Shazia Mirza might have had a higher profile, and several years ago Arnab Chanda seemed the offbeat one to watch (more so than Imran Yusuf and Danny Bhoy, both of whom have a more conventional polish). But Chowdhry is the real deal: a mainstream act who fills big venues and gets gigs on TV.
Chowdhry’s breakthrough came in 2011 with a headlining slot on Channel 4’s Stand Up for the Week, in which a motley crew of comedians riff on the week’s news. This was followed by his 2012 tour, What’s Happening White People?, and a DVD of that show, released by Universal Pictures (which puts him on a roster with Ricky Gervais, Billy Connolly and Michael McIntyre).
Last month he topped the bill on the BBC’s Live at the Apollo. Suddenly, Chowdhry is a big deal. What took him so long?
“Comedy — the Edinburgh festival, the TV industry — is run by middle-class people for middle-class people. So naturally the stuff that gets on TV is what that group of people find funny, which isn’t even what the general public always likes.” Chowdhry pauses. “This is a class-ridden society. In America, you can buy it; here you’re born into it. Over there, Oprah is royalty. Here, she’d just be a black woman.”
He doesn’t sound bitter as he says this, but it’s interesting that Chowdhry focuses on class rather than race: his jokes about the latter have divided critics. Last year the London Evening Standard described him as “a scalpel-sharp storyteller”, but the comedy website Chortle has repeatedly labelled Chowdhry as offensive, dated, lazy and a misogynist. (I think they’re missing the point: he adopts these positions as part of the act.)
He is unfazed by the criticism. “Irony seems to be a lot harder to get across if you’re an Asian bloke. Sacha Baron Cohen played a white guy trying to be a black guy, and that was OK.”
Chowdhry has a swaggering stage confidence and a talent for mimicry (he does aggressive Punjabi patriarchs, Nigerian cabbies and Chinese waiters), but some of the gags can seem quaintly retro. Strict brown parents? The evolution of urban patois? Eddie Murphy’s done it, Russell Peters has done it, Gina Yashere and Stephen K Amos still do it. You can’t help wishing that he would push this material into new and more challenging areas.
“I do question people’s racism, and question what people find racist. But I go on stage to make people laugh, first and foremost.”
Chowdhry has been determined to break into comedy since he was a 17-year-old working in high-street electrical retailer Dixons (“the worst job I’ve ever done”).
He was born and raised in London, the third of four children, and still lives close to his parents. “I’m keeping it real. But obviously it’s handy if I want to get some dinner.”
He says he was an odd child with not much academic inclination but a knack for making the other children laugh. “I’d say something serious, everyone would crack up and the teacher would kick me out.”
This must have been down to his unnerving delivery, which, off stage, can make it difficult to tell whether he’s serious or not. (A case in point: Chowdhry, it turns out, is a gym freak. Do I want to see pictures of his ripped six-pack abs? No, I don’t. He whips out his phone to show me the photos anyway. Is he sending himself up, or bragging? I’m not sure.)
He has suffered two violent racist attacks during his career: outside a club when he was in his mid-20s and in 2004 a heckler walked backstage at a gig and punched him in the face. His father was stabbed and left for dead by a gang when Chowdhry was in his teens. Heckles of “Paki!” are a given, he says. He talked about these experiences in his 2007 show, Lost in Confusion, but more recently has reverted to droll observation:
“If you get stabbed in this country, they won’t always find the killers. But if you drive in the bus lane, they’ll take a picture of you and send it to your house. So, if you are going to get stabbed …”
Chowdhry revels in creating an uncomfortable tension on stage: the biggest laughs tend to come as a release, from audiences unsure about whether they should be laughing at heavy accents and ethnic clichés. But, as he points out, his audiences are the most diverse in mainstream comedy. “I don’t treat brown and black people as a homogenous lump. And you can’t stand on stage for two hours and expect people to just laugh at a funny accent. There is a routine, a joke that I’ve crafted; that’s where the comedy is.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012