Sezar Alkassab: 'Luckily I was wearing quite loose jeans so I don't think anyone noticed'
- Brian Donaldson
- 3 February 2020
This up and comer on the Scottish comedy circuit talks about hitting the gym before gigs and staying calm with hecklers
Stand-up comic and filmmaker Sezar Alkassab is Telling Stories soon at the Leicester and Glasgow Comedy Festivals. In this Q&A, he tells us about the legends he'd have on his own dream comedy bill and how audiences have a right to be offended.
Can you tell us about the moment when you thought 'stand-up is for me'?
When I was 15 I first watched Eddie Murphy: Delirious, and from then I loved stand-up comedy. I always loved comedy films and shows, with Jim Carrey being my favourite actor growing up. I was always trying to be funny with friends, but the moment I thought I should do stand-up was when I was probably 17 or 18. I was living in my hometown of Glasgow and had finished secondary school but didn't have the academic grades to pursue many fields. So when I was thinking of what to be when I'm older, I just thought I should be a comedian. Around a year later, when I moved to London for university, I started doing stand-up comedy. After my first gig, I knew 100% stand-up was for me.
Do you have any pre-show rituals you can tell us about?
I don't have any particular rituals, though I prefer to not eat before a gig or drink anything other than water. Also, before going on stage, I prefer having a moment of peace and quiet to focus and get into the right frame of mind. I go to the gym very often which also helps me de-stress before a gig, and I try to be very organised with my traveling so I can arrive at the venue in a good time and be as relaxed as possible when I'm on stage.
How do you handle hecklers?
I talk to them calmly, or as calm as I can be. I think too many times comedians try to destroy a heckler because they watched a YouTube video with the same title. You could easily end a heckle with a short response, as you would in a normal conversation, and proceed with your act. If you stay calm, the audience stays calm and the show can go on. If it is someone trying to disrupt the show and can't be reasoned with, I just ask them to leave, especially if they have come to my solo show. If you are not enjoying it, just leave. If you were watching a film or TV show and you didn't enjoy it, you would leave the cinema or change the channel. For example, if I had ten minutes left on stage I would let them know that, so they can go to the bar and get a drink, and by the time they come back I'll be off stage. That way, everyone wins.
Where do you draw the line when it comes to 'offensive comedy'?
Everything offends someone somewhere, but that does not mean everything is offensive. It's not just about the words used, I think it should be about the intent, the context, the tone. For example, I have seen comedians say things that wouldn't be offensive written down. However, I would pick up a vibe in their tone of voice or mannerism that made me think they were being bigoted. Currently, we are in this 'has PC gone mad?' era and I think comedians should be able to perform however they wish, but I also think audiences do have a right to be offended with a comedian if they are giving off a sexist, racist or homophobic vibe.
What's the one thing (good or bad) you remember about your very first stand-up gig?
I was 19, it was a five-minute spot at an open-mic night in London in front of around 90 people. My legs were shaking. Luckily I was wearing quite loose jeans so I don't think anyone noticed but I do remember when I sat back down my knees were bobbing up and down uncontrollably, with various people including the MC, the promoter and other comedians giving me praise. It was one of the most adrenaline-filled experiences I have ever felt.
What's the best piece of advice you've received from another comedian so far?
Keep going, it's as simple as that. There have definitely been stages where I could have easily just stopped doing it, but just by the fact I kept going and going, I always got better and progressed further.
You're curating your own 'legends of comedy' line-up: who are the bill's top three acts?
Patrice O'Neal, the greatest comedian of all time in my opinion (and in the opinion of many world-class comics). He was so authentic and unapologetic about his points of view. I think his special Elephant in the Room is one of the greatest examples of what stand-up comedy should be. Dave Chappelle is the greatest living comedian. He is just a master of the art form through the tempo of his performances, the tone of his voice, and his choice of words and the way he delivers them. Eddie Murphy had a legendary career in comedy. I think he was 22 and 25 when he performed Delirious and Raw respectively. He went on to focus on acting, but those two specials still hold up in my opinion.
Which comedian's memoir would you recommend to someone?
I haven't read many books, never mind memoirs, but I have read Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and I would highly recommend it. He is a comedy legend and his book travels from his humble beginning all the way to his retirement, so you get a great insight into comedy and the entertainment industry.
Sezar Alkassab: Telling Stories, Kayal, Leicester, Fri 7 Feb; Dram!, Glasgow, Mon 16 Mar.