Susan Flockhart

THE first time Lubna Kerr did stand-up, she did it in secret. She had an audience, of course, but her friends and family had no idea that on that August evening in 2013, the 51-year-old was on-stage in a packed Edinburgh Fringe comedy venue.

“I had told nobody,” she recalls. “If I was going to die on-stage, I preferred to do it alone.”

In comedy parlance, “dying on-stage” means suffering the humiliation of watching your jokes land like lead balloons. Kerr got a laugh the minute she picked up the mic – though perhaps only because she'd managed to break the stand. Immediately afterwards, her mind went blank.

Kerr hadn't intended to be gigging that night. A pharmacist who'd recently branched into acting, she'd signed up for what she thought was a comedy-writing workshop, partly, she now thinks, as a distraction from grief after losing her mother. When it transpired she'd actually rocked up at a stand-up class and that a live performance was part of the deal, she'd almost chickened out.

But now there she was, staring at a wall of expectant faces and searching for her inner panic button. Then she remembered the workshop tutor's advice: “If you forget where you're going with your routine, say the first thing that comes into your head.”

So she faced the audience and said: “You do know I'm from Pakistan?” And everybody laughed.

“What's funny about that?” she wondered.

Now a seasoned stand-up comedian, Kerr thinks she's worked out why the audience's mood tangibly changed at that moment. Until then, they'd been furiously trying to decide “where the hell” this Scots-accented, Western-dressed, brown-skinned woman was from. Once given an answer, they could relax and start listening to what she had to say.

Kerr's new show, at next month's Glasgow International Comedy Festival, is titled Where Are You Really From?, and according to the event's blurb, the comedian is “confused about her identity”.

So has she worked out who she is yet, I ask, when we meet over coffee in an Edinburgh cafe. She's still confused, she says, but then again, she's not that keen to be pigeonholed – even by herself. “The only box I'll ever be in is when I'm six feet under,” she quips, slipping into comedy mode.

“I was born in Pakistan, raised in Glasgow, married a man from Lanarkshire. My children are half-Scottish, half-Pakistani. Two of them were born in Wales [where she studied for her PhD], one was born in Edinburgh [where the family then settled]. They support Pakistan in cricket, Wales or Scotland in rugby, depending on who's playing, and Scotland in football. I don't think we need to have one identity. We're all mixed.”

Yet the question – “where are you from" – is one she's been asked all her life. Kerr's family moved from Pakistan to Govan in 1965, when her chemist father took up a Strathclyde University lecturing post. “We then moved to Pollokshields at a time when very few people with brown skin lived there. So if people asked, 'Where are you from', they wanted to know what your heritage was.”

In the west of Scotland, of course, there was often something else going on. “I'd say, I'm Muslim and they'd say – yeah, but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? Later as a Strathclyde University pharmacy student, people would ask what school you went to and I thought they were genuinely interested, but often they wanted to know what side of the [religious] divide you were from. In Edinburgh, when people ask what school you attended, they want to know if you were state or privately educated.”

The show's title was inspired by an encounter at an Edinburgh party. “I was speaking to a white, middle-class man, who asked where I was from. 'Edinburgh,' I replied. 'No, where are you really from?' he asked. I thought – OK, he means the colour of my skin, so I said, 'I'm from Pakistan.'

“'But where are you really, really from?' he asked.

“I was lost for words. Does this guy think I'm an alien, a zombie …? Then he said: 'You're from the west, aren't you?'

“'No, Pakistan's in the east,' I replied. 'You're from the west,' he insisted. 'West of Bathgate. You're from Glasgow!'

“That's when I realised it was worse to be a Weegie – worse than an alien, a zombie or of Pakistani origin.”

Kerr says all this with a chuckle in her voice but although she believes the “where are you from” question is often driven by harmless curiosity about our fellow human beings, in today's febrile, pre-Brexit, alt-right-influenced climate, there's increasingly likely to be a “sinister undertone”. Too many people have “lost the filter” that stops them making bigoted statements – and as a result, already marginalised communities feel even more isolated.

Fed up with the cliched image of Pakistani Muslim Scottish women as “downtrodden housewives who are not allowed to have opinions or go out to work”, Kerr opens her act by coming on-stage looking like an approximation of “what Boris Johnson would have described as a letterbox”. Clad in a headscarf and long black cloak, she addresses the audience in a pronounced Pakistani accent. “I play on the stereotypes, making the audience laugh at what they think Asian women are like. And then I become myself.”

“Herself” has a gentle Glaswegian lilt and is a bit of a hoot – which should come as no surprise. “Asian women are really funny,” she says, “but nobody sees that, and they don't get the opportunity to have a laugh.” In fact, she says Asian people hardly ever go to comedy shows – mainly because they know they won't see themselves, or their humour, reflected on-stage.

That's about to change, however. When Kerr dubbed herself “the Asian Ellen DeGeneris” during last year's Edinburgh Fringe, her show attracted Asian audiences for the first time ever – simply because of the A-word in the title. And she hopes many more will come along to next month's Women Of Colour Comedy Collective. Hosted by Kerr, the all-women event will provide good, clean jokes, afternoon tea and an environment in which Asian women “can feel comfortable and don't have to wear their hijab”.

Alongside her burgeoning comedy career, Kerr is increasingly in demand as an actor, whose credits include the Still Game stage show, the feature film Moon Dogs and BBC1's Scot Squad.

Most recently, she played receptionist Angela Thomas in BBC2's Two Doors Down. “Don't make coffee at that point or you'll miss it,” she laughs but if Angela's appearance was brief, it was game-changing because it offered the chance to play a character who wasn't specifically “Asian”.

“It's really important to portray people of colour not playing people of colour parts,” argues Kerr. “I don't want to play Mrs Singh, or a shopkeeper. I want to play a role that anyone else in my age group would go for.”

“In the creative world, it's often said that people of colour want to see stories that are about them,” she adds, referring to the debate about “colour-blind” casting in Mary Queen of Scots. “Not necessarily. I don't want to go and see stories about terrorists or forced marriage. Growing up, when I went to the theatre I just wanted to see somebody like me onstage – somebody of my colour, not my story, so I would have a role model.”

Although increasingly focused on performing, Kerr still practises pharmacy part-time and she also runs Transitions In Life, a social enterprise which advises organisations on creating healthy workplaces and helps individuals to make important personal and career changes.

As someone who's moving from “a very traditional profession where income is guaranteed to the creative industry where it's not”, she knows it can be scary, but she also believes many people reach an age when they've had enough of doing what their parents, husbands, children and friends want, and are ready to start pleasing themselves.

As a child, Kerr wasn't given the opportunity to exercise her natural wit and although it it saddens her to recall the way her creative ideas were quashed by one particular white, male primary school teacher, she doesn't regret having come late to the entertainment business.

“I probably would have struggled if I'd done creative things at an earlier age,” says the 56-year-old. “Acting and comedy are full of rejection and as a young person you'd feel – am I not beautiful enough, am I too ugly, too fat, am I not funny?

“As an older person I'm comfortable in my own skin and I'm not out to please anybody. I'm out to please myself. And if people don't like me that's fine.

“Because,” she adds, laughing heartily, “I don't like everybody else.”

Where Are You Really From is at the Yesbar, Glasgow on Friday, March 29. On Saturday, March 16, Lubna Kerr hosts the Women Of Colour Comedy Collective at the Glasgow Women's Library at 1.30pm; that same evening, she's onstage with Funny Lassies at the Griffin. All these events are part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival

Where Are You Really From also shows at the Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh on March 2. For more information about Lubna Kerr's gigs around the country visit


Favourite film:

It has to be "White Christmas" because I love the music, the acting and am on old romantic.

Favourite music:

Gabrielle's song, Dreams. I love the philosophy of it.

Last book read:

Julia Quinn, How To Marry A Marquis: a comedy romantic novel.

Career high:

Being in the stage version of Still Game at the Hydro in 2014 when I played Mina. 21 shows to 12,000 people a go: it was amazing.

Best trait:

Being inquisitive. And perseverance.

Worst trait:

Being nosy … and spelling.

Best piece of advice ever given:

What's for you won't go by you. It's the thought that counts.

Ideal dinner guests:

Plato, Einstein, Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him), and Queen Victoria. But I wouldn't say no to David Walliams.