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‘On stage, I feel like we’re all in Year 11’: comedian Guz Khan on teaching and tough starts

When it comes to discussing his career, the comedian Guz Khan prefers not to take things too seriously. The fourth season of his hit Bafta-nominated, critically acclaimed BBC sitcom, Man Like Mobeen, aired earlier this year. He’s about to embark on another national standup tour. He’s landed multiple major Hollywood acting gigs. And yet, he’s reluctant to talk about it all with much sincerity. “It’s just,” Khan says, “I can never get it out of my head that there are more important things in life. Some standups get a bit annoyed when I say this, as if I’m belittling what we do. I’m not. But look at the state of the world, our communities… There’s so much that’s more urgent than… [he puts on a smooth public school voice, one of many impressions he’ll drop into over the next two hours] ‘Hey, so I’ve got this idea for a really well-constructed joke.’” He laughs. “It just seems so goddamn silly to me.”

It’s a Monday lunchtime in late November. Khan, 37, and I are sitting in an otherwise empty Kashmiri restaurant on the outskirts of Coventry. We met in the carpark to find the restaurant closed. No bother. Khan walked straight inside and warmly greeted staff with a flurry of banter, salaams and bearhugs. He’s a regular here – he grew up with the owners. Khan only started comedy in 2014; the team knew him pre-fame. He cherishes this familiarity; Khan’s rapid rise to success has, at times, felt disorientating.

“This is a poor, working-class city,” he says. “Where we grew up, people didn’t make it to do things they dreamed of. I still can’t shake the question: ‘Who the fuck am I?’ I’m not so special that a whole day of filming should be planned around some stupid character I’ve written.” He still can’t bring himself to attend industry parties. “I’ve been to maybe three,” he says. “The first time I went, it was just loads of people giving each other business cards saying, ‘Yes, I’ll get Janine to speak to Steven.’ Bro, I don’t have a Janine or a Steven! A couple of hours in, I realised it wasn’t me.”

He spoke to the comedian Romesh Ranganathan about this a few months ago. “We were saying, most days we both wake up and think someone is about to tell us to stop.” He drops into a pronounced British-Pakistani accent. “That’s finished, get out, no more jokes on television. Fuck off.”

Khan says he’d be OK with that. But he is being flippant, and we would all lose out. On screen and stage, he often uses humour to explore and expose important issues: racism, injustice, inequality. Take Man Like Mobeen, in which Khan plays a Birmingham-based former drug-dealer looking to escape his past while raising his younger sister. It’s funny, but also elegant and articulate in its social commentary – and he’s seen its impact. Not long after the first season dropped on BBC3, he was scrolling through his Instagram direct messages. “There was all the usual stuff in there,” he says, “people loving the show, others hating it, some calling me a fat paki bastard.” One message stood out. “This chunky white guy in his early 50s had written to say how the show had made him start to rethink his own beliefs.” They stayed in touch over the following weeks. “He told me about how in the delivery depot where he worked there was a brown bloke he’d barely spoken to before, but now they talked about the show together. And how, in fact, this Imran was a good guy.” Somewhere, Khan still has the photograph of the two men arm in arm that was sent to him.

“Moments like that are the only time I think, ‘Fuck, we did something,’” he says. “It’s how I now think about people calling me a terrorist bastard online. If they took 10 minutes to think about why heating their house is so expensive. Why milk and bread is unaffordable. Why their local services have been destroyed. They’d realise it’s not my brown arse’s fault; it’s the Tory government. It’s the system.” It’s this that drives some of his creative output. “But otherwise, bro, I’m just having fun with my mates. I’m not saving lives on the frontline. It’s not that deep.” Khan’s niece is in medical school. “She’s saving mother-fucking lives all the time. I tell jokes for cash; she’s the legend. Not that I tell her much, I don’t want her to get arrogant, so we all call her a pervert who got into it because she likes putting catheters in.”

Khan still lives in Coventry, a 20-minute drive away from where we’ve met. He grew up the same distance in the other direction. “Us lot lived in the Stoke area of Cov,” he says. “At the time it was majority white working class. The rest of the family lived in a place called Hillfields.” It’s only a short drive between the two suburbs. “But those five minutes made a massive difference. Hillfields was like 80% immigrant: South Asian, Caribbean, Irish. Turn one way out of my house and there’s a bakery selling bacon butties. The other way? Samosas, kebabs, patties. Fights in the street. People getting chucked out the top floor of their flats. Total chaos.”

Home was also a melting pot. “Mum’s two brothers both married white Irish women,” he continues. “There are still gaps in that story: how did these two Pakistani brothers, who came to the UK to study, go on holiday to Kilkenny and pull my two aunties?” Khan, therefore, was exposed to two different worlds. “It gave me a superpower: I could speak to anyone. All the gang in Hillfields had the perception that the people in my neck of the woods were racist and hated them. That was only partially true. And my neighbours thought Hillfields was a war zone.” Khan traversed both groups. “So when people ask how I can do standup and speak to people from anywhere, all I can reply is, ‘It’s just my life.’ Always has been.”

Before comedy, that skill was put to another use. “As we got older and we all started getting in a bit of trouble, I knew lads from both areas. If there was an issue I’d be called to pass messages on.” Soon, Khan was more than a go-between. “Counterfeit goods at first, selling knock-off flip phones, importing fake Nike trainers, aged 14. “After that, things got more serious.” He pauses, uncertain how much to share. Yes, there were scrapes with the police. “The money just got more haram, it gets like that quick.” He’s vague on purpose. “I’ll say this: I never felt comfortable with hard drugs, but it was in the chain of our economy. I didn’t push class As into peoples hands, but our bit of money went into that bit of money…”

I never said no to anything. That’s how it worked for me

There wasn’t much cash at home. Khan’s parents had immigrated to the UK from Pakistan: mum in the 70s, dad before. He was the youngest of their three kids. “Then dad died when I was three. And Pops was in trouble when he went: bad habits, money stuff. Mum was in a tricky spot, so I never wanted to take from her.” The dodgy dealing continued while Khan studied at Coventry university. Then, something shifted. “I wish it was a moral epiphany,” he says, “but it was far more selfish. Listen, I love to sleep. Like, I really love sleep. And in my early 20s, I got insomnia. I couldn’t sleep a wink, bro. It was fucking up my life.” After weeks of tossing and turning, desperate, he tried God. “I wasn’t interested in religion, I was spiritually dead. But I was going crazy.” He went to the university prayer room. “I’d forgotten how to do it all, but I tried it: ‘God, lemme sleep if you’re up there,’ yeah?”

He got talking to a fellow Muslim student; a friendship formed. “He became the most important person in my life. He didn’t treat me like a criminal piece of shit. He listened and shared.” Khan made the call: he wanted out. “So I chose a moment to stop. I took all the money I had and stashed it into an Umbro backpack and handed it to this friend. ‘Bro,’ I said, ‘Do what you need with it.’” How much are we talking, tens of thousands? “Yeah. And I was what, 21. It was a lot. But I wanted sleep and, subconsciously, I guess, a different life. After that, I went home, and thought, ‘Shit, has this guy just done me over? Finessed me?’ But I got into bed and, I shit you not, I slept. For the first time in I don’t know how long. That was it. Inshallah, I’ve slept every night since.”

Khan never asked what happened to the cash. “I assume it was spent building toilets, prayer spots and water wells in Somalia, where my mate is from. Bro, imagine if he just went and bought a BMW?”

After that, a life fell into place. He graduated, then found work teaching. He got together with his wife, Deano, now the mother of his four kids. “Home was great,” he reflects, “but professionally, I was miserable. The excitement was gone. My kids were growing up broke.” For a time, the family slept in the same room. “And I was a shit teacher. Had something else not come along, I might well have fucked up my life again and got back into it all.” Thankfully, Khan’s best mate, Haroon, had another idea: why didn’t Khan try comedy? “I’d always film funny videos of me for WhatsApp groups,” he says, “an extension of what I was doing in real life. Haroon said I needed to show people. Growing up where I did,” Khan explains, “if you wanted to be out and about without getting into trouble, either you’d fight to scare people off or you could entertain people like I did and be a funny little bastard.”

His first Facebook video was uploaded in 2014. Then things came together remarkably easily. That June, Khan made his standup debut at a Birmingham theatre. Soon he was doing solo shows. “When a slot on Live At the Apollo was offered,” he says, “I hadn’t done more than 15 or 20 gigs in total.” Even the commission for Man Like Mobeen felt strangely straightforward, barely a year after he’d started out. “I never said no to anything: gigs, panel shows, standup, acting. That’s how it worked for me.”

More recently, Khan has hit up Hollywood, too. He landed a role in Judd Apatow’s pandemic movie project The Bubble. (“Guz is a comedy tornado and great guy,” Apatow tells me, “every moment on set with him was a riot. He makes you want to dive in and see what’s possible.”) Khan had just finished shooting an episode of Guy Ritchie’s upcoming Netflix series, The Gentleman. Not every project has run so smoothly. He appeared in the first series of HBO pirate romcom hit Our Flag Means Death, and was the only member of the cast to be dropped for the second instalment. “I won’t get into why I think it was,” he says, “it’s not good to make accusations when you don’t have proof. But what I will say is that there were issues on that show. It didn’t vibe with me.”

Longer term, he has started to see a space for himself. “So many people from places like this have the skills I do,” Khan believes, “but never get a shot to make it because they don’t have an in. I need to facilitate getting that knowledge to other people.” He’d like to mentor fresh talent, executive produce. “But first, I’ve got to prove myself still. Man like Mobeen worked, but I need to put out my second album.” He’s working on it now. “It’ll be based on my life as a teacher – I’ve still not seen something authentic about how mad a place school is. After that, I want to help other people shine. Because do I love writing scripts or clever jokes? Not really. For sure I don’t love the industry.”

His tour material is still taking shape. “There’ll be tales from the C-O-V, political stuff, where I’m at in life.” Mostly, he’s looking forward to spending time with audiences again. “When I’m on stage, I feel me and everyone watching is in Year 11 and it’s lunchtime, and we’re having a laugh. That’s it for me. I’m about interacting with people; ripping each other, just like I’ve always done here, with my people.” Despite his success, day to day, life feels the same. That’s how Khan likes it. “Yeah, I’ve grown as a person, work is good. But I still knock about chatting with people. Cussing my mates. Ask anyone here, and they’ll say I’m the same fat prick I’ve always been. I think that means I’ve done something right.”

Guz Khan is touring the UK from January 2024. All dates and tickets available from guzkhanlive.co.uk