Race’s Place in Stand Up Comedy

About a decade ago on Jack Dee’s Live At The Apollo (back in the day when Jack was running things), Omid Djalili made a joke about the three ‘dickheads’ Nelson Mandela was in prison with; the joke being that it was actually three ‘decades’, which is lost due to Mandela’s accent, and Djalili’s impersonation of it. The joke laughs at miscommunication on the part of the Brit more than it ridicules a cultural accent (which Djalili pulls off extremely well). Ten years ago it was aired on popular British television, and yet when the joke is told in Djalili’s 2016 Edinburgh show ‘Schmuck for a Night’, it begins it with a warning.  The joke itself gets a laugh, but an admittedly tense one. In a show which brought up race quite regularly, Djalili’s likeability and undeniable comedic talent allowed him to pull off these well known yet controversial stereotypes, and their countertypes. But his hesitation to tell the joke – and the tension it caused – worried me deeply. Seeing one my favourite long standing comedians falter and tangent and consider aloud whether to tell a joke because it was too controversial signals a dangerous time for stand up comedy.

Of course there is overt racism, sexism, and other explicitly offensive material in stand up – if there’s an audience for it there’ll be a comedian for it – you just hope you’re part of a smarter audience. ‘Isms’ are a cornerstone of comedy. The crux of so many jokes comes with inverting what the audience expects, which is quite often an ‘ism’ or a stereotype. The result of this trickery is usually a hearty chuckle, and everyone leaves with a cramped stomach and a new insight into their own psyche.

I’m no scientist, but it makes sense to me that explicitly racist jokes were ‘funnier’ a generation or two ago when populations were less racially diverse. For example, if you hadn’t met anyone from China, the Chinaman jumping in a cab saying ‘Hello’ then ending up in ‘Harrow’ was something that might just have been believable. These days, jokes such as these lose any humour they originally had because they have no element of ‘truth’. Instead, racist (or any ist) jokes make you laugh at the racist for his idiocy rather than the minority in the joke, because in multicultural Britain the idiotic racist is now more truthful than the foreign stereotype. However, by joking about controversial subjects an audience is asked to test themselves and understand how their brain perceives the joke; if you can plant a racist punchline in an audience member’s head and then subvert that and laugh at the ‘idiotic racist’ within the joke, you make the viewer question why they ever thought the minority would be the butt of the joke. In turn, the audience members question themselves and come away with a new awareness of the controversial topic. However, if our comedians are too afraid to tackle controversial topics at all, we lose any chance of having to look back at ourselves and our reactions to these jokes. This is what scares me.

To make this idea clearer, I’ll discuss another of my Edinburgh favourites this year, ‘Lolly
2’, a one woman sketch show written and performed by Lolly Adefope. Settling down in a cramped beer cellar, I realised that I knew nothing about the show other than what was on the poster; its title and an image of a young black woman with goofy grin against a garish yellow background. My assumptions were: it would be quirky; it may involve candy; and race would inevitably crop up. I know I wasn’t alone in these assumptions, because Adefope herself assumed the assumptions. One of her first sketches, simply, was her standing soldier-like as quotes from reviews of her last show were displayed behind her. Roughly summarized, they included: ‘Adefope does well even though she is a black woman at the fringe. In fact the only one’; as well as ‘Adefope does well even though she only mentions her race once’.

The rest of her show was mostly formed of observational sketches, including a brilliant pisstake of a University Fresher’s welcome speech, and ‘that whiny nasal woman’ who always answers when you call your mobile provider. Of course a comedian shouldn’t have to explore their race or their gender in their show. A comedian’s job is to be funny, and that’s all. My assumption that because she was black she would discuss race was arguably a PC thing to think but also racist in itself; just because I was excited at the thought of laughing at the expense of the ‘idiotic racist’ for an hour, doesn’t make my assumption of her any less racist. I wouldn’t expect a white comedian to joke about life as a white person, so why had I expected Adefope to joke about life as a black person? These questions are not integral to the enjoyment of stand up comedy, and yet it’s a pattern among the best comedians in the world to present their audiences with new ideas about tough topics, and challenge their audiences’ perceptions, even if they are subconscious perceptions.

Adefope pointed out in the final sketch in her show, which took the form of a race awareness quiz show,“As a black comedian, do I: A) Make jokes about race because it’s an important subject and it’s what people expect; or do I B) Not discuss race because I shouldn’t have to just because I am black female comedian.” It’s a sharp and succinct observation.  Never mind her race or gender, she is the comic; so long as what she says gets laughs, she can say what she wants. Despite this, the funniest parts of her hour were the moments that explored race. Comedy is truth, often harsh truth, and therefore race related jokes are a valuable aspect of her show, and comedy in general.

Someone who knew this all too well at this year’s fringe was Nish Kumar, the shouty Asian
dude. That may seem like a derogative description but it’s one that he embraces and uses to explore some interesting ideas, beginning with the idea (sic: fact) that from the British Empire to the recent banking crisis, ‘white rich men’ have been taking the piss. A self-confessed History nerd, Kumar alienates his audience (mostly white and privileged, let’s be honest about the average Edinburgh crowd) and yet includes them in his anger. He asserts that he is 100% British, no matter his heritage. He is one of us, ‘us’ being anyone who grew up in Britian with British values, and he takes pride and shame in being British. Case in point, his joke about gentrification meaning saying goodbye to his Asian family as they get kicked out and then welcoming his University friends who’ve priced them out. He talks about colonialism and how British politicians as recent as David Cameron have refused to apologise for or even acknowledge the atrocities which our country has committed, unlike a country such as Germany which is full of historical monuments which recognize their murky historical past. These are weighty subjects pulled off with aplomb by a brilliant comedian. Every joke was hilarious, yet left you questioning yourself and the country you live in. By bringing up these controversial subjects Kumar makes his audience think, whilst still getting huge laughs because, again, comedy is truth and often the harsher the truth, the harder you’ll laugh. Race doesn’t need to be discussed in comedy, as Adefope suggests, but when it is it is usually thought provoking and hilarious.

The final comedian of my 2016 Fringe, and of this article, made this idea of cultural understanding explicit. Loyiso Gola, a young South African comedian, made his dangerous style clear from the start by talking about the phrase ‘My ni**a’ as a term of affection, going on tell his small audience ‘You all my ni**as. I’m your ni**a’ with a friendly smile, before picking a white guy in the front row and saying ‘This guy’s thinking ‘Yeah, you used to be’’. It’s testy stuff, but it tackles a harsh truth about colonialism that is still very relevant today, and by starting in this manner it allowed Gola to explore the topic thoroughly later, after half an hour of lighter humour about the differences in lifestyle between Britain and South Africa to win the audience over. Less controversial but still truthful and insightful, one such joke included Gola giving a homeless man some money and stopping for a chat, then being handed back his money after telling the homeless man that he’s from Africa. The stereotype of the ‘poor African’ is a false one, and yet it is a ‘truth’ that most westerners still believe. Wrapping up his show he discussed Islam and his childhood in a Muslim school. Talking of the Adhan, the Muslim call for prayer, and how a Muslim must immediately stop whatever they are doing and go to pray (including the school bully in his funny anecdote), a Muslim in the audience told him that that wasn’t strictly true. And Gola replied with ‘Ok. I got it wrong. But that’s the problem with people, they’re afraid to get it wrong!’ I’d agree. Most people are so afraid to understand incorrectly that they don’t try to understand at all. In the same vein, an intelligent comedian will try to unearth comedic value from a harsh truth and, intentionally or not, will offer some form of understanding for the audience of the world around them.

Returning to the example of Omid Djalili and his ‘decades/dickheads’ joke, the fear of offense stops us from understanding the point of it; that accents are hard to understand and sometimes miscommunication is funny, but ultimately once we’re back on track we’re better because of the misunderstanding, which won’t happen again; if you think about it, misunderstanding is at the heart of most humour.

Each of the comedians that I’ve mentioned offers an interesting perspective on race within comedy, intentionally or unintentionally, but proved to me that the testing of boundaries and consequent self-reflection are invaluable to comedy and to the wellbeing and understanding of the audiences who watch it. Race within comedy, when used intelligently, allows its audience to not only laugh at false truths but recognize why they are false, understand their own reception and perception of the joke, and even lead to a change of opinion through understanding, which can hardly be a bad thing. Turns out laughter really is medicine.


Sam Toller


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