Mawaan Rizwan on early work, writing for Sex Education, and creating his own BBC sitcom

Mawaan Rizwan on early work, writing for Sex Education, and creating his own BBC sitcom

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Friday, 8th December 2023
Mawaan Rizwan in Juice (Credit: BBC/ Various Artists Limited/ Gary Moyes)

Before Mawaan Rizwan starred in Taskmaster, released several singles, fronted a documentary, wrote two episodes of Sex Education, and created and starred in his own BBC comedy Juice, he was just an ambitious 17-year-old uploading YouTube sketches with a camera borrowed from school. 

Rizwan seemed to jump on the YouTube wave as the tide was coming in, just as ‘YouTuber’ became a valid career path. The videos are up for anyone to see, on his channel, named MAWAAN. Many of them date back more than 10 years ago and hold enticing titles such as Human Burp-Box or Princess & the Piss. Anyone alive in 2013 will be glad to see Mawaan and his mother Shahnaz Rizwan’s rendition of the Harlem Shake is very much alive, kicking, and boasting nearly 100,000 views - offering a nostalgic view into decade old meme-culture. 

Having his roots in internet celebrity is something he has no shame in. When asked what he feels about being labelled as a ‘YouTuber’, amongst his various other achievements, Rizwan says: “I'm proud of being resourceful. The videos are still online, you can see how shoddy they were, you can see that it wasn't an overnight success. There's something really honest and raw about the YouTube videos, because they show the journey and the growth.”

Rizwan’s resourcefulness was shown in his use of those around him – he regularly cast his mother and brother in his sketches. He jokes that this was because he had “no choice, and they were the only free actors around”, but adds it was a good excuse for quality time - he was sometimes so busy they had to be in them to maintain their relationships. 

Shahnaz and Nabhaan Rizwan have had on screen careers completely independent from Mawaan since their YouTube days, with Nabhaan winning an RTS Breakthrough Award in 2019 for his role in Informer, and his mum starring in the popular Indian soap opera Ye Hai Mohabbatein.

Mawaan Rizwan as Jamma and Russell Tovey as Guy
(Credit: BBC/Various Artists Limited/Gary Moyes)

For Juice, he has continued to keep it in the family, casting Shanaz and Nabhaan as his on screen mother and brother. Rizwan leads the eccentric sitcom as Jamma, a young man stuck in a constant battle for attention – his mother Farida (Shahnaz) and brother Isaac (Nabhaan) naturally appeal as the focal point for family, friends, and even Jamma’s co-workers. Ironically, Jamma’s new older and more sensible boyfriend Guy (Russell Tovey, Him & Her), who tells Jamma he loves him and asks him to move in, is left feeling side-lined and reduced to tears on the shower floor.

It was Rizwan’s YouTube success that led to the first beginnings of a career in television, with the BBC “getting him in” to ask how to go viral.

“You can’t really make something go viral. But I remember thinking… ‘I can give you an answer, if you are going to give me a job!’”

He continues: “I could learn something from them, but they could learn something from me. The internet gave an equality to a lot of young people in terms of power and autonomy over their creative journeys.” 

At the same time as filming and editing YouTube videos, Rizwan was doing running work at Pinewood Studios, and had begun his career in stand-up comedy, something he has now been doing for over 12 years. YouTube had taught him how to “edit and build an audience,” but stand-up is the experience that he credits with “honing my craft and understanding my own comedy voice.” 

It's logical, then, that a stand-up show was formative in creating Juice. Before it grew into a six-part series on BBC Three, it began its life as a 2018 Edinburgh Fringe show. Unlike other Fringe-to-BBC classics, such as Fleabag, which started life as a one woman play, Juice stuck to Rizwan’s roots as a stand-up show, albeit his most theatrical at that time. “I was getting a bit bored of the man and a mic thing, so I wrote a show where I thought more about narrative… but I also wanted to put in certain surreal theatrical elements,” he explains. “There was music, there was dance - I just really had fun with it.”

Having been workshopped against a month full of critical Edinburgh audiences, these theatricals were carried over into the resulting series – in Juice, there is singing, dancing, surrealist moments, and even a Lollywood sequence. Not surprising, seeing as Rizwan views stand-up comedy as the “perfect litmus test for what’s actually funny, and what’s not.

“In the room writing alone, I could spend ages on a premise that's actually not that captivating. Stand-up is a really efficient way of knowing.” 

Rizwan began writing for CBeebies shows before working his way up to the heady heights of Sex Education. “Everyone has theories: ‘if you want to be an actor, don't be an extra’, ‘if you want to be a writer, don't write for kids’, and I disagree with it. I love writing for kids’ TV. It’s a good way to get your credits up.”

He says, “I knew sitting at home wasn't going to make me grow as an artist, but learning about different structures in different genres of TV would only help my greater knowledge of the industry.”

This work led to his writing two episodes of Sex Education, namely the one with the flying faeces (Series Three, Episode Five) and the scene with Otis and an Orange that gave Timothée Chalamet and the peach a run for their money (Series Two, Episode Two). 

“Laurie Nunn (the creator of Sex Education) taught me everything I know about narrative arcs, character arcs, ABC story strands. Being in the writers room was the perfect thing to be taken seriously as a writer… and also just to cut my teeth on somebody else’s baby.” Here Rizwan pauses for a moment and laughs, trying to explain away the visceral metaphor. “You know… when it’s not your baby, you aren’t as precious about it so you can learn and make mistakes.”

When filming his own baby, the Rizwan family “rocked up” to set on the first day and found their three trailers parked next to each other. “We all got really emotional, that this was even happening, but also because we’ve all worked really hard – on some level, we knew we’d earned this.”

Mawaan and Shahnaz Rizwan as Jamma and Farida 
(Credit: BBC/ Various Artists Limited)

He found the working dynamic had changed since the days of Harlem Shake. "When I used to make YouTube videos, I was a massive control freak, but since then we’ve all had careers in our own right […] They're very skilled performers, and I just needed to make sure I didn’t get in their way. That was a huge lesson for me, and for my ego as well.”

Going from sketches to a surrealist comedy show might not seem like that much of a jump, but there are moments of sincerity between Jamma and his mother, brother and father (Jeff Mirza, Polite Society). Rizwan remembers his mum’s acting “making me cry every take in episode five […] But she also “delivered lines only a gay icon could deliver… Like her.”

Juice, says Rizwan, “is really a culmination of so many dreams and jobs and side hustles.” “I wanted to be an actor, but I wanted to be an actor who understood story structure. And I didn't just want to be a writer, I wanted to be a writer who understood how actors would interpret that text. I also worked as a runner in postproduction.” 

This way, as Juice’s executive producer, he was able “to speak to every department with a level of understanding and articulation.”

When asked for advice for younger people looking for a way into the industry, or contemplating their own career path, Rizwan says: “It's okay to put imperfection out there. Because the way these things boomerang back in terms of feedback, in terms of work opportunities, they only come if you throw it out in the first place.”

Juice is available to watch on BBC iPlayer, with behind-the-scenes clips, original songs, and decade old sketches available to watch on his YouTube channel, MAWAAN. 

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Before Mawaan Rizwan starred in Taskmaster, released several singles, fronted a documentary, wrote two episodes of Sex Education, and created and starred in his own BBC comedy Juice, he was just an ambitious 17-year-old uploading YouTube sketches with a camera borrowed from school.