is going to be with you through the good and the bad times. I think the most important thing is to take time for yourselves and to make sure you still have those date nights. 

There’s a lot of family commitments, especially in our Pakistani communities. But ultimately, when the dust settles, it’s just the two of you, so you have got to make sure that chemistry is still there. 

You have recently partnered with the charity Muslim Hands to raise money for Syrian refugees and people affected by flooding in Pakistan. Can you tell me more about your work with them?

My wife and I went out to Lebanon to help distribute iftar and suhoor meals to Syrian refugees during Ramadan. We started off packing up the meals in a big warehouse, then went out and delivered packages. 

We’ve all seen the images, but when you see first-hand the conditions that some people are living in, it’s truly heartbreaking. Some of the refugees had been living in the camps for 10 years. 

I’m also raising money for Pakistan. Following the floods last summer, there was a lot of fundraising for food and clothing. But now these people need to rebuild their lives. Muslim Hands has dedicated plots of land to build new homes that are a couple of feet above the ground, so that they are future-proofed from flooding.

Can you tell me something about yourself that might surprise people?

I used to be a very good street dancer, I used to have that in my back pocket. Dancing to R&B and hip-hop was my outlet when I was younger. I loved dancing to Usher — I’m a big fan of the 8701 album.

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