British-Kurdish stand-up comedian and writer Kae Kurd has made a name for himself in the UK as the only professional Kurdish stand-up comedian.
He has worked on various UK programs such as Live at The Apollo (BBC 2), Mock the Week (BBC 2), Celebrity MasterChef (BBC 1), The Apprentice: You’re Fired (BBC 2), and Richard Osman’s House of Games. He is now working on Big Brother.
His debut stand-up special Kurd Your Enthusiasm received over 200,000 views on YouTube. In 2021, he embarked on his Spoken Kurd tour and, on November 3, he performed the UK tour Kurd Immunity for 2023, concluding at the London Eventim Apollo, where he entertained a fully booked stage with an audience of 3,000 people.
A British thing
“It’s mainly just a play on words – spoken word, spoken Kurd, herd immunity, Kurd immunity,” he told Kurdistan Chronicle, explaining the names of his tours. “It’s mostly a British thing, puns and rhyming words. It brings a little smile to people’s faces and it’s easier to name a tour like that before I’ve written a show,” he added.
Kae Kurd was born in Saqqez in Eastern Kurdistan (northwestern Iran) in 1990, after his parents left Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988, fleeing the genocidal Anfal Campaign against the Kurds. He came to the UK with his family six months after he was born.
As a young boy, Kae Kurd did not want to be a comedian but had a natural drawing to the stage. “When I was younger, I was always the child that was in school plays. I would always volunteer to do presentations in front of the school and talk at school assemblies. Even in Kurdish school I always wanted to be the person doing the presentations or being part of the choir. Looking back, I guess I always liked being in the limelight.”
Later, he started hosting live music and poetry nights. “Later, I did a few comedy gigs, and I liked the idea of doing comedy and the buzz that I got from it. I didn’t really take it seriously up until about 2014, when I thought about doing it as a career, and by 2019 it was my full-time job.”
His Kurdish parents at first did not like him becoming a comedian. “Of course, they wanted me to do a traditional job. It was out of love though. When you’re a parent you want the best for your child and the entertainment industry is incredibly competitive and hard to succeed in. They wanted something that was stable and respected; I can’t blame them.”
However, Kae Kurd said that, as with anything in life – though especially in the arts – “you have to believe in your ability and ambition. You have to be quite resilient in order to succeed.”
Today his parents are proud of him and his success. During his recent performance at Hammersmith Apollo, his mother came on stage in traditional Kurdish dress and hugged him.
“It was the first time my parents had come to watch me perform. It was at the Hammersmith Apollo, which is an incredibly historic venue. If you look at the list of people that have played that venue it’s usually people with a much larger profiles than mine, people that appear on TV regularly and household names.”
“I was incredibly privileged to be able to sell out the venue, and my parents coming was very overwhelming and emotional. They both told me they were proud of me. I think for them to see my name in lights at the front was a big moment. Seeing over 3,000 people there for me and the size of the venue, it really made them go, ‘Wow, all this is for our son’.”
Kae Kurd’s performances have attracted a mixed audience. “I probably have one of the most diverse crowds in comedy. It depends on the city I’m in. In some cities it’s mainly white British people, in others it’s a mix. In London, it’s white, black, South Asian, Kurdish, old, young, middle age. You get everything, and I’m quite proud of that.”
“Although my identity is central to who I am, my comedy and work transcends that. I think it’s important that you can be funny for as many people as possible. The funnier you are, the more people know who you are and by virtue of that, more people know who the Kurds are and what a Kurd is,” he added.
“I don’t cater to just one sort of audience, as that wouldn’t be smart. If you were a businessman selling a product, like say hamburgers, you wouldn’t just say ‘I’m just going to sell these to Kurds.’ You’d try to sell to as many people as possible. Same thing with art,” Kurd said.
In 2011, he tweeted that he aspired to perform live at the BBC stand-up comedy show, filmed at the Hammersmith Apollo Theatre in West London. Then, in 2019, he accomplished just that, and he is now regularly being broadcast on BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Comedy Central, and YouTube.
Moreover, he is involved in writing for TV shows. “I like doing that. I would love to get involved in more acting. I am growing my fan base and trying to do better tours, but I am mainly focusing on being a better writer and a better performer and seeing where the future takes me.”
“I’d love to be doing films, but I try to just enjoy the moment with everything I do. Putting pressure on yourself to keep doing stuff can stifle you, as you end up always thinking about what’s next and not how well you’re doing.”
Kae Kurd also thinks that the Kurds are a very funny people, but in general Kurdistan lacks a prevalent culture of stand-up comedy. “I don’t know if stand-up comedy in Kurdish will catch on because I think our culture is a bit different. In the UK we use humor in many different ways and contexts, so comedic actors are very popular – and for good reason,” he said.
However, he said that he would like to do a show in Kurdistan in the future. “Never say never. I think definitely at one point it could happen,” he concluded.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a seasoned reporter and analyst who specializes in Kurdish affairs, and holds a Master’s degree in Kurdish studies from Exeter University.