The politics of comedy: the art of black humour

London theatre. Pic: Muna Fadhil

London theatre. Pic: Muna Fadhil

There is an Iraqi joke that Barack Obama scolded his intelligence services for knowing less than Iraqis on the whereabouts of IS. His analysts explained that Iraqis had this covert question “shako-mako?” that leads to all answers.

Obama decided to challenge his intelligence officers, so he was airdropped into a market place in Anbar dressed like an Arab. Obama walked to the first vegetable stall he found and asked: “Psst shako-mako?” The Iraqi man leaned over and whispered: “Psst haven’t you heard, Obama is in Anbar.”

In Iraq and most of the Middle East, jokes are usually political. Being at the heart of the stick-it-to-the-man culture in New Cross – where cafes put fundraising posters for Syria on their windows and where pubs hand out flyers that read “hate politics, love to sing, come on in” – one would assume the same applied.

“No,” says veteran comedian Harry Denford, poker-faced and dead serious.

Denford has been a standup for 20 years and a comedy tutor at the London Theatre in New Cross for seven. He was part of the political comedy scene in its heyday of anti-Thatcher gags and the Bush-Blair honeymoon jokes. Now, he advises aspiring comedians to steer clear of politics.

“Ultimately everyone who does comedy wants to be booked, to have gigs and if they’re lucky end up on the radio. Today politics doesn’t sell because you will always end up offending someone. It’s bad for business.”

Ashley Haden disagrees. Comedians have a moral duty to poke at politics even if it makes their audience uncomfortable, he says.

“Sometimes it goes very well. But sometimes it goes disastrously wrong”, Haden admits. Recently he joked about the infamous British IS fighter Jihadi John. His audience hissed at him.

The minute Haden says the word Islam his audience tenses up. “They were afraid of coming across as un-politically correct and racist if they laughed. I don’t say anything bigoted. I offend everyone equally.”

Ashly Haden. Pic: Muna Fadhil

Ashley Haden. Pic: Muna Fadhil

On the other hand, controversy is comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s trademark. Her audience expect it. That did not stop Goldsmiths’ Comedy Society from pulling the plug on her show a day before she was due to perform.

Bizarrely, her jokes appeared to be too offensive to both Muslim women in headscarfs and women in the sex industry. Smurthwaite has performed many times at Goldsmiths and her jokes have never been an issue before. She speculates that people are becoming more sensitive post-Charlie Hebdo?

“I think Charlie Hebdo has been wholly negative for the comedy circuit. Some people – inevitably – are shying away from difficult subjects.”

Smurthwaite doesn’t think this is altogether a bad thing – she is wary of comedians who use news headlines as an excuse to say awful things about other cultures.

“Free speech is important to protect the truth and dissenting voices and debate. It’s almost a waste when people use it just to stir up controversy for no good reason.”

Smurthwaite is now on tour, joking about the detention of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, over-zealous Christians’ take on abortion and other such controversial topics. Offensive or not, the show must go on.

Angus Dunican rolls up his selves, ruffles his hair and jumps on stage. It’s Monday Comedy Night at the Amersham Arms in New Cross. Comedians, including Dunican, come here to preform new routines and test the audience’s reaction.

The audience – liberal-leaning, white-collar, mono-ethnic – are on their second drink and just a little tipsy. Among them are promoters hunting the next talent. Trying to make the audience chuckle can be a brutal business. Dunican makes the audience laugh, bows and leaves the stage.

But he stays clear of joking about news headlines. It’s a minefield, he says. “A promoter wants to know that if he’s handing over £150 for someone to play his club on a weekend, that the material being presented is going to be very funny, consistently so and unlikely to deeply offend”, said Dunican.

Robin Ince performed the closing act. Co-presenter of the BBC’s award-winning comedy show The Infinite Monkey Cage, Ince has more leverage than others to talk politics. He makes a joke about bigots offending migrants and nearly loses his audience. He wins them back with a joke about sex toys.

“You can be as flippant as you want [about] DIY, shopping and drunkenly eating fast food – but topics like death and religion need thought … If you’re defending satire, you won’t do it very well if your jokes are lame”, Ince says.

On the day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Ince was doing an act. He struggled to find the right words. “However incendiary a cartoon is, it is still just a bloody cartoon – to kill over a piece of art, whether a film, painting or song, is clearly the action of the utterly dogmatic or insane.”

Some subjects are no laughing matter to Ince.

Meanwhile YouTube posted more than 200 Iraqi videos mocking the Islamic State during the last week alone. They are seedy and offensive and very dark. And very funny… if that’s your kind of joke.

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