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Louise Reay’s Chinese language comedy and a man bangs a nail into his penis

Louise Reay Chinese

The Thoughts of Louise Reay – 喜剧演员和电视制片人

I missed a preview of Louise Reay’s show It’s Only Words a few weeks ago. Not that I would have understood it. Her show is billed as “the first ever stand-up show where the audience will literally have no idea what the person on stage is talking about.”

This is because her show is performed totally in Chinese for audiences who speak no Chinese.

“So,” I told her when we met, “you studied Chinese at university. That was very sensible of you, given they’re the rising world power.”

“It may sound sensible now,” she told me, “but it wasn’t at the time. I did it on a whim. My parents are hippyish and we were like a host family for foreign students. When I was like 16, a lot of my siblings had moved out so there were spare bedrooms and we filled them with foreign students.”

“How many siblings have you?” I asked.

“I’m one of four, but I have three step-siblings, so my parents have seven between them and, when each one left, we put like two foreign students in their bedroom until there was just me and my little brother left of the original siblings. We would have these big dinners with like 2 Chinese, 1 Swiss and 3 Mexicans. At one point, we had 4 Brazilians living with us who we couldn’t get rid of. They just kept inviting more people to live with them.

“It sounds terrible to say it today but, at that time, it always felt like the Chinese ones were the most alien. I was like 16 and going clubbing all the time and we had one Chinese girl who came to stay with us and she just read the Bible all the time. It felt weird.

“So I chose to study Chinese on a whim. I thought: Chinese people seem the weirdest to me. That will be the most fun. I can go to university in Beijing. It was as simple as that. It sounds so bad now, but I was only 17. About a year later, the Chinese economy took off and everyone said to me: What a wise decision you made. It was a complete whim.

Louise Reay, fitting in with Chinese culture

Louise always tries to fit in with Chinese culture

“I was at university in Beijing for a year and later I went back to work there for another year. in business. All my colleagues were Chinese women and all my clients were middle-aged Chinese men and that’s why I came home. It was like just really weird?”

“When did you come back?” I asked.

“Quite a long time ago – like 2010 or 2011.”

“The first three times I went to Beijing,” I told her, “were 1984, 1985 and 1986.”

“Oh!” said Louise. “You’re so lucky! Deng Xiaoping! Cool! I went to Beijing again last December. There’s a cool TV series coming out on BBC this summer – The School That Turned Chinese – about a school in Surrey which gets Chinese teachers for a month and I was out there getting the Chinese teachers.”

“Your day job in TV is what?” I asked.

“Assistant producer. Freelance. I just fell into it about five years ago because I speak Chinese. I do all kinds of projects. I did a big economics series for BBC2 that came out in December. I do really random stuff. I’m an assistant producer, so I just run round after the middle-aged man. I came home from Beijing to avoid hanging out with middle-aged Chinese men and all I do now is run around after middle-aged British men. Apparently that’s my destiny. My first ever job in TV was in Zambia filming a documentary about middle-aged Chinese men who were entrepreneurs in the Copper Belt.”

Louise in London’s Soho last week

Louise could not escape China in London’s Soho last week

“So,” I said, “you do live stand-up comedy AND these serious BBC2/BBC4 documentaries…”

“Yes,” said Louise. “I first did stand-up when I was 16. I stopped at 18 after a weird gig in Eastbourne. They had a racist joke competition led by the compere. Then a man in the audience said: If I hammer a nail into my penis, can I get free entry to this club night for the rest of the year? And they said: Yeah! Sure! and they ran around and got a stool and a hammer and a nail and he hammered it in.”

“We are talking here about hammering it into skin,” I checked, “not into the more solid bits?”

“I didn’t look,” said Louise. “But, an hour later, he stood up and said: If I hammer a second nail into my penis, can I get free drinks for the rest of the year? and the audience went Yeeaaaaahhhh!!!! and basically, like, at the end of the night, he was doing a wee into a basin and I went to wash my hands next to him and he turned to me and said: Oh, I really like your set. And wee was coming out of the different holes in his dick. So I thought: I can never do comedy again and I didn’t do stand-up for about six years after that.”

“I have to say,” I told Louise, “I would book him as an act… What have you just been working on recently?”

Louise in China, blending in with the locals

“Dude, we WILL be able to understand what you want…

“It’s really random. There’s like a Harvard professor and he has a TV company in the UK so we were doing like a history of capitalism thing?”

“Why,” I asked, “are you doing this Brighton Fringe and Edinburgh Fringe show It’s Only Words in Chinese?”

“I’ve always been interested in communication. I made a documentary about a Chinese woman called Apple who lived in Croydon. She could not speak any English and she did not go outside except for once a week to go to the Chinese supermarket. She was so isolated because she didn’t speak the language. And I thought: Dude, if you go to an English language shop and try to buy something, we WILL be able to understand what you want.

“People have a real mental barrier about languages and the way we communicate. But just one look can mean so much. We communicate all the time. Look at my hands. I can’t stop them moving. There’s so much more than language going on. That’s what my show’s all about.”

“So,” I asked, “people sitting in the audience will able to understand what’s going on?”

“Yes. That’s the thing. It will prove that you can. There was a very spurious 1960s experiment which proved that only 7% of communication was verbal. So my whole show is an experiment in the 93%. If I did it in French, it wouldn’t work, because most people maybe understand enough.

“A really weird thing is that, depending on where you live, your face ages differently, because you use different muscles in your face depending on what language you’re speaking.

Louise Reay, cleaning a great wall

Louise Reay, a woman with experience, cleans a great wall

“I know a Western man who has lived in China for the past 40 years and he looks like a Chinese person now, because the muscles that he’s used from speaking Chinese every day… Like Chinese is very much in the front of your face, whereas European languages are much more throaty? The whole face changes, because you have some muscles that are not used and other muscles that are used a lot more. It’s like really nuts that you can age your face differently depending on what language you’re speaking each day. It’s mental.”

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Filed under China, Comedy

Comedian Sameena Zehra, a homicidal pacifist, insists she really is quite mad

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)

Sameena with husband in Edinburgh last year

Sameena with husband in Edinburgh last year

“When I’m stressed,” Sameena Zehra told me in London’s Covent Garden last week, “I make architectural floor plans to calm myself. I put in where the electric points go. If I ever have a plot of land and money to build, I will have hundreds of floor plans to choose from. But I really shouldn’t tell people about liking architectural plans.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s part of my general madness… homicide and everything else. When I have an argument with my husband, I plan the arrangements for his funeral in detail. I’ve planned my own as well. I’m going to have a Viking funeral.”

“Why?”

“I like the idea of people standing by a beach and sending me off on a raft and then firing burning arrows at it.”

“But before that, on the 4th of April,” I said, “you’re starting a new monthly comedy club in West Ham called WHAT?””

“It’s called the Cult of Comedy,” said Sameena, “mainly because I’ve always wanted to start a cult because I want loads of people who will do my bidding.”

“If I were doing cheap psychology…” I ventured. “Liking architectural plans, wanting a Viking funeral and starting a cult makes it seem like you want to control things which, I suppose, comedians want to do because they want to control and affect the audience.”

“I have no desire to control the audience,” Sameena replied. “But, in my own life, I have had a thing about wanting to control the things that happen in order for me to then go crazy – because you need the boundaries. I would never go up on stage with a half-finished piece of work.”

“Ideally,” I suggested, “you should go on stage with a script fully worked-out in extreme detail and throw parts of it away to fit into what happens on the night. Then you always have a strong skeleton to fall back on.”

Sameena with a cuddly friend; without any sharp machete

Sameena with cuddly friend but without any sharp machete

“But you have to have courage to do that,” said Sameena.”And ability. I’ve been doing comedy for two and a half years and I’m not good enough to just ‘let go’. I’m still learning. I was an actor for fifteen years: I really enjoyed doing original writing, new plays. Sometimes I worked on plays that were still being written, which was fascinating.

“One of the reasons I moved from acting to comedy was I wanted creative control of my work. Really, as an actor, if I’d had one more offer or audition as an Asian shopkeeper or a terrorist’s wife, sister or daughter, I would have killed someone. I loved being an actor but I wanted to leave while I still loved it.

“Comedy’s amazing, because you write something and you take it out and do it. You don’t have to wait for a producer or a director or anybody. You just write it and do it and then you stand or fall on the quality of your work. I’ve given myself five years to get to a point where I have some sort of audience that likes my work.”

“You know my theory,” I said, “that you have to play the Edinburgh Fringe three years in a row. The first year, they don’t know you’re there. The second year, you get some attention. The third year, they see you as an established performer.”

“I may not be able to do Edinburgh this year,” Sameena told me. “I don’t know if I can afford it. But, if I don’t do a full show, I am going to go up for a week and do open spots and see other shows.”

“The danger if you leave a year gap between shows,” I said, “is you have to start from scratch again because not only do audiences change but reviewers change. So where is this place you want to be after five years from starting comedy?”

Sameena’s 2012 show

Sameena’s 2012 Edinburgh Fringe show: Tea With Terrorists

“I want to be touring my show and to have found my voice and be more courageous and have written a really good piece. I think my show at the Fringe last year – Tea With Terrorists – was a good show. The new one I’m writing – Homicidal Pacifist I don’t know what that’s going to be like. After five years in comedy, I would like to have honed my craft and to have had fun doing it and I would like to have done it with integrity.”

“And,” I asked, “if you don’t reach that point after five years?”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” said Sameena. “I’ll keep doing comedy, I’ll just have to change my strategy.”

“So why are you now a Homicidal Pacifist?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Sameena, “I am a pacifist in my heart: I believe in non-violent civil disobedience. I believe that, when we use violence, it demeans and diminishes us as human beings… On the other hand, I occasionally have the urge to get a machete and run around an Asda supermarket with it.

“Here’s the thing. I love humanity, the adjective. But I do not like Humanity, the noun.

Sameena’s new 2013 comedy show

Sameena’s new 2013 comedy show, previewing in Brighton

“The premise of my new show is that I’m working on a plan to cull the human race. It’s going to be thought-out and logical. There’s going to be a questionnaire. If you fail it, you get three years to fix yourself. If, after three years, you haven’t fixed yourself, you’re going to be culled.

“There’s going to be a culling aisle in the supermarket. Every supermarket will have one and there will be an announcement that goes: Attention! Customer announcement! Culling will begin in Aisle 3 in fifteen minutes.

“There are certain groups that will have a preponderance, like merchant bankers. It doesn’t mean all of them will be culled – because I’m unwilling to dismiss a whole group of people just because of the worst characteristics of 90% of them.

“That’s where I am. I’m very angry about things and I can imagine being in a news story that ends with the words: She then turned the gun on herself. But I hope I won’t. So I need to get it out of my system.

“I love crime fiction. It must be the homicidal inside me. I love Elmore Leonard and Steven Saylor, who sets all his crime novels in the Roman Empire. You get a whole milieu; you learn about the social history of Rome. Same with Dorothy L.Sayers: 1920s Britain. Same with C.J.Sansom who writes novels set during Henry VIII’s reign. I think I like the puzzles as well. I’m a great fan of puzzles.”

“And architectural floor plans,” I said.

“I’m writing a crime novel myself,” Sameena told me.

“Based where?” I asked, surprised.

“In modern-day London. I’ve always wanted to write a crime novel. It’s about a woman in her thirties who used to be part of a three-person team that did extractions in South American and African countries where people get kidnapped.”

“Extractions for companies?” I asked.

“Yes. And now she runs a private detective agency with a friend of hers.”

I asked: “Can I say that in my blog or will someone nick the idea?”

Sameena Zehra

Sameena – a fan of detectives & kick-ass Moghuls

“Who cares if they nick the idea?” replied Sameena. “The one I want to write – the one I need to write before I die – is a detective novel set during the Moghul Empire in India. There was a Moghul King called Akbar The Great and the years of his reign are pretty concurrent with Elizabeth I in England. It was a Moslem dynasty and he was an amazing guy. It was one of his descendants who built the Taj Mahal.

“I’ve got a female detective in mind who is part midwife, part travelling mendicant. You need a character who can pass between royalty and the common people. She goes around solving mysteries and I would like to have the absolutely amazing tapestry of the Moghul Empire behind these everyday stories. Nowadays, because we’re all becoming Islamophobic, we’re forgetting that Islam was a real force for spreading knowledge. And women were educated. They had options. They even went into war. There are lots of famous Indian women warriors. They kicked ass.”

“You strike me as being very organised,” I said. “Isn’t being disorganised, doolally and mad almost a pre-requisite for being a comic?”

“A lot of people have said to me that comedians are mad,” said Sameena, “and stupid and bitchy. But I haven’t had that experience. By-and-large, the people that I’ve met have been generous and encouraging and lovely to meet. I’ve met the occasional arsehole, but I’ve just gone I’m not having anything to do with you, thankyou very much.”

“I like comedians,” I said. “But they do tend to be doolally in one way or another. That’s what makes them interesting.”

“Well, I’m quite mad,” said Sameena. “I’m quite aware of this.”

“No, no,” I said. “You come across as being a director or producer. Someone who’s creative but not mad.”

“I am quite mad,” insisted Sameena. “I hide it very well.”

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Filed under Comedy, India, UK

Racial and racist jokes + what comic Bernard Manning told Lewis Schaffer

(A version of this blog was also published on the Chortle comedy website)

Whenever I mention the late comedian Bernard Manning in a blog, the number of hits goes up because some people get offended by the mere mention of him. It is like rattling the cage of a PC parakeet.

Live on stage, Bernard Manning was one of the best technical comedians I have ever seen .

In yesterday’s blog – in passing – I mentioned both Bernard Manning and American comedian Lewis Schaffer.

I normally try not to quote from people’s stage acts but, occasionally, Lewis mentions on stage that an Edinburgh Fringe reviewer once called him “mildly racist”.

He says that is the worst of both worlds.

If you are not racist, you do not want to go see a comedian who is mildly racist.

Equally, if you are a racist, you do not want to go see someone who is only mildly racist.

The only solution, Lewis reasons on stage, is that his act should become more racist.

In fact, I do not think Lewis is remotely racist on or off stage. He can be xenophobic on stage, but that is perhaps a sign that he has ‘gone native’ after too many years living in Britain.

On stage, like Jerry Sadowitz, he hates everyone and everything equally.

Misanthropy is his schtick.

I vaguely know another ‘white’ comedian who often plays ‘black’ clubs. I will not name the comedian because of what follows in this blog, but the comedian has talked to me of how he/she can tell jokes about black culture to highly appreciative black audiences. But he/she cannot tell the same jokes to white audiences because the jokes would be seen as appallingly racist.

To black audiences, they are not racist; they are just very funny observational racial jokes.

Interestingly, about ten years ago, Lewis Schaffer had a conversation with Bernard Manning, though they never met.

“It was around 2002,” Lewis tells me. “I’d been in the country for such a short time, it was all a blur to me. I was at the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road in London and Bernard Manning was in Manchester and they were asking us about offensiveness in comedy.

“I said what I always say, which is that I personally think you should only tell a joke about any ethnic group if you can tell it to their face and they will laugh AND you can tell it when they’re not around and people who are not of that group will not find it offensive.

“Bad comedians are the ones who can tell a joke only when the people they’re making fun of are not in the room – Welsh people are not here. Let’s insult them. 

“That’s bad comedy. Well, not bad. But not the best.

“Good comics can insult you to your face.”

I certainly agree with that. I saw a show at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club in Manchester in the early 1980s when there was a black couple near the front of the audience. Manning, of course, zeroed in on them as the butt of his jokes and they genuinely loved it. At the end of the show, they were beaming with happiness and excitement; he had made their night.

Another time, there was a honeymoon couple in the audience who foolishly admitted to Manning that they were a honeymoon couple. What they were thinking about, I cannot begin to imagine. He, of course, did every honeymoon and sex gag he could think of throughout the show. Again, they loved it, loved being the centre of attention, loved him (as it were) giving them a hard time.

So I agree with Lewis Schaffer that a good comic can tell racial jokes to people’s faces. A bad comic can only tell those jokes when the relevant people are out of the room.

“But,” says Lewis, “there is another step. A good comic can tell a racial joke to people of that racial group and make them laugh AND he can tell the same joke to people who are not of that ethnic group and make them laugh. If you can’t tell the joke and get laughs when there are no people of that racial group there, then you shouldn’t tell the joke. You should not tell the joke because it will make the audience feel uncomfortable.”

I am not sure I go along with Lewis on this.

If you can tell a black racial joke to black people and they do not find it offensive – if they find it funny – then the joke is not racist, it is racial. If white people find the joke racist, then I think the problem lies in the people not in the joke.

Lewis tells me: “Just because black people are laughing, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to make the racial joke. It doesn’t mean you can tell that joke to an audience of white people. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a laugh from it. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to hate you.

“If Bernard Manning could tell his jokes to black people who laughed at them, then the jokes were not racist. But that doesn’t mean he could tell them to white people and not be perceived as being racist. So maybe that’s the problem Bernard Manning had and has: that he was and is perceived as being racist. I’m just saying that. I don’t know.

“I said that on the radio and Bernard Manning – I don’t know how he knew this, but he – brilliantly – said, You are going to die skint.

“It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘skint’ and what he said is totally true.

“Bernard Manning knew he offended people, but he didn’t care, because that’s where the money was in his world.

“With me, I actually care about people’s feelings and that’s not good for business.”

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Filed under Comedy, Racism

The Edinburgh Fringe debate about sexist and racial – maybe racist – jokes

I admired the late Bernard Manning as a comedian.

And, unlike many who criticised him, I saw him perform live.

I blogged about this in January and got a lot of negative feedback.

But I think many anti-Bernard Manning sentiments are knee-jerk reactions. People dislike him because they know they are supposed to dislike him.

The comedian, musician and writer John Dowie contributed a very interesting short story to the Sit-Down Comedy anthology which the late Malcolm Hardee and I commissioned and edited for Random House in 2003. His Help Me Make It Through the Night is basically a fictional story about a right-on early Ben Elton type alternative comedian and an old school Bernard Manning style comedian… written sympathetically from the point of view of the Bernard Manning character.

The story was written for the book by John Dowie after he and I had a discussion about Bernard Manning and surprisingly found a lot of common ground. Indeed, I think we agreed that we both admired him as a technically brilliant comedian; and it helped that we had both lived through the period when Manning was having his greatest success.

John Dowie is (in my opinion) a notable left-wing thinker; we are not talking a Daily Mail reader here.

I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that I am chairing a couple of debates in Malcolm Hardee Week (the last week of the current Edinburgh Fringe).

On Tuesday 23rd August, the proposition is:

RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!

It is perhaps not the most original of ideas for a debate, but it is never not irrelevant and I felt it still has a lot of proverbial mileage left in it. The phrasing and punctuation of the debate’s title can be taken to represent either viewpoint:

RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!

I did invite Jim Davidson to take part in this debate (through his agent) without payment. He is taking part in the Guardian-sponsored Edinburgh International Television Festival at the end of the week reflecting, according to the programme, “on the industry that loved him, supported him but ultimately rejected him, as he discusses the changing nature of acceptability in comedy and television as a whole”.

His agent said Jim was unable to be in Edinburgh on Tuesday 23rd for the Malcolm Hardee Debate because he is on tour – playing Great Yarmouth on the Monday night and Weymouth on the Wednesday night.

I have no idea if it is just impractical (it sure ain’t easy) or because there was no money in it or because he just did not fancy doing it. All are perfectly reasonable.

It is a pity – but much in life is, like the fact choc ices are fattening.

I have never met Jim Davidson and have never seen his live act (television, in this case, does not count). I have asked people who have worked with him what he is like and opinion is varied. I have no personal opinion on him.

Prejudice is not something I admire and, by that, I mean judging people without really genuinely knowing what you are talking about. It is a comic irony that people who say you should never believe what you read in newspapers and magazines nor on the internet – and you should never believe edited video clips out of context – often do.

So I am prepared to believe Jim Davidson is a shit; but I am also prepared to believe he is misunderstood and misrepresented. Jimmy Carr, a brilliant comic whom I have seen and whom I do admire, has also been accused of telling racist jokes. To which I say Bollocks.

Admittedly, even if I did think Jim Davidson were a shit, I would put him on to get bums on seats and to let him defend himself (equal factors in my mind).

I think the line-up on 23rd August without him is still very good:

Simon Donald, co-founder of Viz magazine, who has now re-invented himself as a stand-up comedian.

Hardeep Singh Kohli, sometime presenter on BBC1’s The One Show and columnist for Scotland on Sunday newspaper.

Ian Pattison, creator and writer of the culturally phenomenal BBC TV series Rab C.Nesbitt.

And Maureen Younger, the astonishingly well-travelled London-Scottish comedian who hosts all-female Laughing Cows comedy gigs in London, Birmingham, Berlin etc.

If you are in Edinburgh on Tuesday 23rd August…

RACIST OR SEXIST JOKES? IT DOESN’T MATTER IF THEY’RE FUNNY!

at The Hive, 6.15-7.00pm.

It is part of the Free Festival – so it is free unless you want to throw appreciative money in a bucket at the end, in which case it is for charity; 100% goes to the Mama Biashara charity.

Don’t pre-judge it.

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Filed under Comedy, Racism, Sex

Oy! Oy! – Anti-Semitism, a murderous Israeli cross-border raid and a Jewish joke from the Prime Minister

This week, I was talking to Israeli-born, London-based freelance journalist Daphna Baram, who wrote a fascinating book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel about that British newspaper’s relations with and perception of Israel. (The 2004 hardback is currently on sale at amazon.co.uk for an eye-popping £94.98p)

The only prejudice I know I have is that I am unthinkingly pro-Jewish, largely because I went to a grammar school with a very high percentage of Jewish pupils. That prejudice in favour of Jews used to transfer equally to Israel.

Hey! – remember why Israel occupies the West Bank, the Golan Heights etc – it’s because, in 1967, the countries surrounding it were foolish enough to threaten to attack Israel (not for the first time) in an attempt to wipe it off the face of the map… They lost their gamble… and, in six days – spookily the same amount of time in which the Jewish God allegedly created the Universe – Israel created more defensible borders. Like him, they rested on the seventh day.

Egypt, Jordan and Syria miscalculated so badly that Israel’s defensive attack originally pushed the Egyptian Army back to the Suez Canal and threatened Cairo, while Jordan’s West Bank territories were over-run and Syria lost the Golan Heights. But, when I hear the words “Golan Heights”, I don’t think “wantonly occupied by Israel”, my memory is of the Syrian Army pouring heavy artillery shells down onto the farmland of northern Israel from the heights before the Six Day War started.

My automatic pro-Israeli thinking, of course, has lessened. Bulldozing the houses of terrorists’ families and taking ten eyes for an eye if you are attacked smacks of the Nazis in their occupied territories in the 1940s and makes me think Have the Israeli government never read their own history books? It was counter-productive for the Germans. It is counterproductive for the Israelis. When they bulldoze a house, does the name Lidice never spring into their minds?

They only have to look at a map. The town of Lidice is still there on modern day maps.

I am always a simplistic thinker.

If you constantly fire rockets into Israel, then Israel is going to react, possibly – and not unreasonably – by sending troops into the country from which it is being attacked. If the IRA had been repeatedly/constantly shelling Liverpool from positions just outside Dublin, the British government would have done more than send a few SAS men into the Republic of Ireland to assassinate people (as they did without the provocation of suffering rocket-attacks from foreign soil).

But I mentioned to Daphna Baram that I thought Israel’s image in the UK had mainly gone downhill since my erstwhile youth largely because of accents.

When I was a kid, the Israelis were automatically the good guys because they sounded like us and wore Western clothes, whereas the Palestinians/Arabs sounded like foreigners and wore costumes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.

In my erstwhile youth, Prime Minister Golda Meir had an American accent and looked like a grandmother from Baltimore. Israel’s long-time Foreign Minister Abba Eban spoke like he had been educated at a rather stuffy English public school and dressed like the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, looked and sounded like a rather dodgy bloke up an alleyway in Casablanca or some similar black & white movie, selling dirty postcards to tourists.

I mean… Golda Meir – she was a Jew, the Israeli Prime Minister – and she titled her autobiography My Life… you have to admire her for having a sense of humour. Yasser Arafat did not look like he sat at home and watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. Golda Meir might have watched The Benny Hill Show.

It was around the time of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his successor Yitzhak Shamir that things started to go downhill for Israel in PR terms. This was, I think, mainly because Begin and Shamir both had a guttural accent when speaking English though – yes, OK – there was also the minor matter of them both being former anti-British terrorists.

Begin had been leader of Irgun and Shamir was a former member of both Irgun and The Stern Gang.

But that has never been an insurmountable problem for the British – from Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya to Michael Collins, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Ireland, we have always accepted terrorists as the political leaders of ‘our’ former countries.

The trouble with Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir was that they sounded as foreign and alien as their Palestinian rivals – and their suits were not as smart as Abba Eban’s had been.

Daphna did not really agree with me about accents changing Britain’s attitude to Israel, but she did tell me a story about Abba Eban.

In the late 1950s, when Abba Eban was Israel’s representative at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered an especially murderous raid across the border.

Abba Eban stood up at the UN General Assembly and made a particularly brilliant speech defending the raid. He than phoned David Ben-Gurion to express his utter outrage at what he considered had been an appalling and reprehensible attack.

Ben-Gurion listened to Abba Eban, then said:

“Well, I was having second thoughts about the raid myself but, after I heard your outstanding speech, I  was convinced that I did the right thing”.

A story more Oy! Oy! than Oy Vey! perhaps.

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Filed under History, Politics, PR, Racism, Religion

In defence of racial jokes, Bernard Manning and Jimmy Carr but not this British Asian bloke I saw

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

I once put on a show at the Hackney Empire theatre in London where a top-name comic refused to introduce or be on stage with comedian Jimmy Carr because, in the preceding week, Jimmy had been much criticised in the press for jokes about gypsies. Especially one gag:

“The male gypsy moth can smell the female gypsy moth up to seven miles away – and that fact also works if you remove the word ‘moth’.”

I had no problem with Jimmy Carr nor with the joke. Told in his particular dead-pan persona, it is a beautifully-crafted joke. From some other comic, it could have been very ethnically offensive. From the Jimmy Carr on-stage character, it did not seem to me to be offensive. It is/was a joke.

In a Guardian interview in 2006, Jimmy said, “If you’re doing wordplay, there is no real place to take offence. It’s like taking offence at a crossword puzzle… People don’t come and see my show and go, ‘That’s what he thinks’.”

I think if the late Bernard Manning’s live act – much attacked by knee-jerk PC supporters who never saw it – were performed today, word-for-word, by Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz, then trendy journalists would give it a four or five star review. Because they don’t believe (despite the gypsy jokes) that Jimmy Carr or Jerry Sadowitz are actually themselves bigoted.

But people do believe in retrospect and without having seen and heard him deliver jokes live on stage, that Bernard Manning’s live act was racist. Because they’ve read or heard other people say it’s a fact.

I did see Bernard Manning perform live three times. He was very funny. I also once had lunch with him. It seemed to me he had a bit of a superiority complex – he thought he was a bit better than the other Northern Comics of the time – but then he probably was. And he was very funny in a hard-edged, cynical way not un-reminiscent of the current Jimmy Carr on-stage persona.

The first time I saw Bernard perform live, at his own Embassy Club in Manchester, was probably in the early 1980s. It was one of the slickest professional shows I have ever seen in my life, performed in tacky, glittery decor like a cheap Hong Kong Christmas party that Butlins had staged for holiday campers in the mid 1950s.

The room was filled with ordinary down-market punters who clearly seldom went out and were be-suited and dolled-up for their Big Night Out. The only comparable thing I’ve seen was a Sunday night show at a Masonic hall in Easterhouse, Glasgow, which felt like it was set in South Vietnam circa 1968. The exterior (the walls were topped with barbed wire & broken glass) and location of the venue (a lone building in the middle of what felt like and very possibly was a free-fire zone) looked like something out of Escape From New York and the punters were middle-aged blue-rinsed women in over-tight sparkly dresses and dark-suited men looking uncomfortable wearing tightly-collared shirts and seldom-used ties.

What struck me about Bernard Manning’s act at the Embassy Club in Manchester for his very mainstream, very middle-of-the-road, probably Labour-voting but very conservative early-1980s audience was that, for the first third of the act, he used the word “cunt” very liberally. It was all over the place. This was at a time when the word was unacceptable in alternative comedy shows (which were only barely starting) and never heard on feature films, let alone in straight middle-of-the-road live punter shows. The use of the word “cunt” tailed-off after the first third of the act and had disappeared entirely by the final third.

It only struck me the next day that this was part of Bernard’s professionalism.

The show had been due to start at 8.00pm.

At 30 seconds before 8.00pm, Bernard appeared on stage and briefly introduced the first act. There then followed competent singers, competent comics. Nothing hyper-special. But satisfying. There were two breaks. In one, there was a charity raffle. In the other, chicken-in-a-basket. Throughout the show (as was the way with Northern clubs) you could order drinks at your table and there was a constant flow of staff bringing drinks from the bar to tables. It was a visible money-making machine and the paying punters got value -for-money. They got what they paid for.

At the climax of the show, they got Bernard Manning doing his stand-up act – he was the one they had come to see – and they expected his act to be rude and shocking. That was why they had come. He delivered. It was cunt-this and cunt-that and cunt-the-other at the start. After he had established the act was rude and shocking, he just got on with good, solid gags and had no need to say “cunt”. He had delivered what they expected and, next day, those punters would be able to tell their friends and workmates: “Ooh, our Bernard, he were so rude. It were proper dirty.”

Even there, I am perpetuating a stereotype.

The second time I saw Bernard perform live, there was a young honeymoon couple in the very front row who foolishly admitted the fact to him. He, of course, went for sexual jokes throughout. They loved it. At the same show, there was a black couple in the audience. He went for them as well. They loved it. Afterwards, they were laughing and joking with him.

I also saw him make anti-Semitic jokes.

He was part-Jewish.

I have seen the brilliant Jerry Sadowitz make what most people would consider anti-Semitic jokes.

He is Jewish.

The London-based New York comic Lewis Schaffer tells the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

He is Jewish.

Recently, I saw a new-ish comic, a British Asian, make an anti-Indian joke.

It should have felt OK – like a Jew telling a Jewish joke against Jews – but, to me, it felt racist.

It is relevant that he is a new-ish comic.

It’s the way they tell ’em.

A joke is a joke is a joke.

It’s the way it’s told that makes it funny. Or racist.

There is a difference between racial and racist jokes.

The sign of a non-racist society is that anyone can be the butt of a good joke.

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Filed under Comedy, Racism, Theatre

The funniest British TV sitcoms are actually tragedies and the latest one is neither British nor a sitcom

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Last night, I caught bits-and-pieces of a documentary on the making of the classic and still funny BBC TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo – one of the wonderful ensemble sitcoms produced by David Croft – Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al.

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem – especially with sitcoms – is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But, with the exception of David Croft’s various series, I think the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat – you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe and Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché, knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s shows (almost a genre in their own right), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines in the mouths of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had thirteen other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk.

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Filed under Comedy, Television