We’ve all been on the receiving end of social media pranks. It’s never a surprising antic either. You’re probably already known to have moved to Antarctica, been impregnated by a woman or excreted a hamster during a drunken night. In some ways, it’s opened up a world of possibility that reaches beyond human expectation.

But have you ever been purported as a Muslim-only cake shop? Comedian Bilal Zafar has. He’s been performing on the circuit for two years now, but his career only started to take off after he used the prank to form a stand-up routine during a controversial ‘boycott Muslim businesses’ trend on Twitter a few months ago.

Bilal Zafar. Photo by Rory Lewis.

Bilal’s brother, named in the comedian’s resulting stand-up routine as ‘Bloody Idiot’, satirised Bilal’s username ‘Zafarcakes’ by tagging the 23-year-old in a tweet that demanded for the boycott of his ‘cake shop in Bristol that refused to sell to non-Muslims’.

The comic nature of the tweet went unrecognised. Bilal received instantaneous abuse, which unsurprisingly intensified when the comedian decided to parody the events. He changed his profile picture to a ginger bread man, location to Bristol and biography to ‘halal’ as he gave deliberately misspelt updates on the number of ‘custemors’ he served that day.

“It was ridiculous,” says Bilal. “To be honest, I wanted to exploit the ignorance. My Twitter profile clearly had stand-up comedian on it and a picture of me, so I’m not sure how people came to the conclusion that my brother’s comment was serious.”

The comedian goaded abuse – and even death threats – from a number of far-right group members who had pledged allegiance to the UK Independence Party and the English Defence League, which even grabbed the attention of The Sun’s Katie Hopkins. Bilal explores the reactions in his comedy routine.

“Writing is probably the hardest part, for me anyway,” he admits. “I find it hard to pick up a topic and simply write about it, but I’m enjoying this because it’s reflecting the problems that are occurring in our society – particularly some of the stupidity within British culture sometimes, or people almost wanting to be offended by something without doing any research.”

Bilal is from East London, but found Manchester to have a more nurturing environment for comics. He travelled to London at the start of his stand-up career to discover tighter stage slots than in the North West. That, and the nights for newcomers were more organised. And it wasn’t long before he performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“It’s the biggest arts festival in the world, so I had to go,” said Bilal. “It was really good. I planned to have my first show there this year, but I think I got a bit ahead of myself. I’m quite new and it’s a very big deal to start your first solo show, so I’m going to wait for a bit.”

Perhaps the most engaging part of Bilal’s routines is that they are characterised by his deadpan, self-deprecating demeanour and gift for improvisation. The University of Bolton graduate reveals that he is greatly influenced by satirist Chris Morris.

“He is definitely a big influence of mine,” says Bilal. “He was into a bit of public outrage. I found his radio series Blue Jam really weird and dark sometimes, but it was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. It showed me that you can do so many things with comedy. He probably influenced me to do what I’ve done with the cakes.”

The comedian also admits a fondness for Adam Buxton, who formats aspects of his comedy in a similar way to Bilal’s cake shop masquerade.

In the past, the Pakistani-Brit had been reluctant to use race-related material, because it was an oversaturated theme used for easy laughs. He now values the importance of satirising the way people view race to break down social barriers.

Bilal wrote an article for The Independent entitled ‘Six things you shouldn’t say to someone fasting for Ramadan’. It was shared more than 60,000 times and prompted outrage once more, something that Bilal is becoming rapidly familiar with. “I received an email from a British expatriate after reading that article,” he said. “He told me to go back to the Middle East.

“It’s amazing how many people took the article seriously, but I’ve noticed that a lot of Muslim related articles get the same response. I’m working on another routine about it all.”

Bilal is scheduled for the Black Comedy Night at the Manchester Comedy Store in August. It’ll potentially be the largest capacity crowd he’s experienced in his career.

“You don’t have to be black to attend,” he said. “Weirdly, the Black Comedy Night in London is filled with Caucasian people, but in Manchester it’s the opposite. It should be a great night.”

When asked about future plans, Bilal says London is his next destination. “I want to get better and better, but I think I’ll go back to London at some point, mainly because I’m from there. I understand that a lot of people hate it, but I feel like that’s the next step in my career.

“I realised that if I wanted to take comedy seriously and progress quicker, I’d start stand-up in Manchester. And luckily I think that’s what’s happened.”

Bilal will be performing at the Black Comedy Night at Comedy Store on Monday 24 August. Tickets are available here.

Photo by Rory Lewis.
Background image: Get It While It’s Hot by Vincent James.

Samar Maguire