Urooj Ashfaq is on cloud nine. It has been about a week since this Mumbai-based stand-up comedian won the Best Newcomer Award for her show ‘Oh No!’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “The news has finally sunk in!” exclaims the 28-year-old over a call from Rome. “The award is an encouragement to do better,” she adds.
The first India-based comedian to win the award in its 40-year history and the first comedian of South Asian origin to win it since 1997, Urooj’s jokes draw on her personal stories and experiences. In Oh No!, a 60-minute taboo-breaking act produced by Soho Theatre in association with OML, she reflects on cultural differences, her experiences with therapy and her parents’ divorce.
Born in Dubai, Urooj shifted to Mumbai at the age of 12. She discovered open mics in Jai Hind college at Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai and did her first open mic in 2016. On that day, she joked about how even though Halley’s Comet came back, she did not get a reply from a boy ! “My jokes were too lame,” she laughs adding, “I cringe thinking of those jokes but everybody’s first joke sucks, so it is fine.”
It is this self-deprecating humour and positive attitude that has helped her carve a niche for herself on the comedy circuit. For someone who loved jokes in any medium, standup comedy seemed a new ‘cool‘ thing to attempt. “I thought I was funny and tried it out,” recalls Urooj whose initial themes too were on her personal life with its bitter-sweet stories and experiences. “I didn’t know how to engage people for an hour,” recalls Urooj, who honed her skills through open-mic sessions and has done around 200 performances a year (open mics and solo shows in India). In her earlier short videos on YouTube, the narrative focussed on her therapy and childhood, where she also read out lines from her diary.
The stories evoked laughter as the audience found an instant connection. Urooj feels when emotions are conveyed in the right way, they find their way to people. She explains her approach, “It doesn’t matter if you say ‘you go for therapy, because you feel sad’; the audience empathises as they too have been through it, but when you make it sound funny, they are hooked.”
Writing a joke, trying them out at open-mics, making edits based on feedback and trying them again is part of her creative process.
While some of her favourite comics include Sarah Silverman, James Acaster and Bridget Christie, she finds live gigs more interesting than online sessions. “It is tiring and stressful to put stuff online as one has to keep up with the demand,” she says. In the end, its feedback too is based on many factors. “Stand-up comedy content cannot be generated as fast as other content can be. One can quickly make a video of what one’s dad or mom sells but one joke turns good only after working on it several times, but online, you can’t improve it as you have to generate new content quickly.”
Like most comics, she has experienced days of ‘killing’ and ‘bombing’ (when the shows do well or poorly ) in equal measure. “The hard work that comedians put in is to get on stage even when they have had a bad evening or even weeks. Public speaking and humiliation are great fears but that is something one has to get past to say: ‘I’ll still do this, try to make this joke better’ and that’s what everybody does.”
With plans to perform Oh No! in Delhi on September 30 and Soho Theatre in London (October 30-November4), Urooj hopes to experiment and expand her horizon. “I might make some mistakes but that’s okay as that’s part and parcel of the process.”