Given the scale of his global fame, Humza Arshad has remained remarkably humble. Ecstatic fans are now just part of the daily routine. “I get mobbed in so many places,” whispers the London-based comedian, keen to share his experiences without boasting. “I’ve been mobbed in the middle of Malaysia; by fans at Dubai airport; I met a politician from Pakistan and he talked about how big I am there. Even here [Edinburgh], where I didn’t think anyone would recognise me, every 10 minutes I’d get a photo or two.”
Arshad is currently at the Edinburgh Fringe, performing the live stand-up version of his hugely popular web series, Diary of a Bad Man. For those who have yet to come across it, the statistics can certainly raise eyebrows. A comical but socially conscious sitcom about a young British Muslim with delusions of gangsta-style grandeur, the show has been viewed almost 50 million times, and his fifth episode was the seventh most-watched YouTube video of 2011 in the UK.
Those figures are impressive because the show is almost entirely homemade, with the previously unknown Arshad writing, directing, editing and starring. The budget is practically zero – his supporting cast features friends and occasional celebrity guests – and its popularity is a testament to the hard-working comic’s talents, on both sides of the camera. Not that he was always confident of its appeal.
“When I made the first episode, I didn’t like it, and I left it on my computer for about three months,” he admits. It took a concerted effort by some close friends to persuade him of its potential that eventually paid off. “I just thought, I’ve made it now, it’s edited, let me put it out on YouTube, what’s the worst that can happen? So I did that and the day after I uploaded it, I had 5,000 views.”
Those figures snowballed, and by episode three it had “started hitting the millions”, he recalls. “That’s when I knew it wasn’t just the Asian market: I’d struck gold.” For some time he insisted that the series was not a moneymaking venture, however, and staunchly refused to allow anyone to advertise on his pages. Then an associate mentioned the earnings of a US YouTube regular who, with fewer annual hits, had made almost a million dollars. “And the next day I put advertising on!” he laughs.
Despite his achievements with new media, mainstream recognition is the next goal for this ambitious young performer. A more traditional TV project is being discussed, but becoming a universally accessible live act is Arshad’s current focus. Hence the 15-show Edinburgh run, which ends tonight.
This first Fringe experience has been quite a culture shock. His previous stand-up show was at a large London theatre packed with fans: “one of the best experiences of my life”. Whereas at the Fringe he is playing in the tellingly named Wee Room, which initially seemed “like seven steps back,” he admits.
“To be honest I was dreading it. I was scared of critics, thinking: ‘What happens if no one laughs, no one turns up?’ I’ve been very lucky so far because most of the shows have been sold out, but still that’s only 50 or 60 [people per night], and for me, that’s a very small number.
“But I definitely think that the Fringe experience, it’s got me to the next level. I was a bit in my comfort zone and this was exactly what I needed for my career, to become even better. It puts your feet on the ground, because there are thousands of people here and they’re so talented and you just feel like a needle in a haystack.”
In fact, Arshad’s show – a fast-moving tale of unrequited love, featuring some sharp audience interaction and surprisingly
decent dance moves – has been a breath of fresh air, which augurs well for his plans to perform “for a lot more people” longer-term. Indeed, he has already travelled over to Dubai for talks about a big show in the near future. “There are so many fans there,” he says. “It would be a real honour.”
The negative reactions to the Diary of a Bad Man have largely come from those with “fanatic views”, he says, who lambasted the use of uplifting Islamic quotations at the end of each episode (he now prefers more generic messages). Several critical videos emerged, but appeared to have a cynical motive. “At the end they’re like ‘everyone, follow us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, come to our stores and buy our books, buy our T-shirts’,” he smiles. “There is a lot of jealousy. But after the first one, my brother sat me down and said: ‘Look, when you have a hater, you know you’ve made it.’”
Just another occupational hazard on this unique and profitable career ladder.
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