I start with an admission. I have no idea how comedy and humour work. Sure, there are rules to writing comedy that one can follow – clash of context, tension and release, the ridiculously inappropriate response, and such like. But they don’t really explain the magic of comedy. I am with Shazia Mirza, who declares, ‘laughter is a beautiful thing. So, why ruin it by talking about it?’
I can tell you very little about the mechanics of making people laugh, despite having acted in theatre comedies, and having toured a few cabaret shows in the working men’s clubs of the north of England, packed with hard-drinking rowdy audiences that have historically been the baptism of fire for aspiring comics. There is no worse feeling than to watch helplessly from the stage as pot-bellied men and their wives desert their tables, turn their backs on you, and walk to the bar at the back of the club in a show of contemptuous disinterest in your flailing antics.
What I can tell you is that when you get it right (in my case more by accident than design), and you have to stop while the audience roars with laughter, you do feel for a split second like you have harnessed some magical force. You can read as many learned intellectual treatises on comedy as you like, but trust me mate, that ain’t going to help you when you’re out there dying in front of a heckling audience in a sticky-carpeted club somewhere off the M62 motorway. Comedy must be a serious business, because when you have failed to elicit laughter from a group of strangers you are said to have died.
There are many claims made for comedy, some or all of which may be true: that it talks truth to power, it brings people together, that it’s an essential element of the human condition, that it’s as old as humanity, that it is transgressive and taboo-busting, it can heal (laughter is a medicine), it’s universal, timeless, and so forth. All this is claimed for comedy, and yet the world is still full of miserable people.
Go figure, mate!
And true life has a tendency to outstrip even the most wildly imagined invented humour. One of the supremely grimly funny things I remember seeing is the diminutive comedian Norman Wisdom, who had a famous slapstick routine where his limbs would go rubbery and he would collapse to the ground, so completely drunk at the Epsom Derby race day that his legs failed under him and he collapsed to the ground. In his later years, Wisdom would become a national celebrity in communist Albania, hailed by murderous dictator Enver Hoxha, who was apparently his biggest fan.
When I was growing up in the UK in the 1970s, comedy rarely spoke truth to power. Instead of punching up, the comedy I saw nearly always punched down. I assumed that comedy and humour was just another cruel reminder of a hostile, bigoted society. The stand-up comedians you saw on the variety shows that were popular on a Saturday night after 9pm were almost exclusively males of a certain kind, and incredibly racist and misogynist when you look back on it. Les Dawson’s mother-in-law jokes were keenly anticipated by his audiences:
Actually, despite the things I say about the mother-in-law, I’m very fond of her. When she was ill last year, I said to the wife ‘Don’t worry – if she’s at deaths-door, I’ll pull her through’. (Audience laughter). I hadn’t seen her for a fortnight. I was in a public house of dubious distinction and there she was lying on the floor of the bar, in a pool of spilt Britvic and cashew nuts. Six men from an oil-rig were hitting her with bar stools. One of my neighbour’s said “So, are you going to help?”. (Pause). I said no – six of them should be enough’. (Roars of laughter).
And then there was Bernard Manning. His stand-up set was simply a stream of homophobic, sexist and racist insults. He was as racist as you could get and clearly in sympathy with the far right. He had his own venue in north Manchester, the self-styled World Famous Embassy Club. Famous for what exactly – verbal slurry? In the early mid-1980s, the club burnt down. I was living nearby at the time. Me and my mates drove by it a few times cheering out of the car windows. Our celebrations were only slightly tempered by the rumour that Manning had it torched to collect on the insurance money.
Les Dawson and Bernard Manning were born into poverty in Manchester, both leaving school at the age of fourteen to go to work. They were Northern comedians of the old school, talented but toxic. They were an aspect of working-class culture – loud-mouthed and sweary- but they did not represent all of it. You were supposed to identify with them because they were working class – but interestingly enough it was the middle-class intellectuals and television programmers who stuck up for them and gave them TV and radio airtime. When Manning died in 2007, Guardian columnist John Moore wrote a glowing obituary that started: ‘Yes, I know he was offensive, homophobic and racist – a self-confessed unpleasant man with few, if any, redeeming features – but there was something about Bernard Manning that I greatly admired. And I suspect many other readers of this blog will agree. Before you accuse me of being a narrow-minded bigot for finding him funny, I should point out that Manning, however distasteful to some, was only a teller of jokes, but had – in my ‘umble opinion – the greatest delivery of any comedian I have ever seen. Humour is necessarily cruel; there has to be a victim.’ Easy for you to say pal. And what’s with the Dickensian ‘umble’ – do you think that’s how the hoi polloi actually speak?
This defence of the monster that was Bernard Manning reminds me of the British establishment’s undying love affair with the 1960s race-baiting patrician Tory Enoch Powell and their endless attempts to rehabilitate him. Racist comedians and TV sitcoms were so ubiquitous and mainstream when I was growing up, they generated a whole branch of left-leaning media-studies and academic careers. The racist core of British humour was so strong that talented Black comedians were forced to bend to its will and humiliate themselves and be humiliated.
Take the case of 1960-70s British Black comedian Charlie Williams. Born in the mining town of Barnsley in West Yorkshire, son of a local white woman and a coal miner originally from Barbados, Williams became a professional footballer before turning to comedy, hardened through performances in the northern club circuit. He had a broad Yorkshire accent, his catchphrase being ‘me old flower’. His speciality was to tell funny stories and he had great timing. But he would pepper his routines with racist cracks at himself:
It was so sunny today I thought I’d been deported.
If you don’t laugh, I’ll bring my tribe in and we’ll eat the lot of you.
I invited a fellow round to dinner last night. Half-way through the meal he says, ‘I don’t like your mother-in-law.’ So, I said, ‘Leave her on the side of the plate and just eat the chips and peas’.
If he was heckled Williams would shoot back: ‘If you don’t shut up I’ll come and move in next door to you’, which would be met with roars of laughter, but actually wasn’t that funny when you considered that during those times white ‘residents associations’ would organise to oppose or chase out Black families who moved into their neighbourhood and estate agents would have covert racist policies of not selling properties in certain areas to anyone who was not white. When I was young the man opposite us was so enraged by a brown family moving in to the house facing him, that my (white) mother told me he had never spoken a single word to her fifty years later.
You gotta laff!
Williams would throw in racist epithets ‘Paki’ and ‘Coon’ to great comic effect. How satisfying and affirming that must have been for racists in the audience to see a Black man, talking like a white man with a broad Yorkshire accent and constant toothy grin, reinforce their prejudices. However, some of what Williams was trying to do was slip a little bit of irony in here and there: ‘During the power cuts I had no trouble at all because all I had to do was roll my eyes.’ But I reckon that was lost on most people, who took his self-debasement as a mark of their superiority, very much like they took the fascistic character Alf Garnett from the highly successful 1960s–70s BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part at face value. The sitcom was supposed to lampoon the character’s bigoted behaviour, instead he became a cult hero for far-right supporters, for saying on prime-time TV what they dare not say out loud as often as they’d like to.
Charlie Williams would appear on TV comedy shows with Bernard Manning, thereby giving cover for Manning and his ilk to really push the boat out. Here’s one of Manning’s classics:
Who wants to work? You slog your guts out, come home and the Paki in your road hasn’t had to work, he’s on social security.
So much to admire.
Eventually Charlie Williams ‘the man’ seems to have merged with his on-stage persona. He toured white supremacist Southern Rhodesia, which was the subject of an international boycott at the time. He ended his life defending the indefensible – the Golliwog label on Robertson’s jam.
But even in those days there were oases in this desert. When I was young, I was transfixed by Saturday night TV appearances by Dublin comedian Dave Allen. There he was, sharp mod-style black suit and tie, black shoes, white shirt, gelled-down collar-length jet black hair parted on one side, perched on a bar stool in front of the camera, cigarette dangling between his fingers and glass of whiskey in reach. Unlike the legion of working class comedians, Dave Allen was middle-class with a pleasing Irish brogue. As he told the long, witty shaggy-dog stories, comic sketches and observational comedy he was famous for, he would scratch his cheek, revealing a stunted left forefinger, the top of which had been lost in a machine accident.
Unlike almost all the others, Dave Allen was always for switching the tables, and putting the underdog on top:
The English have always considered the Irish a very strange nation. An Irishman applies at a building site in London for a job. The cockney foreman says ‘Well, we’re going to have to give you an intelligence test, aren’t we?’ And the Irishman goes ‘Yes, of course’. The foreman says, ‘What’s the difference between a girder and a joist?’ And the Irishman goes ‘Well, that’s simple, Goethe wrote Faust and Joyce wrote Ulysses’.
In contrast to Manning and the others, who seemed to get a free pass from the TV controllers, Allen would get into hot water. He had a gimlet eye for whatever political goings-on were current; and it was Allen and the likes of him who started the unpleasant but overdue task of dragging British comedy out of the gutter. I believe that many of the left-wing comedians in the UK who emerged during the Thatcher years of the 1980s, owe a debt to Dave Allen. I’m thinking of those who came to be known as alternative comedians, who I saw perform at benefit gigs during the Miners’ Strike of 1984–85 and other political gigs, including Linda Smith, Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy, Stewart Lee and Jo Brand.
Dave Allen was a religious sceptic, and a lot of his jokes took a pot shot at religion. This one, paraphrased by me, provides a taste. A priest and an atheist get into an argument. Frustrated by the atheist’s position, the priest says: ‘you are like a man in a dark room, looking for a black cat that isn’t there’. The atheist replies: ‘in that case, there is only one difference between you and me. You claim to have found it’. When he finished his set, Allen would sign off every week with the same farewell: ‘Goodnight, thank you, and may your God go with you’.
Allen, and his (non-existent) God, would have enjoyed the company of Muslim humorists of the classical period – such as Ashab the Greedy (d. 771), Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 756/757), and al-Jahiz, (796–869). According to the noted Iraqi satirist Khalid Kishtainy, Ashab was ‘the first professional wit and comedian in Arab history’. He was Caliph Uthman’s jester and worked as an entertainer in Medina. ‘With blue eyes, dark skin and peculiar face amenable to freakish distortions and grimaces, he could not fail to amuse his clients with his singing, dancing and tomfoolery’. ‘Your father had a respectable beard’, someone said to him, ‘but you have a flimsy one. Who are you taking after?’. ‘After my mother’, Ashab replied. The sting in the joke is that Ashab was, it is said, illegitimate. Ashab’s countless original, irreverent anecdotes would fill many volumes of Arabic works – and, indeed, they can be found in various volumes of Kitab Al-Ghani (‘The Book of Songs’), the twenty or so volumes of encyclopaedic collections of poems, songs, and anecdotes that took Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (897–967), some fifty years to compile. Ibn al-Muqaffa, like Allen, was a sceptic; a Persian, he disliked Arabs as much as Allen disliked nuns and priests who beat him mercilessly during his school days. Known for Kalila wa Dimna, a translation from Persian of a series of maxims and anecdotes put into the mouths of animals and widely regarded as a model of elegant style, Ibn al-Muqaffa’s satire and humour was largely directed at the rich and powerful. A regular target was the governor of Basra, Sufyān bin Mu‛aviya, who happened to have a rather large nose. Ibn al-Muqaffa would greet him with asslamo alaikumā (peace be upon both of you). Al-Jahiz was not only a humorist but wrote extensively on humour. Indeed, the sheer number of books he produced on humour is quite astounding: Kitab al Nawadir (Book of Jokes), Kitab Nawadar al Hasan (Book of Hasan’s jokes), Kitab al Mulahi wa Alturaf (Book of funny stories and cosmic anecdotes), Kitab ul Muzahik (Book of laughing stock), Kitab al Muzāh wa al Jidd (Book of humour and fun), and the most famous of all, Kitab al Bukhalā (Book of Misers), which is still widely read today.
Al-Jahiz’s take on humour is elegantly dissected by Hussein Abdulsater in his article, ‘Humouring the Humourless’. Another famous humorist, atheist and lover of wine, Abu Nawas, himself lampooned by Ibn al-Muqaffa, is discussed by Samia Rahman in her review of a new translation of his poetry. As Abdulsater points out, a common assertion is that Muslims cannot take a joke. This contemporary assertion has a historic precedent. A number of Western scholars and writers, most notably colonial administrator and translator, Edward W Lane (1801-1876), English Orientalist David Samuel Margoliouth (1858-1940), and the Victorian novelist and poet, George Meredith (1828-1909), argued that Arabs had no sense of humour, and by logical extension, no civilisation: ‘there never will be civilisation where comedy is not possible’, wrote Meredith. We can dismiss such assertions with the contempt that they deserve.
However, one does need to understand the context to really appreciate Muslim humour. As Bruce B Lawrence’s essay on Sufi Satire and Robert Irwin’s excavation of ‘Old Arab Jokes’ (Well You Had to Be There Then) show, without context the punchline has little significance. Even the famous, universal anecdotes of Nasreddin Hodja, lovingly retold by Mevlut Ceylan, need a modicum of understanding of Islamic culture.
Recent emergence of comedy and satire in Muslim societies takes its cue from the resurgence of satirical press in the Arab world and South Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In the Middle East, the pioneers included Abdullah al-Nadim (1843-1896) with his humorous newspaper Al-Tanlit wa Al-Tabkit (Joking and Censure), while in South Asia Akbar Alabadi (1846-1921) regaled the populace with his satirical poetry which poked fun at both religion and modernity. This tradition can now be witnessed in how Arab comedians have wielded their art as a cultural weapon against the encroachment of politicised religion, chronicled by Gilbert Ramsey and Moutaz Alkheder in their article ‘Let Him Wear it Himself’. Given the popularity in the Muslim world of crazy preachers inventing fatwas prohibiting everything from women wearing jeans and driving cars to credit cards and yoga, satire is the only weapon one can use against the increasing paranoid piety brigade. Indeed, there is a lot of unintentional humour to be had in the realm of internet Islamic can-and-cannot-ery. Here is a sample, randomly picked, of some wise words of advice from the inimitable islamweb.net:
Question: As salam ualaikum. We have automatic washing machine. The water pours down on the clothes but the detergent is put on the clothes first then the water pours down on these clothes. Some clothes are above the level of water flow … (other) clothes are below the water flow … If the cloth above the water flow is impure in 1st round then the detergent may also get impure but if the impure clothes is below the water level then all the clothes will be considered pure and the detergent also?
Answer: All perfect praise be to Allah, The Lord of the Worlds. There is no need to panic about this issue. If water pours down on the clothes and drains without having changed due to impurity, then the water is pure, and so are the clothes. The way of pouring the water in washing machines is known. Allah knows best.
As Ziauddin Sardar once said to me: ‘For the sake of Allah, Hassan, don’t convert anyone else to Islam, there are more than enough of us in the world as it is!’
It is fascinating and life-affirming to see humorists emerging from various Muslim communities, skewering the absurdities in relations between Muslims and between Muslims and non-Muslims. Interestingly, they seem to be more numerous in those countries that have been the most gung-ho in the war on terror, including the USA and the UK. Little did we realise that Colin Powell’s slapstick turn with a vial of pretend anthrax at the United Nations as a pretext to war with Iraq, and Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ (how we laughed until we cried!) would lead, years later, to Millennial Muslims on stage and on TV cracking jokes about religion and politics in front of mainstream audiences. As Eric Walberg perceptively argues in his essay on ‘Comedy and Islam in America’, ‘there has been an explosion of Arab and south Asian stand-up comics in the past two decades, coinciding with 9/11. It’s as if Muslims and all ‘brown’ people, regardless of religion, were pushed so far onto a terrorist limb in public perception, that the only way to deal with it is to laugh, and Muslims in the West rose to the challenge of defending themselves and their heritage with the only weapon they had – the word’. How true.
In Britain, Shazia Mirza was a leading pioneer. I saw her live at a gig in the executive lounge of Charlton Athletic football club in south London (don’t ask why). One of the prerequisites of being a stand-up comedian is that you never turn down a gig. In ‘Laughing Matters’, Mirza writes of the gigs she has done all over the world, including in a toilet in Norway. ‘It was a public toilet where I could only fit in eight people; luckily it was a sell-out. I stood on top of the toilet seat holding a microphone telling jokes to local people’.
Apart from Shazia Mirza, one of the first stand-up Muslim comedians (or at least Muslims who is a comedian) I saw perform live was Prince Abdi. This was some years ago, but I’m glad to say he is still around, working the clubs. He has since been joined by a growing number of other UK stand up performers of Muslim heritage. Take Fatiha El-Ghorri, who proclaims herself to be from ‘the deep, deep middle east of Hackney’. You have to know the unique crazy nature of the London Borough of Hackney and its denizens to get this one fully. (Ziauddin Sardar also hails from Hackney, which may go some way to explaining its reputation). Fatiha, like many Muslim comics, plays on the perceptions of Muslims, and the mis- and non-understandings:
When I was growing up in school, they used to tease me. They used to say
‘Did your mum call you Fatiha ‘cos you’re fat?’
(Aside to audience) Yeah, laugh it up because you’re going to hell anyway.
And I used to be like ‘Listen up, yeah, Fatiha’s the first chapter in the Quran, it means the beginning or the opening right. What does your name mean, Lisa?…’
(It’s noticeable how many Muslim women stand-ups start their show: ‘Hi. By the way I’m not Malala’.)
When I see Muslim comedians and humorists at work, I immediately see a direct connection between them and the truly innovative canon of Jewish comedians and writers of the twentieth century, especially in America – Sit-coms. A good example is Ramy Youssef’s award-winning series Ramy, a semi-autobiographical tale of a New Jersey American-Egyptian young man, trying to navigate between society and religion, which has so many echoes of past Jewish New York family sitcoms. It is the world of the immigrant outsider, nose pressed up against the glass, gazing into the sweetshop of modernity. So, in Ramy, you have our young hero straining against religious strictures surrounded by temptation, the middle-aged mother who spoils him rotten, the hard-working strict immigrant father, the resentful caged-in sister, the larger-than-life uncle, the otherworldly religious leader (played by the magnificent Mahershala Ali) and the bunch of mates who give the character Ramy harmless but useless advice. But Ramy is none the worse for its Yiddish antecedents. Quite the opposite – it gives him the opportunity to reinvent an already established and rich tradition in American cultural life.
The other distinct observational humour in America is that of the African-American comedic tradition, but that does not come out of the immigrant narrative; it comes out of slavery, Jim Crow, the violence of poor urban life and the Black cultural traditions of resistance and joy. For me, without any doubt, one of the most talented and complex truth-tellers in the English-speaking world is Dave Chapelle, whose work, and the pitfalls he has faced, is eloquently deconstructed by C Scott Jordan in his article on the difference between satire and parody, and the dangers that face humorists in navigating a spiralling insane reality. ‘While other comedy shows provided escape’, Jordan writes, ‘Chappelle essentially said buckle up because we will take reality for the ride it is’. Chapelle is a Muslim, and his faith gives impetus and meaning to his work, rather than providing him with content for his routines. In an interview with US chat-show host David Letterman in October 2020 Chapelle told how he converted to Islam in his teens. ‘I wanted to have a meaningful life, a spiritual life, not just what my hands can hold,’ he said. ‘I felt like I’ve always had this notion that life should mean something.’ Chapelle at his best, teeters between the cracks in US society – class, race, power and lack of power, civilised talk and barbarous acts. I like to call my chosen artform, theatre, the playground of dangerous ideas. It has that spatial dimension, the tangible feel of a citizens’ arena and the infinite possibilities of the imagination. Comedy is similar. All forms of art, in their specific way, have the ability to act as spaces for contested ideas and representative thinking, where the outer limits of the truth can be put into play, possibilities pursued, and human consequences revealed. Stories are not virtuous in and of themselves; they are imagined vehicles by which human traits, thoughts, and actions are put to the test by external circumstances.
There is always the chance that attempts at irony and satire, in a world constantly outstripping our deepest fears, can end in situations where we fall through the cracks. As we all know from our early years, playground games can often quickly turn menacing. In his essay ‘My Sardonic Tweet,’ Hussein Kesvani retells the incident when he sent out a playful tweet that rapidly provoked an international crisis: ‘It involved a late-night tweet, a number of far-right organisations and influencers, multiple hospitals across London, and a mischievous paediatrician, who had been allegedly whispering Islamic prayers into the ears of new-born children’. Kesvani uses this incident to map out the ways in which social media particularly is so mired in Islamophobic and hateful cesspools, that it takes a tweet or a joke taken out of context to suck Muslim humorists down into its lower depths, from which they may, or may not emerge. Kesvani talks with up-coming Muslim comics who tell him they employ ‘varying degrees of self-censorship’ to avoid getting into hot water that might bury their career at its very beginning. This is a common thread to all Muslims working in the arts. This pressure on Muslims to self-censor that which they place in the public arena, is described by Brazilian radical theatre-maker Augusto Boal as ‘the cop in the head’.
This pressure to play safe inevitably curtails freedoms of expression that other artists take for granted (and fiercely defend as a universal right). Sometimes it seems like everyone can have their unbridled take on Muslims, except perhaps Muslims themselves. So good on those who rise to that challenge. Kesvani points to the ire stirred up by rising stand-up Nabil Abdul Rashid, who reached the finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2020. He managed to rile the TV audience so much with his (fairly mild but heartfelt) stand-up routine against racism, Islamophobia, and for Black Lives Matter, that the TV watchdog Ofcom got more than 3,000 complaints against him, to go with the death threats he received. He got 1,000 complaints for observing that the British police are racist against Black people and another 2,200 the next week when he hit back against the criticism saying: ‘They complained because we said Black Lives Matter – thousands of complaints. To be honest I’m shocked that many of them know how to write. They sent in thousands of angry letters. Hopefully if I annoy them today, they can progress onto words.’ It was satisfying to see Abdul Rashid double down with this joke about Covid social distancing:
They constantly make out Muslims to be this force that’s trying to take over Great Britain, as if we’re trying to take over the culture here. It’s so upsetting, they’re trying to make out that we are at war with Britain when we’re not. While I was out I noticed that people were not shaking hands, they were walking far apart from each other, the pubs were closed and people were covering their faces (pause) and I was like Ooh! We’ve Won! We Won! Alhamdullilah! (camera switches to judge Amanda Holden laughing uproariously) We won! La ilaha illallah!