Since starting this blog I know how jounalists feel who have to keep a weekly column going week after week, inspiration or no inspiration. So that they end up filling their columns with anything they can muster and often revert to ridiculous tittle-tattle about their dogs or confessional details about their own family secrets. I suppose if you get paid to do it you will find something to write and some journalist do pretty well at this.
I found Shazia Mirza’s column in the Guardian (last one in December 2010) actually very funny – funnier in fact that her actual stand-up shows which I have seen, but in which I thought she went on too much about facial hair! She is funny, but funnier I think when in the written word for some reason. You can sense that underneath her on-going friction with her family there’s actually a lot of love. Some time ago I emailed her to ask her whether she just invented the stories in her column about her family as they seemed so unbelievable (this was mostly what she wrote about), but no, it was all true she said. It got me thinking about muslim comedians in general. I don’t mean imams with hooked hands or bufoons doing battle with western decadence but ones who actually are genuinely funny.
Stand-up bass player. Stand-up comedian.
I mentioned Danny Thompson in my last post, who is well known as a virtuoso bass player who has accompanied just about every singer or musician you can name over a lifetime of professional work, touring and recording from Donovan to Rod Stewart via Nick Drake, Peter Gabriel and an endless list of musical stars. But also a muslim who takes it seriously.
He’s from Lambeth in South London and I’m not sure if he qualifies as a true Bow Bells cockney but he seems, to my ears, to have all the authentic patois. He likes to talk to his audience in concerts between songs and he is funny, in unexpected ways. To the extent that you would be forgiven for thinking he was a comedian doing a musical side-act. For instance, he will tell a personal story about himself to his audience which would lead them gullibly totally up the garden path, dropping them like a brick at the end of the story having told a total porky or just weaving his life into a pre-planned joke. He did it to me many times. He was as perfect a practitioner of rhyming slang as you will find anywhere south of the Watford Gap and a good china of mine. But unlike Shazia he doesn’t make jokes about muslims, as for him I doubt he finds anything funny about it, although I should add that Shazia’s humour about muslims wouldn’t or shouldn’t offend anyone. With a lot of self-satire she punctures cultural hypocrisy and religious humbug, which is much needed in a country where people are are trying to be just a little bit too correct. How people behave can well be the subject of humour as long as you don’t target peoples’ beliefs. It seems if you grow up in a muslim family the likelihood is that you will find a lot to laugh about, as religion plays a much bigger part in such families than in the typical secular British family. Religion will always be a subject of humour as it is a way people deal with their repressed real fears about life and death, marriage and children etc., which religion of course is all about and offers at root, explanation, consolation and of course salvation, we hope. Repressed emotions are always the target of humorists – the unspoken about uncomfortable truths. The fine line is crossed of course when you start to mock individuals or the religion itself. That pretty much conforms with the Prophetic example on humour as he, God bless him and grant him eternal peace, we know was very humorous, but never mocked people. Scholars have written whole books on Prophetic humour, none translated into English to the best of my knowledge, and is as important a part of his way as anything else of his. But when people lack humour – er, they lack humour. The term humour actually derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, which taught that the balance of fluids in the human body, known as humours (Latin: humour, “body fluid”), control human health and emotion. So it is of vital importance to our well-being. So laughing out loud is good for you. But getting the balance wrong could be bad. So watch your step.
Some of my readers here might also be familiar with American muslim comedians Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman who comprise the comedy act Allah Made Me Funny. I saw them perform at the Islam Expo a few years ago in London. I must admit that Azhar’s particular kind of American humour didn’t really connect too easily with the admittedly cold UK audience as they didn’t really grasp the in-your face American style of comedy but African-American Preacher Moss did a lot better. He was just funny from the word go as he had the kind of timing the British do appreciate even if they don’t get his American references. Better not to advertise yourself as a religious comic I think, as it gets you off on the wrong foot. I talked with Preacher Moss and Azhar in the hotel where we staying near the Expo into the small hours and I have never laughed so much – in a hotel that is.
“Understanding diversity and multiculturalism requires that we eliminate or reduce the anxiety of our ignorance and how to speak honestly when we can’t.” -Preacher Moss
Check the clip on this page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2UslHb1TOg
Comedy is actually a very difficult art. Most comics seem to gain fame by means of shock and profanity and that is not something new but it’s a mistake to define your art in religious terms as if it will give you a leg up or some more credibility. Better to be just a good musician or and/or a good comic and let your beliefs percolate through your music or your comedy.
There are so many Jewish comedians who publicly explore the angst, neurosis, guilt and conflicts of being Jewish that I couldn’t number them here. Jackie Mason is one who is an ordained rabbi and a famous comedian as well. Azhar Usman mentioned above I believe is a trained imam. There must be a comedic Christian vicar somewhere. I’m no afficianado of the subject but one is all too aware of the whining but clever humour of Woody Allen and his social observations. Some loathe his New York humour and others love it, but you can’t fail but notice that he makes continual references to his Jewishness in almost every movie in a love-hate kind of way. And he often descends into a squalid self parody as he explores his own adulterous fantasies. It’s interesting that Muslims find it hard to sink to this level although Omid Jalali, who can be hysterically funny, gets near it at times. The film The Infidel (which starred Omid) broke all sorts of taboos in its treatment of Jews vs Muslims and Salafis vs the rest, which I thought quite healthy in the UK context, but to do this it also sank to a pretty low level. But I think he is sincere and speaks the truth when he can. He’s kind of big and cuddly. I felt mildly exhausted after that film as I do after many comedies as there is always the danger that laughing can leave you feeling quite spent. Which is why I have always loved the gentle genius of French director/actor Jacque Tati who never mocked people in his very light comedic movies like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Jour de Fete. I’ve seen every film he made and they all leave you just feeling bemused and happy – they are not hysterical, but whimsical and humane observations of ordinary French society. Jewish comedy seems to have no limits to how low it can go which is why it has the been the fuel of many a Hollywood feature film. Breaking taboos has been their only means of getting a laugh but that just sinks the ship lower and lower in the water.
For me some of the best muslim scholars and speakers edge very near the standup comedians’ territory as such sensitive subjects as religion are perfect for turning a humorous phrase or lancing the tension that serious people bring with them to the religious conferences which we have all been to. After all, a standup comedian is rather like a religious preacher, exhorting people, like Preacher Moss’s rich observations – one seeking to awaken the spirit of the audience and the other to get a laugh. Some can do both. It seems only one chromosome separates them from each other. As I remarked in my previous rant about PA systems, all that magic is amplified now through gigantic speakers, massive video screens and of course disseminated to the world through TV and the internet. It’s powerful stuff.