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I TALK TO Bilal Zafar

Fresh from winning the 2016 New Act of the Year award, comedian Bilal Zafar has picked the perfect time to brings his debut show Cakes to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Previous winners of the New Act of the Year award include Joe Wilkinson, Ardal O’Hanlon and Stewart Lee so it’s safe to say that Bilal is in excellent company.

Cakes tells the story of how BILAL’s Twitter handle, @zafarcakes, became a focal point for the misguided rage of the global far right when it was mistaken for the account of a Muslim-only bakery on the site.

Having provoked the outrage of such defenders of Britishness as Katie Hopkins, EDL supporters and the Daily Star, Cakes shows how Bilal used humour to respond to the prejudice and abuse increasingly faced by British Muslims today.

This is your debut at the Edinburgh Fringe. Why now?

I’ve been doing comedy for just over three years and I wouldn’t think I’d be ready to do an hour yet. I’d probably do 30/40 minutes, but I have quite a good thing that happened, luckily, which I’ve been using in comedy and I think I should make the most of it and make it my first hour.

For anyone who doesn’t know, what happened?

Well my show is basically about when #BoycottMuslimBusinesses started trending on Twitter – quite a random little cause, which I think a bunch of British and American, right wing Twitter users started.

Because my surname is Zafar, my name on Twitter has always been @ZafarCakes. Me and my brother have a certain type of humour and he randomly did a tweet where he said that I was a Muslim only cake shop and straight away it started to get some attention.

I went with it, and it spiralled out of control basically! So the show is all about that.

When did it hit you that what was happening would make a great comedy show?

Well I didn’t know it would be a show. I knew it was very funny, it was making me laugh a lot so I thought I could use it as some material.

The thing is, when it started, I thought it was something that maybe only other Muslims would find funny. I didn’t realise that it would be so popular.

I tried it as a five-minute thing with no projector at a new material night and it got an amazing reaction. I then realised that I’m quite lucky because it’s kind of perfect with how everything is in Britain in particular. It’s very current and no one else is really doing anything like it.

How did you settle on the title Cakes?

It was always going to be this story. I had a bunch of different names that I didn’t really like and then a friend of mine suggested calling it just Cakes, and I realised that that’s perfect because it’s simple and I don’t want to give away what it’s about.

If people think it’s got anything to do with cakes, I’m fine with that. I’m also hopefully going to have free cakes at my show!

How have the previews been going?

Good. They’re always up and down – I had one a couple of weeks ago where hardly anyone turned up. I’ve had a few cancelled.

But I had one in the Exeter Phoenix, which was amazing. I was on with Ed Gamble as well, so that helped. It was a really nice theatre, I had lots of new bits in there.

It’s looking good. I’d say it’s probably not 100% finished yet, but I’ve still got a few previews left, so I’m quite confident.

How long have you been working on the show?

It’s weird, because this whole thing happened about a year ago, but I’ve not been developing it into a show for that long. I probably had a solid twenty minutes, but making it an hour, with a whole structure, is very different.

I’d say probably about five or six month, but I’ve not done enough towards it really. Because it’s my first show as well, it’s all very new to me.

How have you found turning it into an hour-long show from twenty minutes?

It’s been tricky so far, but it’s also kind of fun because I’ve been up to Edinburgh a couple of times, I’ve seen a bunch of shows and I know that it’s not like a club set, it doesn’t have to be constant jokes all the way through.

I can break off and make some serious points so that’s quite nice. It’s really exciting, but I’ve struggled a bit with doing a serious bit and then coming back in.

Congratulations on winning 2016 New Act of the Year. Does that put added pressure on your debut show?

Thanks. I don’t think so, the main reason I entered the New Act competition this year was because about four or five months ago, before I’d won it, I didn’t feel like anyone knew my name or would have had a reason to come and see me in Edinburgh.

I  thought winning a competition would help build a bit of a momentum and get my name out there a bit. I entered the BBC one, I didn’t get through that. I was runner up in the Leicester Square one and then luckily I won the one at the end of January.

It was kind of a plan, that worked. I got signed up which was quite unexpected and I feel really lucky I’ve got all this going for me just as I’m about to do my first Fringe show.

So I’m not feeling pressure, I like being a new act. I like that people might have heard my name now maybe, but they don’t really know me so hopefully I can impress them.

What are you most looking forward to about the Fringe?

Just having my own show is going to be amazing. Having my own thing and having that to do every day. I’m going to be doing a lot of other little gigs – a lot of showcases, late and live and I think I’ll be doing the BBC Asian Network comedy night as well.

I’m hoping that it will make me a better comedian as well, just the intensity of it. I’m looking at all the positives really.

Outside of the Fringe, what are you up to?

Before I started stand-up, I went to Uni to study Media Writing and Production. I’ve always wanted to write comedy for TV, since I was about 15/16.

I’m very lucky now that with my management, Avalon, I have great TV links – they have their own production company. I think the plan for me is to hopefully have lots of TV people come and see my show and then have meetings afterwards.

I did a little thing for BBC Three last month where you pick a question out of a bowl and there was one called 7 Questions British Muslims Are Tired of Hearing, and lucky I got all of the funny lines in it, pretty much.

I might be doing more stuff with them. They are going to be commissioning more mini-series soon, so I might be involved in that, but I don’t know anything yet.

And finally, how would you sum up your show in just five words?

Very funny and quite important.

Bilal Zafar: Cakes will be on at Just The Tonic at The Mash House from Thursday 4th August – Sunday 28th August at 3:40pm (Excluding Monday 15th August).


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