Si Hawkins Circuit Training

Circuit Training 138: The Isolation Conversations - Bilal Zafar

Bilal Zafar

The comedy business is built on happy accidents. Jokes that should be massive do nothing, while throwaway tweets make people famous; absolute chaos. Take the career of Bilal Zafar, who won an Edinburgh Best Newcomer nomination for his 2016 show, Cakes, but - as he recalls below - the momentum stalled, and bleakness reigned as lockdown began.

So he started playing the old video game Pro Evolution Soccer 2005, live on camera. That may sound like a cry for help, à la Alan Partridge and the Toblerones, but Zafar has found a whole new creative mojo - and audience, via the streaming site Twitch. He dons a suit, gets in front of a greenscreen and takes his burgeoning audience into the parallel dimension of PES United.

It's quite a universe: exotically-voiced players, a Bonjela-addicted manager, guest stars like Josie Long (club owner), Nick Helm (angry fan), and their increasingly ubiquitous catchphrases. It's been such a hit, he's even selling PES United merch.

Zafar has another notable new project too - the splendidly smug Acting School Of Excellence - which was criminally ignored before enjoying a PES-propelled boost. It's an unlikely path to success that's hopefully changing his media profile generally, which seemed oddly heavy, previously.

We Zoomed a few hours after he'd gotten a piece published in The Guardian, about his retro-gaming rebirth. It's all happening.

Bilal Zafar

This must be a decent morning - lots of nice Twitter responses to your Guardian piece.

Yeah, things have been quite nice for well over a month now. It's been weird how this keeps on growing.

I read in that piece how you chiefly chose that game because it works better on your old PC?

Partly yeah, I thought I'd pick a retro game. Pro Evo Five, it's the first one I ever got into when I was about 12 or 13. And then I had the idea, 'well, I've got a greenscreen, I'll just be the manager.' But I honestly thought this had been done already.

It's definitely unique. There's one bit where you're in a golf cart on a freeway - what happened there?

The golf cart thing was improvised - it actually started with Bonjela. I had a mouth ulcer, used it on the stream and it looked like I was addicted to it. Early on I'd said I put codeine in my Pepsi, but I had about 10 viewers then, now I've got like, 1000, and I couldn't really be addicted to a real drug. So, Bonjela.

Then I went on a rant, it was me having kind of a breakdown. I was going more and more nuts, changed the whole formation, I played our goalkeeper up front because I thought he disrespected me. I said ''I'm getting out of here, I'm going to play golf." Then I got on the motorway and sang all of Ray of Light by Madonna.

That many viewers is pretty amazing. Presumably none of this would have happened without lockdown?

No chance. I was going to do the Edinburgh Fringe. I was in all sorts of meetings, I had a couple of taster tapes on the go, pitching stuff to Radio 4. I've been in the cycle, basically, and it's been disappointing.

This is something that I don't talk about much, but I don't mind now because things are going a lot better. So in 2016 I got nominated for [Best] Newcomer, I was very new at the time. I'd only been a stand-up three years; everyone else was, like, a proper professional. Michelle Wolf was one of the nominees.


Yeah, it's when Scott Gibson won it.

So suddenly everyone was talking about me. I started writing up some TV ideas that went nowhere, started having meetings. People only wanted me to be in stuff if it was about being Muslim or being Asian.

Image shows from L to R: Bilal Zafar, Si Hawkins

I saw you tweet about that recently...

I was a bit wound up to be honest, as Black Lives Matter has been going on. A lot of posh white comedians have tweeted stuff like 'Channel 4 and BBC should do a thing where it's only BAME comedians doing what they want to do.' And it is a nice idea, [but] that doesn't happen ever, at all.

Like, for example, I'm Muslim, but you look at the sitcoms about Muslims on TV. I'm not slagging them off, they're fine - but the Guz Khan one [Man Like Mobeen] and Citizen Khan, two Asian men with big beards that are very loud; essentially, cartoon characters. I don't fit that at all, and that's how it's felt for the last four years.

Do you reckon comedy producers thought you might be a bit serious, because you'd done that stuff before?

I get it to an extent and I'm not saying that I'll never do that sort of work. It's just that I'm only allowed to ever be that. I've been offered reality TV shows about being Muslim, I get asked to go on BBC One and debate some racists or something. Which again, I have no interest in.

Bilal Zafar

Whereas PES United seems the absolute opposite.

I'm trying to get my best friends into Twitch, all the comedians I love, because on a personal level I have not been this consistently happy until the last two months. It's a weird feeling.

I'm used to being very anxious. very worried, feeling quite bad about stuff. I thought for a long time that I've got some sort of chemical imbalance. But I think actually, I've just been really unhappy because creatively, it's just been miserable. Like, I was told by a producer, an Asian producer, to get on TV I'd have to 'trojan horse' my way in. Which means: pretend the show is about being Muslim, then actually I can be like Armando Iannucci or whoever.

And that was what I was doing, trying to write that stuff.

Do you reckon the lack of control was an issue? TV, radio, even most gigs, it's all someone else's thing, isn't it?

2016, it was the most ridiculous year for me. I was still very new to comedy. I won the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year. Then Avalon signed me. Massive. And then I got the Newcomer nomination that August. And then nothing, basically.

I've had some things I've been proud of. I think I'm a decent stand-up. But you know, it's hard when you see other work that other people are getting, lots of TV stuff. And you're nowhere near. I was just feeling very jealous about everyone. And now I don't feel like that, I'm a lot more positive and can appreciate other people's work more, and not feel like 'how did you get that?'

I imagine PES United has been a nice community for other people too, joining in on the Twitch chatrooms, three time a week.

I've received, honestly, a lot of messages from people saying their mental health has been very bad during lockdown, and my thing has helped them. It sounds ridiculous to even say it, but I guess I understand that. It's live and improvised, the viewers are my assistant managers, and a lot of ideas come from them.

Bilal Zafar

Did you think 'okay, people will watch this until the actual football comes back'...?

When I first started, I got very worried it would just be loads of football lads watching. And so every time I tweeted I said in brackets, 'this is not for sport fans.' And it's not.

There's an episode where I took the team out to a comedy club, and they all did a set. It was an hour-long gig, I was emceeing, picking on people from the chat like a bad stand-up. I was exhausted at the end, because I'd been compering and being all the acts.

There was another episode where we won the cup, then celebrated it. We did karaoke, and the chat started requesting songs. I'd go on YouTube, find the karaoke version, then sing it in the player's voice. Some of it does take a bit of work.

It's quite a surreal world you've concocted.

A lot of people have compared it to Tim Heidecker's stuff. And I can see what they mean, that kind of weird, sometimes subtle, but sometimes mental comedy.

Bilal Zafar

How much of the football manager persona is you?

I'd say it's mostly the character. He's a little bit right wing, hates Europe, hates playing in Europe...

It's interesting how much love there is for PES United on Twitter.

It's never been this good for me, in terms of engagement. It feels like when I got the interest before, that was all artificial. All of these people talking about how good I was. It was all people that aren't like me; basically posh people. Whereas the people that like me now are like me. It's like I hadn't found my audience at all before.

What I think is happening with Twitch, it's because it's free, that's why it's a much better place to find an audience. The world I was in, from a council estate, and now I'm in the arts suddenly; I'm doing shows and it's like 15, 20 quid a ticket sometimes. I couldn't afford that when I was younger. And now I'm expected to be that guy.

Now I feel with Twitch, this is something I would watch when I was a teenager.

You started a whole other project recently too.

The Acting School Of Excellence. I guess the best way to describe it is Between Two Ferns meets Inside the Actor's Studio. But in Between Two Ferns you have Zach Galifianakis being weird, the guests being awkward; on mine the guest is also performing. I had Richard Herring on last time. I was very nervous as I'd only met him once, but he really nailed it.

Bilal Zafar's Acting School Of Excellence. Bilal (Bilal Zafar)

That series had a slow start though?

My plan for this year was to make that web series, that was meant to go viral, or at least get a bit of buzz within the comedy industry, and then I was hoping to sell out my Edinburgh show; at the Underbelly, first time I was doing a proper paid venue.

But the Acting School series got hardly any views at the start. I don't know why. We started releasing them at the start of lockdown, and maybe there was too much content out there. But now due to PES people are going back and watching them. And the thing is, with it being lockdown, I can keep getting quite exciting guests.

It can be tricky after a Newcomer nomination, when the buzz has worn off.

It happened to me the Edinburgh after, in 2017. I went back up the next year hoping to have a similar impact. I got two reviews all month, which was crushing. It felt like I wasn't even given a chance. I was nominated for Chortle Best Newcomer, and they didn't review me. And I was like, 'am I not important to you, I thought I was kind of in your gang now?'

What was your second show about?

The first one was about the cake shop, the second one was about dating: at the time I thought the show was awful, because no press came. Looking back it's actually a very good second show. I don't know what happened. It could have been my publicist not doing a great job. But I don't really care now. I don't know if I'm going to go back to Edinburgh.

But you had a show lined up for this year?

It was going to be a straight, storytelling stand-up show, about when I worked in a care home for a year, which I was very excited about.

I still want to do stand-up forever, by the way. It's my favourite thing. I absolutely love it. But it's just the Edinburgh thing now of getting ripped off, taking a risk. It's just such a lottery. You could get nominated for the main awards, you could end up on some panel show thing. Or you get two or three reviews, just feeling miserable.

You probably wouldn't be selling merchandise now, if you were just doing stand-up.

No, never. I mean, I always liked the idea of merch. Luckily, a guy that watches the stream makes merch and he's amazing. So we've got the actual football shirts of PES United, that I've designed. And we've sold quite a lot already. I can't believe it. I've never had something like it. I'm used to being in a position where I'm scared about money.

Like right now, a few months ago I would've booked my Edinburgh accommodation. And I'd have no money. And I'd be doing gigs I don't want to do, for 50 quid in a horrible pub. I did one before lockdown in some pub where the heating was broken, I was shivering backstage, with my coat on, for £50. Then the promoter gave me feedback after.

That's always fun...

Basically he was telling me I need to have more confidence in myself. And the thing is, I do have confidence. It was just five people in a freezing cold pub.

Image shows from L to R: Nick Helm, Bilal Zafar

You've had some great guests on PES United - who did they all play?

Josie Long was the owner of the club. Danny Wallace was the operations director - we still don't really know what that is. He was amazing. Ken Cheng was the lawyer. Nic Sampson, from New Zealand, he was the accountant. Nick Helm was Pez Fan TV. And Joey Page was a football super-agent. That was incredible.

Those are not acts you'd necessarily think of as football people.

You know, I think none of them are. None of them know anything about football. Loads and loads of people have tweeted and said 'I know nothing about football, but I watch this' - it's really nice. That means a lot, you know.

How much do you plan it with those acts beforehand?

It's all improvised. Every person who's done it, they've really committed to it and dressed up. Danny Wallace wore a suit. Josie Long was just in bed, which works perfectly because she's the billionaire owner. It's like 10, 15 minutes of just improvised stupidness.

It seems like a really positive thing. It's giving people some structure to their week, and doing you good too?

I mean, I'm earning some money off it, and it's growing. The levels of money you can make on Twitch are insane. I'm not rich by the way, it's just that I'm surprised by what I made in a month.

You've done loads of episodes already - will newcomers to the livestream understand what's going on?

Yeah - technically there will be storylines running throughout, but it's not like Breaking Bad. Not yet anyway.

You've had your addiction storyline already.

That's true.

Bilal is on Twitch at You can catch up on PES United's highlights on his YouTube channel

Published: Monday 13th July 2020

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