Tez Ilyas’ TEZ Talks will make you think – and laugh
Stand-up comedy can be a powerful platform for making people think, and at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, many topical comedians are tackling the omnipresent issue of Islamophobia. But only one act, a relative newcomer, is making that theme an immersive experience for the audience.
TEZ Talks is the debut Edinburgh show by British Muslim Tez Ilyas. As the title suggests, it resembles TED Talks, the popular conference lecture series. The nature of this lecture, however, turns out to be an Islamophobe’s worst nightmare.
“What I do is endow my audience as potential converts to Islam,” the comic explains, a few hours before his show. “I recap with them the fact that they’ve just been on this year-long Conversion to Islam course and before they can graduate, take the pledge and actually convert, there’s this one final bonus module. It’s a talk on integration, so they can properly integrate into British society.”
Ilyas’s bold show openly tackles one of the regular tactics used by anti-Islam groups: wild accusations that Muslims are surreptitiously taking over the West. TEZ Talks takes us into a mythical world where that might indeed be happening – and everything is fine. The likeable comic defuses numerous misconceptions about Islam via his Tez Commandments: 10 Useful Tips for Muslims Living in the West.
One seemingly inflammatory Tez Commandment is “Do Jihad”, but Ilyas then explains that to him, jihad means to strive and struggle, not ignite a holy war.
It’s one of many enlightening moments – and rather than alienate or intimidate its predominantly white audience, TEZ Talks actually seems to bring everyone closer together. It’s a fascinating social experiment.
“There were some things I really wanted to say,” says Ilyas, admitting that traditional stand-up comedy was not a suitable medium.
“I’ve seen a few ethnic comics do this,” says Ilyas, “where they slightly alienate the audience”.
Putting people in Ilyas’s shoes proves much more effective, although he admits that getting the show to this stage has been a challenge. While workshopping it before the festival, audiences were not always accepting of his approach.
“Originally, I wanted to do a really dark show but I realised, ‘people won’t laugh’ – and I can’t do 25 nights where people are uncomfortable,” says the comic, who tested an early version at a festival in Brighton. “I did three nights. The first two, I really struggled. I was almost ready to give up on the concept. I thought: ‘People just aren’t buying it.’ They were getting really uncomfortable with it.”
So he completely rewrote the script and made it funnier. The reboot is actually “quite silly” – until the final 10 minutes, when the tone unexpectedly shifts, and Ilyas gives a heartfelt speech about the real difficulties of life as a Muslim in the West.
“It’s a monologue, where we bring the lights down slightly as well, and say: ‘This is how I feel.’”
And it seems those sombre final minutes have been resonating with audience members, who seem able to shift their moods along with Ilyas.
“Yeah, I have had that,” he says. “People in tears.”
Responses and reviews have been very positive so far and Ilyas is considering developing the idea beyond the stage, which is a significant step for a debut.
“Honestly, I just wanted to write a really funny show that was satirical and that I was proud of,” he says. “But I’ve always wanted my comedy to have a point.”
• TEZ Talks continues at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until Sunday