Social relevance in offensive humour

This week I saw two pieces of comedy on the tv. A new BBC comedic sitcom set in the Birmingham area about a British Pakistani family and their comedic foibles, the show was called Citizen Khan. I also this week have been reading a couple of comedy books, in particular one named ‘Work, Consume,  Die’ by Frankie Boyle, I also got to see something on Channel 4 called ‘The Boyle Variety Performance’, which served as a vehicle for the comedian after a relative absence from television following his 2010 series ‘Tramadol Nights’.

I was writing this post and then I got informed by Michael that there have been two stories of complaints about the comedian Boyle and the BBC sitcom on the basis of being offensive. To some extent I’m never surprised that Frankie Boyle has offended someone. In the TV exploit he made, there were a few jokes that I thought cut deep for me.

I’m not going to comment on the specific complaints. Partly because I didn’t think they were very good jokes. But I will talk about a couple of jokes that I thought were both amusing and communicated something important. Please note that this post was originally written without knowledge of the complaints, which in a sense merits its own attention, which I’m not going to do here.

Ginger jokes and brown priviledge

In Citizen Khan, there were a lot of little gags that rang true about British Asian families that was a bit wince-worthy for someone like me, even if I’m not British Pakistani. The couch covered in plastic; the patriarch of the family buying too many rolls of toilet paper because they were cheap, and the child in the family who is the most mischievious but their parents think they are the worst behaved in public, are things which come to mind as true stereotypes. That said, I’m speaking only anecdotally and hardly using random sampling.

What I really loved about the show was the non-white protagonists and how the show gave a window into the kind of Britain we have today. Namely, a diverse one. There are lots of communities and some are more visible and in terms of comedy, ridiculed more. I certainly think that British Asians could do with more representation in the media and wider society, like say, Premier League Football or the arts, and not within a niche audience either, as if they are exotified and the one thing that typifies them is their cultural and ethnic identity.

The presence of the Mosque manager played by Kris Marshall was quite an interesting inclusion for me. I would think that multiculturalism would be about a migrant community over generations integrating into wider society, but also wider society integrates into that community as well. Michael told me for instance about a wedding he was recently attending where it largely included people from his ethnic Goan community, but he had a conversation with a British Cypriot man who seemed to know more Konkani and more about Goan culture than he did.

The protagonist Mr. Khan character gives the new manager a hard time because he is caucasian. Marshall’s character states that this is racist and Khan defends himself by saying a combination of ‘I can’t be racist, I’m brown’, and ridiculing the manager’s ginger beard. I thought there were two salient insights to be had here.

Firstly, ginger discrimination. It has been well commented that those with naturally ginger hair are treated almost as if they were a cultural grouping or a pseudoscientific racial category. Ginger jokes parallel racism, see for example the internet meme ‘Gingers have no soul’. Because these kinds of digs are not sexist or like racism aganist non-white people it is seen in some way as a ‘free pass’ at ridiculing someone. Similar examples of this kind of free pass include jokes about the Welsh (contrast to say, jokes about Scottish or Irish which can have a distinct historical and political ramification to them). There seems to be a certain kind of inconsistency about offensive humour reflected here.

When Khan’s character states that he is immune to racist accusations because of his minority status reminds me of the fairly complicated social discourse of priviledge. The white mosque manager represents a minority in the Islamic community, although white muslims are increasingly visible these days in the Islamic diaspora. There’s a certain kind of role reversal which is interesting in that Khan shows a bigotry that he would not portray in regular civil society that he would within the confines of his localised Pakistani/Mosque centred community. This gives a picture of multicultural Britain as a bubble with lots of other little bubbles inside, where there are little worlds separate from each other that rarely meet other communities. Is this a celebration of diversity or segregation? All of this provoked me from seeing a crass joke about ginger people. It was a joke that made a point about modern Britain.

Frankie Boyle on the Riots, social inequalities

I personally found the Boyle Variety vehicle a hit and miss affair. But it was nice to see Frankie Boyle doing stand up after such a long absence from TV. What I would like to talk about is his book which I have been going through, one particular monologue about the London Riots of 2011 seemed particularly conscientious. An extract:

“There have been some sickening sights though, like all these Twitter users trying to clean up the communities. You live in in London you idiot, you don’t have a community. I don’t know what the most used sentences would be at the events: […] ‘I’m not a racist, but…’. If I were a rioter, I’d probably enjoy seeing the white middle classes clean up after an ethnic minority for a change. Hundreds of volunteers came out across Liverpool to help with the cleanup. They’ve been working for several hours, before they were told that the riots took place in the other side of town. […] The tragedy here is that we have people whose life prospects are so poor, that they’d happily swap them for a pair of trainers.”

Boyle goes on to address how the dire prospects of many people today, as well as the rampant capitalism and dull media represent a generation of malaise. Boyle’s comedic monologue is making a point about the status quo, about the failure of cultivating aspiration when there are no prospects, and where consumerism is a spiritual gin. I think its hard to defend everything any given comedian says, but these aforementioned examples are stellar candidates of how comedy can be biting and socially relevant.



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