He’s carved out a niche for clownlike character comedy online, and become one of UK YouTube’s most important gay voices. For LGBTQ+ History Month, TenEighty meets Mawaan Rizwan…
“You know how it is when you’re young, right?” asks Mawaan Rizwan. “You just want to conform. I’ve always enjoyed making people laugh, and I’ve always wanted to perform and be weird, but being different is not the in thing at school. So you just repress that until you’re given the permission; until someone validates you enough to say, ‘You’re kind of alright at this – do more, get better’.”
Today, he doesn’t have to look hard for validation: on YouTube, he has 87,000 subscribers, and his channel is approaching 20 million views, while offline, he’s successfully made the move into live performance, and a BBC documentary he presented last year made national headlines.
Born in Lahore, Mawaan came to the UK with his mum and sister as a child, and was, he says, “a repressed performer. At school I was quite shy, but given half the opportunity, I’d don costumes and pretend I had my own reality show.”
His parents “got really annoyed” by that need to perform, but it started to come in useful. “Whenever there was tension in the family, or things weren’t going well at school, I kind of used it as escapism,” he says. “Me and my brother used to make silly videos, we used to mess about and do stupid shit, and we’d have quite a surreal sense of humour. It was great, it was blissful. That was my way of getting away from things.”
What things? “Not to get out a violin, but the usual shit of bullying at school and having grown up in quite an argumentative family. And I was an illegal immigrant for about eight years. That was fun.”
While Mawaan’s classmates went on school skiiing trips, he “had to make up really lame excuses, cos the truth was, if I left the country, I wouldn’t be allowed back in. My mum nearly got deported, and she was going through a really tough time. Me and my brother and my sister would rely on the storytelling and imagination, and all these stupid silly things. That kept our childlike innocence, in a time when things were going quite badly. It developed a creative muscle in us as a family.”
Did the young Mawaan know why he couldn’t go on those trips? “Oh, yeah, no, we knew,” he nods. “We had to grow up fast. My mum would initially be like, ‘Skiing? Who wants to go skiing anyway? It’s for silly people’, and then, when we’d dig deeper, she’d be like, ‘Okay, listen: we’re different to the other kids, Mawaan.’
“It was really embarrassing,” he says. “It was like having a secret. My childhood was full of secrets, you know? Initially as an immigrant, and then, in teenage, obviously in terms of sexuality… Full of double-lives and secrets. The YouTube thing was a secret as well. Everything could lead to being outed in a shameful way.”
YouTube appealed to Mawaan as a way of channelling his creativity where more traditional means of expression had failed. “I was quite shit in Drama,” he says. “I’d get really small roles in stuff, so YouTube was my only outlet. Also, I could make stuff that some 14-year-olds in America could see, and none of my friends would know. I’d be putting on these wigs, and doing all these characters, but no-one would see.”
But then his videos started getting views. “I walked into the common room at school, and people were gathered round a computer,” recalls Mawaan. “I was like, ‘Hey guys, what you watching?’, and they were watching one of my videos. I remember just sinking in embarrassment – but then slowly realising that they were alright with it, and they found me funny. I was sort of given this permission to be the class clown. From there, I started embracing it.”
“When I started doing stand-up, I got a better understanding of comedy, and how to make it…”
He would “stay late after Media lessons and borrow their camera” to get stuff made, and was inspired by Shane Dawson. “I was a follow-the-instructions kind of kid,” explains Mawaan, “so when I’d see him swearing and doing all these outrageous things, I was like, ‘He just says and does what he wants, and no-one can stop him! I want to do that!’
“It was so bad,” he adds, unprompted. “The first few videos I made, it was so bad. My housemates discovered some of my videos that I made in 2006, and they pissed themselves. In a way, it’s really cringey, but it’s such a good way to track your progression, and embrace the fact that you’ll do things creatively that will be shit. You’re not always going to get it right.”
When did he start getting it right? “Not till quite recently. It depends what you mean by ‘getting it right’, as well.” Early on, he got a major surge in traffic from appearing in someone else’s related videos, but that was “a bit of a fluke”, he says. “I don’t rate those videos. I don’t think they’re particularly good or funny. When I started doing stand-up, and having a feel for what comedy timing with a live audience feels like – that’s when I got a better understanding of comedy, and how to make it.”
Mawaan describes his comedy as “absurd flights of fantasy that are grounded in a bit of humane idiocy”. A lot of it is very physical, he says, and for his new show, Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate, which he’ll take to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, “there’s bits of quite dark, confessional stand-up, but always told through a surreal lens.
“And it’s stupid,” he emphasises. “It’s really fucking stupid. I’m not a smart comedian. I’m not making comments about how the world should work. I’m just going up on stage and exposing my true idiot self in a vulnerable way, and hoping that will connect with people.”
His management have compared him to the Mighty Boosh, which isn’t a parallel he’d draw himself (“I think that’s just their promo team going, ‘Who else is surreal?’”) – instead, the first person he names as an influence is Richard Pryor, “because I really like how he had a sort of childish innocence, even behind the darker stories that he told.”
Others include Eddie Izzard, Monty Python, and silent movie star Buster Keaton. “What I loved is his commitment to physicality,” he says of Keaton, “and not being afraid to look stupid, not being afraid to push yourself to the extreme of physical comedy. I think that’s gone a bit, now. I think a lot of the comedy now is very polished, and very TV-ready; not as risky.”
“By the end of clown school, I didn’t want to ever do comedy again, but it changed everything…”
The characters Mawaan plays develop organically. “I’ll just put my webcam on, and have an idea of someone I want to create, and then I’ll just improvise something,” he explains. “Then I’ll watch it back, and be like, ‘That’s shit’, or, ‘That can be something, I can develop it’, and then I’ll add like a signature prop, and this new character starts to take shape.”
They tend to be “people I wish existed”, he says, rather than people he knows. “I used to play my mum and dad quite a lot, but then that got really boring and obvious. Someone compared me to The Kumars at No. 42, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s it’, cos I think it’s been done, and there’s more to me than that – I’m not just a brown person. I started experimenting with more surreal characters, like Momo, who is a clown.”
Momo was created at what Mawaan calls “clown school” – the École Philippe Gaulier theatre workshop in Paris – which was “really brutal. It’s taught by this really old, grumpy Frenchman. He sits there with a drum, and every day, you had to make him and 30 other pupils of the class laugh. If you don’t, he bangs his drum and sends you off. I think my record was 11 seconds.
“By the end of it, I didn’t want to ever do comedy again. I thought, ‘This is something I’m really incompetent at’. But it changed everything, because he was poking out the vulnerability in me. Now, when I go on stage, instead of being this really polished comedian that everyone aspires to be, I’m actually going on stage with a bit of honesty.”
Gaulier works from the basis that everyone has a different clown – “It’s quite an airy-fairy concept,” Mawaan admits, “but it works, and it changed everything for me” – and so his style is not to teach, but to draw out what already exists. “He just has very psychologically disturbing methods of bringing it out in you!” laughs Mawaan. “He makes you toy with the idea of failure. By making you fail, and making you learn to be comfortable in the failure, something beautiful comes out.”
Mawaan’s move into live performance was, he says, “a way of really committing to learning a craft”, after his YouTube success started to open doors. “I was getting meetings with BBC Comedy, and a bunch of production companies I’d never heard of, and they were referring to me as a comedian. I felt like a bit of a con, cos I can edit myself to be funny online, and I can kind of cheat. Comedy’s not easy; it takes years of going out on stage, and tuning in to what it feels like to make a crowd of strangers laugh. I thought, ‘Obviously that’s not going to be an easy feat, so I’ve got to start clocking my stage time’.
“Some gigs were great. Some gigs were terrible. I’ve had every heckle possible. I’ve had a chair chucked at me. I’ve been called every racist slur in the book, homophobic slurs. And I’m at a stage now where I can deal with it. I’m not afraid of it anymore.”
One review for his 2015 show Fluu specifically noted that “his crowd work is good and he deals excellently with a heckler”, but another said he “understandably got distracted” by a crowd that was “low-level rowdy”. Mawaan insists he welcomes “being caught off-guard by audiences”, because “it forces you to be in the moment. YouTube comments aren’t always accurate, and you don’t know who they’re coming from, whereas with a live audience, you can see the person. You can look them in the eye, and you can choose to either accept the challenge of what they’re shouting out, or you can be thrown off by it.
“I think you can only learn that by failing,” he continues. “The first time I got heckled, I didn’t know what to do. And the first time I got a chair chucked at me, I was a broken human being! You can either give up at that stage, or you can say, ‘Okay, I’m still going to go out tomorrow, and I’m going to perform again’. That resilience teaches you the techniques you need to deal with heckles and challenges.”
How transferrable are the skills Mawaan developed on YouTube to a live setting? The review that praised his crowd work also suggested that his “history as a YouTube performer shows” in person, but while a two-minute compilation of him twerking in public will fly online, it’s not necessarily going to work as a starting point for an hour-long set. “Yeah, totally,” he nods, “and that’s something I’m still learning. YouTube helped me because I learned some of my comedy timing by editing – the same bit of footage edited two different ways can be very funny, or very not funny. But it’s a whole different skill. To keep the attention of an audience for an hour, and make them leave the show feeling like they saw something fulfilling – that’s hard.
“I’ve been going up to Edinburgh for four years now, and I still feel like a baby. I’m still learning how to structure a show. This year, that’s my aim – to make a show-show. Not bits that I think are funny put together, but to have a show with a bit of an arc, a bit of a structure, that doesn’t feel too contrived.”
The other difference between YouTube and live comedy is demographical. Online, a performer can build a relationship with an audience that knows and loves their stuff, whereas at Edinburgh, the crowd might be dominated by newcomers – “or it’s raining outside and they just want somewhere dry to sit,” grins Mawaan. “YouTube audiences are honest, but if they like you, you can get away with stuff. You can put a video out without it being incredibly life-changing, and people will be like, ‘Cool, we got to see your face again!’, whereas with live stuff, there’s no fucking about. People leave. People get angry that they’ve paid money for this thing that they’re not enjoying. It’s less forgiving, but with that comes a greater opportunity to be good at what you do.”
Last year, Mawaan took a step away from comedy, fronting BBC Three documentary How Gay is Pakistan?. Earlier in the year, he had come out to his parents, and they reacted badly; the film saw him return to the country of his birth to try and find out why.
Mawaan approached BBC Current Affairs with the idea in February 2015. “I’m pitching stuff all the time that never gets commissioned,” he explains. “For some reason, the timing was just perfect. Documentary-making isn’t something that I’ve done in terms of long-form, but I’ve done short travel vlogs that I could show the team and say, ‘With the help of a director, I could tell this story’. It was just something I wanted to do. Even if they didn’t give me money to do it, I would have gone and done it anyway, and made a YouTube video out of it.”
Once the project was underway, Mawaan had to let other people take control, “cos part of the stance we had was me going out and discovering things for the first time. Like, I didn’t know I was going to go to an underground gay party, so when I first turn up, I’m genuinely quite surprised that that even exists, and that was caught on camera.”
Until he made the film, Mawaan hadn’t been to Pakistan for almost a decade. “The last time I went was with my parents, when I was a teenager,” he explains, “and they showed me a very particular side to Pakistan.” Did he know he was gay then? “No, it didn’t even cross my mind.
“So to be honest, I knew what the concept was,” he says, “and I knew it was personal to me, and it was something I wanted to explore, but I had no idea what I was signing myself up for. I didn’t even know if the gay scene existed. Once I got out there, and I met those incredibly brave people – I met Kami and Sid, who are so badass – that was shocking, but also really inspiring for me.”
At one point, Kami (a trans woman) and Sid (her boyfriend) were verbally attacked by a crowd of passers-by. “There was no security,” Mawaan reveals. “It was me and a director called Masood Khan – just the two of us.” That was largely an advantage (“We went out there super low-key, and got access into some really incredible places, because it was just the two of us and we’re both brown”), but when that crowd formed, things got “pretty scary. There was a mob-like situation. It was okay as long as we were discreet, but as soon as you’re vocal about something like your sexuality in public, we were more easily a target for people, and that was scary. It’s not always a choice for people to be discreet. I can go about on the streets of Pakistan and no-one might guess I’m gay, but for Kami, that’s not the case.”
The documentary made headlines for the moment Mawaan took a “gay cure” prescribed by an imam, who deduced that his liver was “heated” and his semen “becoming watery” by taking his pulse. (“My name amongst friends now is ‘Watery Semen’,” he sighs.) For someone with a comedy background, it must have been difficult to strike a balance between the ridiculousness of that situation and how terrifying the reality is for those who can’t escape it. “Yeah, really difficult,” he nods. “I had to bite my tongue, because it was such a weird mixture of ridiculous, funny, but also really heartbreaking and scary. Like, people’s lives are at risk, right? But at the same time, it’s hard to keep a straight face when this guy is feeling your pulse and telling you all these things.”
It was “really exposing”, he adds, to be himself for an hour on national TV “without relying on any comedy stuff. But what helped me get through that was: it wasn’t about me. It was about the people I was interviewing, and their stories. All I could really do was be in the moment and absorb what was happening, so I didn’t have too much time to get self-conscious.
“And when you’re doing it, it’s not national TV. It’s just you and your director and this guy in a room, and you forget about the camera for a bit. When it goes out, and it’s the most-watched thing on iPlayer for a week – and you’re getting loads of abusive tweets! – that’s when it hits you. But when you’re out there filming, you get lost in the fascination of all of these people, and what incredible lives they live.”
Given that their response to Mawaan’s sexuality catalysed the documentary in the first place, did his parents watch it? “I’ve always been really touchy about talking about my parents,” he says, after a pause. “There’s a lot of emotional turmoil that’s still there, and there’s still stuff that I’m dealing with. In the documentary, I kept it very vague; I didn’t want to out my parents’ views on sexuality, cos I felt guilty. But at the same time, I felt angry that I wasn’t totally accepted. But they’re in their fifties, and they’ve lived their life a certain way. I don’t expect to come and change that overnight. I think it’s part of a longer, bigger conversation.
“My parents haven’t seen the documentary. That’s because I want to sit down and watch it with them. But I need to get to that stage where I can. It will be a lot for them to process, because they’re going to see their son, as an out gay man, on the BBC, in the country they were brought up in… that’s a lot to deal with. But it’s my only opportunity to sit down with them not arguing back, just sitting and listening to something. And I think it will evoke a lot of empathy in them.”
Less than a month after How Gay is Pakistan? was transmitted, it was cited by The Independent as a reason for Mawaan’s debut appearance on the paper’s annual Rainbow List, which recognises prominent LGBTQ+ individuals in the UK. Mawaan was ranked eighteenth overall, and was the fifth-highest person of colour.
“In a way, I kind of felt a bit guilty,” he admits. “I’ve not done that much. It’s really only the last couple of years that I’ve come into my own, and been really public about my sexuality. It was flattering, but also, it gave me a bit of courage to be even louder and even prouder. Once you’re on the Rainbow List, it’s the point of no return! It’s the beginning of many things I want to do in the future.”
He hadn’t publicly discussed his sexuality prior to the documentary because “it felt a bit contrived”, he says. “Why didn’t I make a coming-out video? Cos I think people are smarter than that. And I think sexuality is more tender than that. I wanted to be more subtle than that.”
“It was so exhausting trying to tiptoe around other people’s preconceptions of what I should be…”
Coming out was a long process. “Around the start of my twenties, I said, ‘This is so exhausting, trying to tiptoe around other people’s preconceptions of what I should be’,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘If no-one else was listening to me right now, if I didn’t have to answer to anyone, what would I say to myself?’ And I said to myself, ‘Yeah, I’m gay’. It wasn’t an overnight thing. It took me, like, three or four years, slowly. But once I got to that stage, and once I was totally comfortable with myself, things were different. I felt more of an authentic person. Creatively, that’s been the most liberating thing.”
Sexuality and gender – the latter in particular – are important to his work. “Oh, man, I love a bit of gender-bending,” he grins. “A lot of the gigs I’m doing, I’m performing to straight, white, middle-class men. The mischievous and rebellious side of me goes, ‘Let’s fuck with them’. If you make people laugh, you can get away with so much.
“And if I’m not doing something to push the boundaries a bit, then what’s the point? If I’m just going up on stage and talking about checkout tills and all that shit you see on Live at the Apollo, what’s the point? I might as well stop. Like, I’m not doing comedy for loads of money. Lord knows there’s no money in comedy! I do it because it’s the only tool I have that I can use to challenge people’s preconceived lazy prejudice.”
Mawaan’s also presented for 4Music and Disney, but “what excites me more is comedy and acting”, he says. He’s filmed a role in a one-off TV drama, which “required some full-on serious acting, which I’ve never done before”, but he can’t say more about it just yet.
In 2011, when he was “playing around with different possible career options”, he wrote and directed a drama of his own: the short film Jimmy Will Play. “I met some really cool people doing that,” he says, “learning some really interesting things about structure, and how to write a script.” The short isn’t representative of his current work – it was, he says, “a bit too naturalistic, and a bit too expositional, whereas I’ve moved on to stuff which is a bit more surreal and pointless on the outside” – but it was an important learning experience. “I do bits of writing for BBC Comedy, I’m working on an animation on CBeebies, and all those writing skills I picked up on that are now helping me in my professional work.”
“I want my comedy to feel pointless, but with a heart and meaning to it…”
How would he sum up his creative aims today? “I want my role within the artistic sphere to be the idiot, the clown, the blah, the nothingness,” he says, “but as you’re leaving the theatre, you go, ‘Actually, I don’t really mind a man in a dress that much, do I? It was actually quite funny!’. I want that to be a more subconscious process, as opposed to going up on stage and being like, ‘Listen, guys, this is my views on gender politics’. I don’t want to preach – I think that’s a very one-dimensional way of presenting comedy. I want it to feel pointless, but with a heart and meaning to it.
“I want people to come into this little room wherever I’m performing, and have a weird and wonderful experience, and leave a bit exhilarated, and feeling a bit different from the way that they walked in. That’s why I’m doing it. For that weird, magical feeling in between.”
His current focus is Gender Neutral Concubine Pirate, which is “basically me in a sparkly pirate dress and glam-rock makeup, kicking some shit about on stage. And loads and loads of fog. That’s the show. And it’s going to be life-changing.”
He’s also “potentially developing a documentary” inspired by his mum, Shahnaz Rizwan, who became a Bollywood star after appearing in his videos. “I have to keep reminding her that all her success is down to me, you know?” he grins. “But yeah, she’s really famous in Asia now. The show she’s on has moved to prime time. Once, she took a two-week holiday, and the ratings went down. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence, or it’s because my mum is fabulous – but I think it’s because my mum is fabulous.
“I have meetings all the time,” he adds. “People in suits always want to sniff around and see what you’re about, and things just never happen. One thing I’ve learned is that people can talk till the cows come home, but only you can make something happen. I think that’s why YouTube is so empowering, because even if I have meetings for the next ten years with BBC execs, I know at the end of it that I’ve got a camera at my home, and if I want to make an idea come to life, I can…”
Want more from Mawaan?
Why not check out these exclusive photosets:
- Mawaan Rizwan TenEighty Feb 2016 Cover
- Mawaan Rizwan TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 01
- Mawaan Rizwan TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 02
- Mawaan Rizwan TenEighty Photoshoot: Set 03
Alternatively, read some of our favourite TenEighty interviews:
- Charlie McDonnell: First Time for Everything & The Changing Face of YouTube
- PJ Liguori: The Storyteller
- Ciaran OBrien: Pulling Focus
- Alex Bertie: Being Trans on YouTube