“For me, comedy IS about truth… I think words of all sorts can change things” – Sameena Zehra on political correctness, affogatos and ‘Homicidal Pacifist’.
Sameena Zehra has decided it’s time to cut back the human race. She’s made a list. A culling list. She’s willing to share it with you, if you’re willing to listen. A renown political satirist with a dark, dry wit, Sameena is a keen conversationalist, even via email. I asked her a few questions about comedy, crowds and blues music.
You’ve said in previous interviews that comedy is about truth. Can you expand on that a little? Do you think comedy can change things? Does it have a purpose?
For me, comedy IS about truth. Not necessarily the facts, but the truth. The truth of an idea, a value, a point that I want to make.
Not just comedy- I think words of all sorts can change things. Poetry, songs, novels…words have a tremendous amount of power. I get to wield that power regularly, in a room full of people who have come to hear what I have to say. That’s a big responsibility…Big ego boost, big fun, big responsibility!
Of course comedy has a purpose. To entertain, to allow escape, to teach, to offend, to startle, to surprise, to expose, to enchant. Any or all of those things, separately or together.
One of the really powerful things about comedy is that it is a genre without elitism. Traditionally, the court jester was the one who could tweak the emperor’s nose, and break bread with a beggar. The one who could expose powerful, sometimes dangerous truths, in a way that allowed those in power to save face, and the populace to know what was going on- it’s all just a joke (but we know the truth, and now you know we know).
Recently I (as an editor) had a run in with a writer who made a comment about ‘political correctness ruining comedy’. What’s the best way to talk to people about these issues surrounding comedy?
I find that most people who complain about political correctness are angry that they can not use their privilege to demean other people. After all, what is political correctness but affording other people the respect and acknowledgement that you have been used to receiving your whole life? The term itself was coined in an effort to derail the notion of redressing the balance of privilege, and it was coined with contempt. It tells me a lot about a person when they complain about too much political correctness.
For me, no topic is off limits. Be shocking, be offensive, be whatever you need to be to make your point. But examine what your point is. Look at intent and consequence, power and control. There are amazing comedians out there who will tackle really disparate subjects in a way that can be confronting and difficult, and will make you laugh and gasp at the same time, but they rarely face any backlash for it. Why? Because the butt of their joke is never the victim of a crime, the dispossessed, the minority, the weak. They have not gone for a cheap laugh at the expense of someone who is powerless. I have found that as a comedian, you can go to extremely dark places, and the audience will go with you, if they trust you, and trust where you are coming from.
I don’t believe in censorship. Say what you want- that’s your right. Don’t get snippy when people call you out on it- that’s their right. What do I say to people who complain about PC gone mad? I say…gather your whiny tears of privilege in a tall glass… it’s my favourite drink on ice.
This is quite a political show, and you’ve performed it in a variety of places. How do different audiences react to it?
They laugh a lot, so that’s good! I get a lot of people who want to chat with me afterwards. The show generates discussion, which is great, although the discussion topics can range from ‘how do we fix the world’ through ‘what kind of questions should we have on the culling list’ to ‘can I kill my neighbour?’ (no, you absolutely can not. Comedy culling, mate, it’s comedy culling) There have been people who have disagreed with my point of view on certain things, and those have been really interesting discussions too. Perhaps they are just being polite, and fume later, and put me on their culling list. Who knows?
You were at MICF last year. What was your favourite experience of the 2015 festival?
A couple in the audience asked if they could take me out for brunch. We had a lovely brunch together, chatting about many things, including their plan for culling all the assholes in Australia using flying monkeys and barbed wire fencing. We spent quite a lot of that brunch absorbed in the logistics of how we would make that happen- it’s a long story. I may tell it another time, in another show!
I saw some great shows last year. That’s always one of my favourite things about fringes and festivals- going out there and seeing work from people I’ve never heard of, or whose work I do not know. It’s such a lot of fun discovering something new, alongside seeing my old favourites as well. There is magic in watching work in progress, and being part of it’s development, by being in that audience, participating in a unique moment which will never happen again.
I know it’s usually a no go zone, but your reviews, particularly for Homicidal Pacifist, have been quite mixed. How do you feel about reviews (and even reviewers)?
On the whole, the reviews have been pretty good. There are a lot more 4 and 5 stars reviews than there are 3. And there is a 2. I just need a 1 star review and I’ll have the full set. (This is not a challenge to any budding reviewers out there!)
I have a fairly thick skin. I have a few people whose artistic opinions I trust implicitly, and they are the people I go to to get constructive criticism for my shows. If my audience is happy, engaged, feeling like it was worth it to give up an hour of their time to sit in room listening to me rant, I’m fine.The opinions of professional opinion givers are just not that important to me.
Look, a review is one person’s opinion. It’s a valid opinion, and that’s cool. I take the good ones and stick them on my publicity. The not so good ones, I take the lessons, if any, and forget about them. Sometimes a reviewer will have got something so wrong, I feel a bit bad for how they’ve just embarrassed themselves and shown themselves up for being a bit shit at their job. I’m not necessarily referring to my show there- that applies to a fair number of shows I’ve seen whose reviews I’ve read thereafter.
I guess, if you’re going to be a reviewer, ask yourself why. Are you feeding your ego, or your love of the arts? If it’s the former, find something else to do. If it’s the latter, you might make mistakes, but at least they will come from the right place.
This is your third year performing this show. How has it evolved?
I’ve actually been doing the show for just under 2 years. The first year, it was a work in progress, and the second year has been about refining, tightening and making it as good as it possibly can be. It evolves all the time. It’s why I love performing live. Every audience is different, every show is a different ripple from the stone thrown in the water. The run at MICF will be its last outing. I am writing a new show at the moment, and will start previewing and touring that when I get back to the UK.
You’re a seasoned festival performer – what advice do you have for comics just starting out on the solo show circuit?
I don’t know that I can give them any sage advice! Every performer is different and wants something different from their journey. I guess I’d say make sure you know why you are doing it, and be focussed on that. Don’t be so focussed that you don’t notice all the wonderful talent around you. Engage with it, absorb it, savour it. Also, and I can not stress this enough…enjoy yourself. We are so lucky to be doing the thing we love, and sharing it with the world. Sometimes, when that world is 3 people and a snoring dog, it can be disheartening- that’s when you need to know why you are here, and just persevere.
My main survival technique is affogatos. I’ve only recently discovered them. I mean…coffee AND ice cream? In one place? In the searing heat? If I ever meet the person who invented this beautiful thing, I will lick their face.
Finally, you’re also a blues singer. Can you recommend us a blues song?
It’s not really possible to have one favourite. There is so much of the genre that is amazing. Nina Simone, Mississippi Goddamn comes to mind. Although that’s arguably more Jazz than Blues. Also by her, The Backlash Blues- superb! If you want to have a listen to some stuff I’ve co-written and sung backing vocals to, you can head on over to itunes, search for Mike ‘Dr Blue’ Mckeon and download his album ‘Heaven Bound’. I recommend ‘Sugar In Your Coffee’ and ‘Rocking Chair’- two of my favourites on that album. Or just come to my show- I always play the album while the audience is walking in.
Homicidal Pacifist is on at the Upstairs Lounge @ Little Sista from the 5th until the 17th of April at 7:30pm. Tickets range between $20 – $25, and there is an early bird discount of $5 if you book between the 14th and 24th of March. Tickets are available online through Try Booking.