From the upper echelons of the Labour Party to the formidable stage of stand-up comedy, Ayesha Hazarika MBE hasn’t followed an exactly conventional career path. The University of Hull law graduate tells Venn how she came to comedy and why, in the current political climate, performing it is almost impossible.
It’s six o’clock and Ayesha Hazarika is clocking off at the Department of Trade and Industry. After a quick change into jeans and a t-shirt she gets onto a Tube train and makes her way to an obscure station on the outskirts of London where she meets a group of friends. Together, they get in a car and travel to a gig. Tonight’s is in Manchester, but they’ve gone further afield than this before.
Later, after a successful act on stage and a journey back to London, she’s dropped back off at her flat. It’s three o’clock. In a few hours she’ll be getting ready for another shift at the Department of Trade and Industry. “This would happen about three times a week,” says Ayesha, reflecting on her first forays into stand-up comedy back in 2001. “It felt like I was leading a double life, working in Government by day and in comedy by night. It was hard work, too, with next to no pay.”
In fact, Ayesha considers stand-up comedy the toughest job she’s ever done, and counted in that list is spin doctor for one Leader of the Opposition and chief of staff for another. “As a female Muslim comedian from the west of Scotland I was usually able to make people pay attention, but sometimes I’d just have a terrible gig and go through an existential crisis in the car on the way home.”
The genesis of a comedian
Ayesha was born in Bellshill, on the outskirts of Glasgow, before moving to Coatbridge. Her father, a local GP, and her mother, employed in local government, were first-generation immigrants from Assam, India. While Coatbridge wasn’t known for its ethnic minorities and racial prejudice wasn’t entirely unheard of around the town, Ayesha talks fondly of her upbringing there.
“The locals tended to have a very dry sense of humour, but they were also good, friendly people,” she says. “In those days the doctor was very well thought of in the community. When we were doing the shopping at the local Asda my dad would often get stopped by lots of residents and end up almost doing a mini surgery right there and then. Even if he’d just popped out for some biscuits, he would wind up taking a look at bunions!”
At the same time as she was being introduced to the comedic side of life, Ayesha was also experiencing a positive exposure to politics, specifically through her father’s acquaintance with the local Labour MP, Tom Clarke. “He would always make a special effort for our family,” says Ayesha. “As a result, we had a very welcoming experience in Coatbridge. Comedy, community, politics – all of this collided in me at a young age.”
A brush with law
When she left school at 17, Ayesha enrolled at the University of Hull to study law. “I wanted to go somewhere different to where my school friends were going, somewhere where I didn’t know anyone and where I wasn’t going to be defined by my school life.”
Hull was recommended to her as a ‘wild card’ by her career advisor; like most of her friends, Ayesha hadn’t considered going to a university outside of Scotland. “There was something about Hull that I just loved from the moment I arrived there on the open day,” she says. “It was like stepping back in time. Just wandering around the student union I could see that everyone was having a great time, and that really appealed to me. It felt like ‘Planet Hull’.”
While Ayesha’s choice of university was independently made, her choice of subject was less so. By her own admission she didn’t have much choice in the matter: “My parents didn’t like the idea of drama or politics. They said I could either do law, accountancy or medicine.” She chose law, and although she enjoyed the course she quickly realised that it wasn’t her future.
Upon graduation Ayesha joined the Civil Service as a Press Officer, and worked at the Home Office and Department of Trade and Industry, which is where she began to get a reputation as something of a comic. Her colleagues eventually convinced her to try stand-up comedy.
“A friend of mine told me about a stand-up comedy course that was just beginning,” she says. “That’s how I got the bug. At the end of the course I did one of my first ever gigs with Rhod Gilbert and Greg Davies. They were both on the course at the same time and we were all doing stand-up comedy together – experiencing our demons and our fears.”
The comedy of politics
So began Ayesha’s comedy career, initially characterised by mad dashes across England to attend gigs before returning to London in the middle of the night. By 2007, though, Ayesha had decided to focus on developing her political career, putting the comedy on the back burner – or so you’d think. “Some people would actually argue that the comedy very much carried on into my political career,” says Ayesha. “Comedy is a hugely valuable skill to have in politics. It’s a powerful tool for communication and by far the best way to make a point. Politics is essentially the art of communication, and to this end humour can be a very powerful weapon.”
During her political career Ayesha worked as a political advisor for several senior Labour Party politicians, including Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband, preparing them for Prime Minister’s Questions and speeches in the House of Commons. In 2015, following the general election, she eventually departed from politics and was later awarded with an MBE in the 2016 New Year’s Honours List for services to politics. It was then that she decided to return to comedy.
“Ironically, comedy is almost impossible in the current political climate,” she says. “You just have to look at the last year or so to realise that satire is over. I sometimes feel like I could go on stage and simply read out my Twitter feed and that would be funnier than anything I could ever write.”
Down to Planet Hull
Ayesha admits she wasn’t the best student in the world, but that didn’t prevent her from learning about life and about what she wanted to do with hers. “I was really interested in issues around women and the criminal justice system, and the work I did around that has really stayed with me because it effectively allowed me to become a special advisor for women’s equality issues,” says Ayesha. “Looking at women in the criminal justice system was a big part of my eventual political career.”
Likewise, her environment whilst studying shaped her later political outlook. “Hull is just such a down-to-earth environment,” she says. “It was impossible to be snobby; the environment was very egalitarian, open and accessible, and I think that was a really important part of my formative years in how it shaped my values both as a member of the Labour Party and as a person.”
Two years since leaving Westminster, Ayesha has completed one successful stand-up tour and is about to finish writing another. She remains active in politics as a highly regarded broadcaster, commentator and columnist, regularly writing for national newspapers and appearing on television. Her first book, Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, was published in 2018.
For all her love of comedy and satire, Ayesha hasn’t lost sight of the serious realities facing Britain as a result of recent seismic political change. She talks of her aspirations with refreshing civility and sense. “I feel passionate about learning to have political debate without the nastiness and aggression that has crept in recently,” she says. “whatever way you voted in Brexit, the country is divided. There are big challenges ahead, but politics right now is being too petty to address them. We have got to find a way to come back together.”