Guz Khan interview: 'When I was growing up, either you made people laugh or you got beaten up'

Guz Khan is a hard man to ignore. His large beard and prayer beads, reflecting the seriousness of purpose of a practising Muslim, are offset by his lime-green trainers, black tracksuit with pink flashes and no less luminous personality.

Laughing loudly and grinning broadly throughout our time together, the 33-year-old comedian is on a roll. There’s a stand-up tour with American comic Mo Amer in the spring, a Four Weddings and a Funeral remake for streaming giant Hulu and a second series of his pin-sharp BBC Three comedy Man Like Mobeen.

Not that his head is being turned: Khan assiduously acknowledges and respects his origins. Born to Pakistani parents who arrived in the UK in the Seventies, he was raised by his mother in the working-class suburbs of Coventry, taught humanities in a struggling secondary and still lives in Coventry with his wife and three children.

Man Like Mobeen reflects a life familiar to Khan, set as it is in Small Heath, a district of Birmingham all too lazily associated in the press with drug dealing, violent crime and radicalisation. Khan wanted to depict the other side of his world without sugar-coating the reality: the criminality and the tight family dynamics, the doctors and teachers alongside the dossers and truants.

“It’s stuff I lived through,” he explains. “Stuff going on in the ’hood right now. You might want to turn over a new leaf but not have the opportunity to do so. The school I taught in was majority white working-class kids from generations of social housing, their old men constantly in and out of prison. It’s a predetermined path, so I wanted to look at that in Man Like Mobeen.”

While the first four-part series addressed racial profiling, arranged marriages and Right-wing extremism, the new run tackles youth violence and knife crime, never forgoing the comedy. The new series opens with a brilliantly funny sequence in which Mobeen is caught in the verbal crossfire between two Turkish barbers, flashing razors as they argue over who does the best skin fade. Mobeen himself is a reformed criminal who has found a new direction through family — he is looking after his teenage sister — and faith. It’s a situation Khan can relate to.

“I look back on some things with regret,” he admits. “There are things I did that I should have been pinched for, but others were a consequence of our environment, where the police were either heavy-handed or not there at all. I’ve been put on a car bonnet in a stop-and-search, and these experiences mould your perceptions. There was nothing for us to aspire to because no one around us had become anything more than a bus driver or takeaway owner. Unfortunately, when people fall off the radar, it does get lawless and people will provide for themselves in the way they know best.”

After initially finding its patriarchal aspects off-putting, Khan found a way out through Islam. “A lot of dudes I speak to, the doctrine aspect isn’t massive but politically it’s a voice for them. I gravitated towards Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, people following faith who were confident in themselves and found a voice through it. Their spiritual journeys were very influential.”


Just like his series, Khan can turn on a dime. He’s as comfortable joshing about Amir Khan (“it’s always good to watch someone who’s taken that many knockouts”) as he is addressing Tommy Robinson (“far more dangerous than the skinhead on the street because he’s well-funded and radicalising impressionable people”). Khan is often a target for abuse but remains undaunted. “We’ve got an important job in comedy,” he says. “It’s a re-education process, and a tool to bring people together.”

For stand-up, just as with sitcom, Khan’s past experiences have put him in good stead. “I love it when someone gets a bit rowdy at a show and you have 15 minutes to rip them. That’s the environment I grew up in: either you make people laugh or you get beaten up. School was another version of that. These comedy crowds, what have they got on class 10c?”

Khan made the leap from classroom to club after putting a few videos on Facebook in 2014. Skits where he mocked media misrepresentations of Birmingham as a no-go area for non-Muslims, or claimed that a reference to “Pachys” (as in pachyderms) in Jurassic World was racist, went viral. Khan gave up teaching a year later.

“It was a spur of the moment thing with reasoning behind it,” he says. “I never thought I could grow a career from it. School thought it would blow over and let me get on with it. Then I got offered a stand-up show, which went online… Every teacher at the school became a comedian for a term. I apologise to the kids who failed English because Mr Tucker was too busy dropping 15 minutes of material.”

He’s keenly aware of his position as a role model, not least for class 10c, whose progress he has followed with interest and delight. “This is all still so surreal. If their teacher, this geezer who chatted nonsense at them, can give something like this a go, there’s 10, 12 kids who have gone into media, acting, comedy… For them to give this a go is beautiful.”

Khan’s keen focus on his roots is one reason why a more mainstream channel has never appealed. “I don’t want to worry about writing jokes that Patricia in Kent will laugh about at 9pm on a Friday night on BBC One. I got away with the first series because people were prepared to leave it to see how it went. Now I’ve got this platform I want to represent my community on TV — the people it was about have liked it so far, which meant the world to me.”

Which isn’t to say that Khan’s comedy is exclusive: if Mobeen’s ethnicity, faith and upbringing aren’t exactly incidental, his concerns — financial, familial, social — are universal, and have clearly struck a chord, with a third series already sounding likely.

Indeed, the future looks bright, although Khan would never allow encounters with Hollywood stars to get in the way of a good gag. For Sky One’s dystopian street-racing series Curfew, for example, he was “stuck in a camper van with Billy Zane for four months, at night on a dual carriageway in Manchester. I’m not going to forget that.”

Mindy Kaling’s 12-part remake of Four Weddings and a Funeral, meanwhile, casts him as Basheer, the best friend of the lead. And if you can take the boy out of Coventry…

“Someone sent an email accidentally with all the cast’s names, addresses, national insurance numbers, all that. I clicked on it and my first reaction was, ‘F***, I should rob Hugh Grant’s house!’ If that’s still my first thought, I’m in the wrong place.”

The second series of Man Like Mobeen will be released as a boxset on BBC Three on Feb 7; Curfew begins on Sky One next month; Guz Khan’s live tour with Mo Amer is at Leicester Square Theatre, WC2 (, March 28-29