Meet Ashley Blaker and Imran Yusuf, one an Orthodox Jew, one an Unorthodox Muslim. Together they are Prophet Sharing and they’re currently taking their show around the UK so we spoke to them to find out more.
1. Thanks for your time. How did you guys meet and what were your first impressions of each other ?
Imran – “I think the first time we met was on a TV show which never got broadcast for the BBC. I can’t remember the exact time we met but I remember Ashley was a comedy producer and he was clearly orthodox Jew. We bumped into each other on different projects after that and then last year, in Edinburgh, I was up at the Festival performing my show and he was performing his show Observant Jew so I went to watch it and learnt a lot about him through is show and afterwards we caught up, had a chat about working together and doing a show where we share a bill where he does a set then we have a break and I do a set then we both come back on and do a Q&A with the audience. It all came out of that really.”
Ashley – “I’ve always been a fan of Imran and I looked at getting him a commission for BBC One pilot which didn’t get booked, I’ve booked him on Radio Four pilot which didn’t get booked so he’s obviously the kiss of death. [laughs] They weren’t his fault, I’ve always been impressed by him but he hasn’t brought much luck for me in getting show commissioned.”
2. What made you decide it would work for you as a double-act ?
Imran – “We’re not really a double-act in the sense that we don’t actually perform together although at the end we share the stage and chat with the audience together. I think Ashley puts it quite beautifully that it’s two different religions but one faith. He didn’t grow up as an Orthodox Jew, he chose to become an Orthodox Jew. He has put a lot of effort into learning about his religion and reading his books. With myself, I grew up in a fairly conservative Muslim household although we were also fairly liberal and had experiences and friends outside our own community. Even though Ashley is the Orthodox Jew, I dub myself as the Unorthodox Muslim in that, despite what that might infer, I have read the Quran in English at least a couple times in a language that I understand so I am quite learned and a student of my faith and my book. What’s quite interesting about that is you have somebody that dot’s all the I’s and crosses all the T’s and dresses the dress and walks the walk then you have someone like me who may not appear to be as observant as Ashley is but I still do know what I’m talking about and I can talk about it with great authenticity and that’s what comes across in this show.”
Ashley – “As the show is evolving I think it is becoming more of a double-act. Actually, I liked the idea of doing something with him. I didn’t want to do something on my own. I thought it would be a fun idea to a Jewish/Muslim show and when I spoke to him about it I said I’d do an hour or whatever then you do your section then we come out together and do a Q&A together. We’ve only done two shows so far and I can see it evolving to the point where we don’t do any stand-up together, we just come out and sit on stools and just chat like a Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned way. I’m like a Jewish David Baddiel [laughs]. I think it’s great fun, we’ve got a really great connection, he’s a funny guy and, so far, I would say that’s what the audience want. They don’t want to see me then him, they want to see us together interacting.”
3. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, what can they expect from it ?
Imran – “You can learn about an Orthodox Jew and an Unorthodox Muslim as opposed to watching the news and hearing and watching about the horror stories of the more extreme factions of people in our communities. You can learn the personal journeys of Ashley Blaker and Imran Yusuf and get to see a Muslim and a Jew in the kind of light that you may not get to see anywhere else.”
Ashley – “We’re both talking about the odd spiritual journeys we’ve been on to become the people we are now. I would describe myself as a very unorthodox Orthodox Jew and we both tell our stories then come together. The audience is given a questionnaire at the start and they ask us questions and we’ve asked them their opinions on subjects like bringing peace to the Middle East, what commandments they want added to the bible. I’ve asked Imran about his mosque and I’ve told him about my synagogue and the characters there and all of that is great fun. The audience loved it. It’s a very different style of comedy to stand-up which is very lonely. When you’re there together though, it’s almost like you’re entertaining each other rather than the audience. I enjoy hearing his stories he enjoys hearing mine and the audience enjoy it as well and go along with it all.”
4. Looking at the humour of your individual religions, how does the show go down? Do certain routines work better depending on your faith ?
Imran – “Well, we’ve done two shows so far and a number of the older Jewish community have turned up to see it and it’s been received really well. They like the fact that we’re talking about our journeys and faith and also the stories that characterise our religions. We don’t do it disrespectfully either. We do it in the way we have interpreted it and how we find it maybe a fit funny. Now, that’s funny maybe not in the sense that we’re laughing at it that it is ridiculous but funny as in, it can be a really challenge to get your head around some of these concepts because there is the literal way of looking at it or you could like at it as a metaphor instead.”
Ashley – “In my part of the show I talk about some of the issues that Jews and Muslims share, the abuse, the wierd attitudes to women in our community or problems with people getting offended if you won’t shake their hand. All kinds of things that we share and, then, when we’ve discussed them afterwards it’s really funny. For example, and I had never heard this before, I always thought that when I perform to super Orthodox crowds where the men are in black hats and they don’t want to laugh and Imran was talking about how all the guys in his Mosque, the super strict guys, don’t want to laugh. It was really very funny to hear how we had this similar experience and be able to draw those and other similar experiences out of each other.”
5. As you got to know each other how did your opinions of each others beliefs change and are there still moments where you learn things about each other that surprise you ?
Imran – “I think it’s been a great opportunity for us to learn about each other close up as well like this is how you life and this is what you do and what you abide be and things you are not so keen on. Through that it has given us a great opportunity to learn more. As part of my journey I’ve gone to visit the Jewish museum, I’d been out to the Holy Land a couple of times previously and it’s not only a great opportunity for us but also to show people who don’t have Muslim or Jewish friends that they can befriend someone from another faith and learn about them and why they love their religion and community because, really, the way someone loves their community and their religion is the same way as the way you love your community and your religion. When you feel that commonality, you end up having that greater respect for each other and that is road towards building that bridge that we so desperately need in the modern world.”
Ashley – “I think it’s opened my eyes and it’s opened our audiences eyes as well. We’ve got two sold-out shows coming up and I think those will be 95% Jewish and I’m looking forward to them. I’ve discovered a lot like how similar we are, it’s really funny. I’ve definitely learned a lot.”
6. You’ve both toured as solo artists. How different is it now to tour together ?
Imran – “It’s not that different really. I’ve toured the circuit and played on bills with other people but it’s nice now to turn up to play for people who have just come to see you as opposed to a comedy club where it could have been anybody on the bill. We’re enjoying it so far and the shows have gone better than we anticipated them to. This is the first time we’ve done something like this.”
Ashley – “What I’m enjoying is being on stage together because is a very lonely experience up there on your own especially if it doesn’t go well. It’s great when you’re with someone else and carrying the load between you. We almost stop performing for the audience and perform for each other and it’s fun.”
7. Have there been any interesting reactions from the audiences at those first couple of shows ?
Imran – “Not really, I think people have enjoyed it and I think that is because there are people in the audience who are seeing something they haven’t seen before and, from my personal experience of this so far, I think the older Jewish community probably haven’t seen a Muslim person be able to talk about Abraham and Moses and about the relationship between Muslims and Jews up close, they may not have seen that up close before and I’d like to think that maybe I’m the first and I’ve done a good job because we’ve got rounds of applause and lots of laughter and have wanted to shake our hands afterwards. After the last show we have been invited to perform at a reformed synagogue which is going to be quite comical because Ashley is an Orthodox Jew and I’m Muslim so we’re both in alien territory.”
8. What about the Muslim/Jewish comedy scenes, are there any upcoming Muslim / Jewish comedians we should be looking about for ?
Imran – “I’m sure you’ve already heard about them but Tez Ilyas, Guz Khan and Bilal Zafar from the Muslim side. I think it’s very clear at the moment that there is an Islamic/Muslim renaissance happening in society not just comedy but intellectually as well. When I started out in comedy the only comedians we had were Jeff Mirza and Shazia Mirza who was the first Muslim comedian to get critical response then shortly after here there was me and now there it Tez, Guz and Bilal who are Pakistani whil Nabil Rashid is Nigerian and these guys are all definitely worth watching out for.”
9. We’ve noticed you’ve been mentioned in the same breath as Kermit and Miss Piggy. Is there any other comedy duo you’d like to be mentioned in the same breath as rather than those two ?
Imran – “[laughs] That was Ashley’s idea! [laughs]. I think the double-act is almost extinct now in terms of the stand-up scene I would say. I know. Russ Abbott and Les Dennis. They did the Russ Abbott show together. ”
Ashley – “Yes, that was my line. I was thinking of unusual double-acts so if you’re looking for similarities then I’d say that Baddiel & Skinner is probably the closest. We’re not like the standard double-act like say Cannon & Ball where one is the serious guy and one is the funny guy.”
10.After the tour has finished what are your plans for the rest of the year ?
Imran – “We’ve got a few film projects that I’m involved in. I’m receiving a number of castings for a few projects. Then I’ve got my own personal tour by myself at the end of the year and I’m working on a couple of sitcoms that I’m trying to get made and I’ve got a radio project that I’ve submitted so if that receives a commission great, if not, I’ll create a podcast out of it. Always a blessing to be busy.”
Ashley – “Half of the year I live in America, I’ve been there for seven months and I’ve only just got back. I live in New York for half of the year. I’ve already performed on five continents and I’m hoping to get to South America and the Antarctica to say I’ve completed the lot! I perform a lot for Jews in the US and I’ve performed a lot in New York. It’s like compartmentalising things and that is the thing we do together and, like I said earlier, I can see us doing more of that because that’s what we enjoy and that’s what the audience want to see I think!”
Prophet Sharing perform in Leeds, Bradford and Salford next week and you can get the full list of dates here.