Ahir Shah: 'It was more about meeting a lot of young people who were nerds about the same thing that I was a nerd about'
- Brian Donaldson
- 9 September 2019
British comic takes us back to his Uni days and gives aspiring student stand-ups some advice
When top British stand-up Ahir Shah first attended Cambridge to study politics, he already had some performing experience to call upon. Here, he talks to us about public speaking, nerds and not being a sketch guy.
You already had some live performing under your belt before you went to Cambridge, but would you say that your comedy career was enhanced by going to university?
I did have a fair bit of experience beforehand in that I had a few gigs in pubs and a deluded Fringe run. Whereas now I have the cumulative effect of thousands of gigs in pubs and eight deluded Fringe runs. I knew that the Footlights existed and that there was a comedy gig in the bar at the college I was at. It wasn't like it was definitely one-million per cent going to be my job, and I ended up being very interested in the thing that I studied (I attempted to do a Masters but was resolutely rejected because my personal statement was an acrostic poem saying 'do not send me into the real world yet').
Cambridge is seen as this weird cabal where you meet people when you're 18 and you all end up running the world. Certainly in comedy, you left university and within two years you had your own series on the BBC, but it's not like that anymore. But it was more about meeting a lot of young people who were nerds about the same thing that I was a nerd about.
Did you get involved in all that Footlights malarkey then?
I co-wrote and directed a couple of things, but I was never very good at the sketch comedy thing so I left that to other people.
Being a solo stand-up was always more likely to be your bag, then?
Retrospectively, that seems like a damning 'does not play well with others'.
They had these entertainment nights called Smokers at Cambridge: what's that all about?
This was a fortnightly thing at the ADC, the uni theatre, which happened at 11pm on a Tuesday night which felt like an entirely normal time to do shows. Recently I went back to Cambridge to help someone out by doing a slot at an ADC late show and I was like, 'I want to go to bed! Why am I here?' The Smokers would be open auditions and you could do stand-up, sketches, songs, whatever you wanted to do, up to three minutes in length.
What would be your advice to any aspiring student stand-ups?
Stay off my turf! Only joking. Generally speaking, stand-up is, above all, a really fun thing to do. One of my flatmates now was someone I was also at uni with and he works in the civil service but he gave stand-up a go a couple of times back then. And he really enjoyed it. Doing it doesn't mean you absolutely have to build a career around it; it can just be a fun thing to do. At some point in your life, you're going to have to do some kind of a presentation or public speaking, and doing stand-up is a fun way to find out that it's not something to be nervous about.
Well, yes, isn't public speaking one of those top fears in those polls you get about fears?
Really? Is it? That seems ridiculous to me. Unless public speaking suddenly turned out to be made of snakes, then there's no way that could turn out to be one of the top fears.
Ahir Shah: Dots, The Stand, Edinburgh, Sun 17 Nov; The Stand, Glasgow, Mon 18 Nov.