Joking Apart

10 July 2018 17:14
Tez Ilyas, alumnus, stand-up comedian © Steve Ullathorne
Tez Ilyas

For comedian Tez Ilyas, a muslim boy from Blackburn who had never been on a night out, let alone to a club, Freshers' week at Lancaster was a complete eye-opener. He loved it and quickly after made up his mind to become the best hip-hop dancer on campus.

Now an established stand-up, Tez laughs as he remembers the way that life exploded for him that first week, escorted by more savvy Furness student ‘minders’ to discos, bars and clubs and looking on at students being students – he was the only person who was not drinking alcohol. “It was mad and I really enjoyed it,” says Tez. “They were the best years of my life, coming from a quite insular Asian community, Lancaster really broadened my horizons.” 

He gained something of a local reputation as a dancer in his four years at Lancaster University, going clubbing 2-3 times a week, and also as a joker. One night he even managed to persuade a female admirer at The Carleton that he had been a backing dancer in Michael Jackson’s final tour - which would have made him about 40 years old, had it been true! It was also a way for him to fit in with his student peers - and to keep his weight down on a diet of curries and pizzas. 

Tez is completely honest in confessing that he did not set out to go to Lancaster University. Born in England, of Pakistani heritage, he wanted to go to medical school but did not get the A-level grades. But he is clear that his place through clearing to do Biochemistry at Lancaster was the best thing that could have happened to him. In fact he enjoyed it so much that he didn’t want to leave and stayed on another year to do a Masters' degree in Management. 

Lectures were never a big draw, and Tez admits he only went to about 15% of them and relied on the good friends he’d made to lend him notes. But he loved the lab practicals and the potential for having fun. However, he quickly realised that a life in science was not for him, but that he could make people laugh and he enjoyed the attention. Management studies came much more easily to him and aspects of marketing have proved invaluable to his career as a self-employed comedian. He also learned to express himself on paper and realised he loved writing. 

College life at Furness was a joy for Tez - with the added fun of discovering fellow students sharing the same names as racing star Eddie Jordan, cartoon character Charlie Brown, and musician Phil Collins. He instantly saw Furness’ social potential. He was one of the first of his cohort to join the JCR, and went on to become International Student Welfare officer and Male Education and Welfare Officer, which brought him friends, kept him in the loop of student goings on, and gave him an audience he was learning to enjoy entertaining. 

He also seized some of the job opportunities the university offered, including working for the alumni office on the fundraising call team, and working on summer camps with school kids who would not otherwise have considered university. He says: “That was really fun, and it gave me some great experience of how to talk to people.” 

When the time came to leave Lancaster, Tez took a graduate job, winning a sought-after place on the Civil Service Fast Stream, beginning in Croydon. However, he was not a born Home Office Civil Servant, as he freely admits, although he enjoyed placements in the Prince's Trust and the Olympics. Friends kept on telling him he was funny, so in 2010 he looked for a creative writing course and in doing so discovered stand-up. He was hooked. 

He began doing open mic nights and downmarket gigs and writing his own material, alongside his day job as a civil servant. As the stand-up rapidly took off, he soon found his dual lives had become incompatible and he opted to become a full-time comedian in 2016. 

Since starting he has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival numerous times, which he describes as being like a four week long Freshers' week. He’s had his own show on BBC Radio 4, and appeared on various TV panel shows, and recently starred in the hit BBC sitcom Man Like Mobeen. He has just toured his third solo show Teztify in which he ‘teztifies against all the assumptions the world has of him: openly Asian, a Northerner and a working-class man of faith.' 

Like his previous two shows - TEZ Talks and Made in Britain - Teztify opens up both Muslim and non-Muslim society to scrutiny, which he feels is particularly important given the prejudices on both sides since the Manchester arena attack in 2017. “It has become more difficult to be a Muslim in Western society over the last decade,” he says, “but perversely it’s easier to be a Muslim comedian, because people really want to hear our perspective." 

“It’s an easy way to humanise my community, because many people do not come across Muslims in their daily lives.” How else would the curious be able to hear about what it feels like to have to work during the Ramadan fast, or how a Muslim might view the concept of Father Christmas? 

Looking back at his Lancaster days, Tez says: “They made me the man I am today.” He always felt confident of practising his faith on campus, he made lasting friendships and developed a sufficiently strong sense of identity, that he can now make a living sending himself up in public. 

You can follow Tez Ilyas on Facebook, Twitter (@tezilyas), Instagram (@tezilyas), or on his website

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