Interview: Humza Arshad brings Diary of a Badman to 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
From 50 million YouTube views to an Edinburgh stand-up comedy run
This article is from 2013.
Humza Arshad is an internet phenomenon making a spectacular arrival onto the Fringe stage. He talks to David Pollock about success, TV, Londoners and being nice to your mum
Nearly 50 million YouTube hits, two sell-out stand-up tours and now a debut run at the Edinburgh Fringe with a fortnight’s worth of tickets all booked in advance. What does Streatham born-and-raised British-Pakistani comedian Humza Arshad attribute his success to? ‘Genuinely, I think it’s my looks,’ he blusters, slipping into the slightly too high sing-song with which he delivers his hugely successful online sitcom Diary of a Badman. ‘Why are you laughing? If it’s not my looks, it’s my talent. Humble, I’m very humble as well, don’t get it twisted.’
Arshad’s success is actually down to getting out there armed with ideas, willingness and a talent he has spent time crafting to create his own world from scratch. The 28-year-old describes his lead Badman character as ‘a confused young individual who gets himself into certain situations’, which is another way of saying he’s an ordinary if dim-witted young Asian-Brit whose adventures don’t shy away from controversy.
A bedroom diary affair with plenty of ambitious location shooting, the show’s two series since 2010 have freely discussed things like arranged marriage, racism and attitudes to women. ‘I was just bored one day and I always wanted to be a comedian,’ says Arshad casually of his calling, with a vocal similarity to Badman which suggests some of his answers might be just a little tongue-in-cheek. ‘I didn’t want to do anything that involves real work, so I just thought “yeah, let me make my own videos because obviously I have what it takes to be a celebrity and now I’m a big deal”. Well, not really, but I just like saying it out loud. To be honest, I became a comedian because I was crap at everything else. I didn’t have many options, but I was good at making a fool out of myself and making other people laugh.’
In reality, it was more of a vocation than that. After-school drama classes led on to a GNVQ at Croydon College, a BTEC NC at Kingston College and finally an intensive year at Richmond Drama School. Arshad’s parents were both born in Pakistan (‘they probably started off as illegal immigrants but I think they’re legal now,’ he jokes) and he says they’ve been supportive of his choices for one reason or another. ‘Being a comedian’s not a typical Asian thing. There are good Asian comedians, but there aren’t many. My dad probably genuinely didn’t think I would succeed, but he thought it would mean I was out of his hair. My mum thought that I’d eventually come back and work in my dad’s shop for free. But it did well on YouTube and it’s succeeded as a career, and so my parents think Humza plus famous equals money. No, they’re actually very supportive.’
On this relative lack of good Asian comedians, Arshad goes further to reflect on a whole swathe of British culture that isn’t being reflected within mainstream British television comedy. ‘There are so many Asians in the United Kingdom, but they haven’t really got anything to watch and relate to. Goodness Gracious Me was amazing, but that was like twelve years ago, and since then we’ve not had much. Maybe The Kumars, and now Citizen Khan is cool. But there’s not much.’
Arshad doesn’t exactly have a masterplan to reverse this. But the success of Badman proves that he knows how to write and perform a funny and visually inventive show, even if it’s a little raw round the edges given that he shot it all himself with a camera he worked a whole summer to buy. ‘It’s cheaper that way: I don’t really employ anyone. It’s the Pakistani way, to do everything yourself.’
He also puts much of its appeal down to the fact that each episode has a very specific moral edge that everyone can relate to. ‘Things like respecting your mum, treat women with respect, violence is wrong. The character represents a lot of the younger generation in London, an over-exaggerated stereotype not just of young British Pakistanis, but young Londoners. He tries to be something he’s not, he tries to be cool, he tries to be gangsta, but in essence he always finds a way to get beaten up by girls.’
Arshad’s Fringe run is already selling well, which is a measure of just how much his character has caught the public imagination, particularly of young Asians. He’ll be bringing an in-character stand-up performance with him: ‘I couldn’t really do a play or anything; a lot of the people in it are just friends I’ve blackmailed or forced to act in it.’ And there are whispers of a future television show. At the moment, though, he has no plans to step away from YouTube.
‘Why is Badman so popular?’ he wonders. ‘I really don’t know, but I’ve put all my effort and energy into it, and I’ve worked really hard. I think that’s comedy, it’s universal and if it’s good it’ll be appreciated. Fifty million views later I’m now doing stand-up, so it’s great.’
Humza Arshad Presents Diary of a Badman, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 11–25 Aug, 10.45pm, £11–£12 (£10–£11).