From L-R: Saurabh Kakkar, Shazia Mirza, Anil Gupta, Sathnam Sanghera at Asia House
It’s the second time British Asian humour has been the subject of debate and discussion as part of Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival and this year’s event was wonderful. Everyone in attendance was mostly in good spirits (some wine helped of course!), eager to hear and participate in the discussion. Despite the lightness of the topic, Bunty and I left feeling we had learnt new things and subjects to ponder. The evening event focused on British Asian humour, its development as mark of cultural identity and how it has evolved since Goodness Gracious Me.
Asia House invited Anil Gupta, Saurabh Kakkar (both writers and producers) and Shazia Mirza the stand up comedian. Anil Gupta is well known for the revolutionary and groundbreaking series Goodness Gracious Me, The Office and The Kumars at No 42. The evening started with a few minutes of stand up from Shazia Mirza and then all three were asked questions by writer, Sathnam Sanghera.
The questions and answers were varied in scope and the overall discussion was very interesting. Such as…. It was interesting to that all three would rather be acknowledged as comedians rather than British Asian comedians and also that Saurabh (BBC producer) felt that commissioners and producers naturally give work to people that reflect their own image and understanding. Anil Gupta recommended quotas for ethnic minorities in top television companies (as mooted by parliament to increase the representation of women) as he felt TV channels had to be forced to change, the change wouldn’t happen naturally. Further into the evening, Anil Gupta recalled how one sketch he wrote for Goodness Gracious Me that involved Christianity (not to make fun of the religion but the characters went to church to show how English they were) drew complaints from viewers and the sketch got into the press for being offensive. He said the consensus seemed to be that it was okay for Asians to make fun of themselves and ‘their’ religions but they’d better not involve Christianity. Of course I find this odd as only a minority of Brits go to church and the insinuation is that there are no Christians of any other background/colour/culture and so on.
Despite the evening kicking off with a few minutes of Shazia Mirza’s stand up routine she was rather reluctant to show interest in the rest of the evening’s discussion and was rather wooden and abrupt in her responses to questions from Sathnam Sanghera or the audience. So much so that we wondered why she agreed to be part of the event. Shazia is the same age group as Bunty and I yet she felt Goodness Gracious Me had not affected or influenced her, dismissing it as ‘before her time’. Considering she is a full time comedian I found this statement odd or ignorant, we all research and reference relevant people to our careers even if they are before our time just as today’s fashion designers pour over Coco Chanel and so on and frankly Goodness Gracious Me is iconic.
I didn’t get the chance to ask my question and opinion on British Asian humour and so I will now lay it out here: why is it that our representation on British TV has not moved on to funny aspirational characters like in the US? See the following:
|Civil rights movement||1960s|
|The Cosby Show||1984|
|Goodness Gracious Me||1996|
|Prince of Bel Air||1990|
|Kumars at No 42||2001|
Obviously this is an extremely brief history of the subject but it still demonstrates my point, that British Asian humour is stuck in a rut to show British Asians as backward, nerdy, unfashionable, heavily accented, old, traditional and such descriptions.
The Cosby Show
A couple of months ago new episodes of Kumars at No 42 aired and I was excited to watch it as I listened to Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar give an interview to Steve Wright on BBC Radio 2. When the first episode aired I was disappointed and bored to see the same tired old depictions. I called Bunty the next day and discussed it, she felt the same, it’s not that we can’t laugh at ourselves but come on try harder or are we simply not the target audience, is it only made for white Brits? I think they have also evolved past characters called Horny.
I am third generation British, no one in my family has a gold tissue box or dresses badly (Kumars at No 42… yes even salwar kameez can be gorgeous) and no one even in my extended family has ever had a 20kg sack of rice in the hallway (Shazia Mirza). The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince was funny due to the plot and the characters were ones that I could easily relate to and find mirror images in my family, those shows were leaps and bounds ahead of British Asian comedy and that was in the 80s and 90s!
Surely British Asian humour will only evolve once we are laughing with the characters not only at them? But I don’t think it’s a problem only in British Asian comedy, the Desmond’s was a fantastic series and I still die laughing when I watch old repeats on the Africa Channel (it’s amazing what you find on Sky!). Black comedy has evaporated since that show but it was so important to show depictions of another British immigrant culture.