Tackling Race Head On

Comedians have often suffered—and joked about—prejudice, bigotry, and xenophobia. Jay Richardson speaks to the standups for whom race jokes are about the real thing

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Nish Kumar
Published 16 Jul 2016

Nish Kumar literally shat himself when he heard the EU referendum result. “Just to be clear, I genuinely got diarrhoea the second I found out about Brexit,” he reveals. “Really violently unpleasant – these were not metaphorical shits. Your gut is a sensitive organ and I think my bowels had a premonition of what was happening.”

Irrespective of how the vote went, the political comic was already prepared to update his Fringe show and appreciates that it's an ongoing progress.

“It's too soon to tell what impact this is going to have,” he reflects. But before the vote, he also recalls “feeling like people my age were at the point where our race was totally irrelevant, that we were all British. I really felt to some extent that I was part of the last generation of comedians who felt they had to talk about their race.”

That doesn't seem to be the case now. Addressing colonialism's impact on his Indian ancestors in his latest show, Actions Speak Louder Than Words, Unless You Shout the Words Real Loud, prompted by what he sees as “historical realignment about the British Empire's impact”, Kumar has been dispirited by Brexit's aftermath, as “we seem to be trying to unpick all the positive steps we've taken culturally in the last 30 years.

“This decision has cast us back into the mid-seventies in terms of our politics towards non-white people,” he argues. “Mainstream political parties, not fringe lunatics, have said things I never thought I'd hear in my lifetime.” And problematically for comedians, “some of those things that were said and done in the campaign were beyond satire.”

Reluctant to discuss specific instances of racism he's experienced, Kumar stresses that standup at least affords him “a platform to respond to that abuse, whereas there are huge numbers of people right now being attacked who are unable to articulate their defence.”

He doesn't need to talk about race, he maintains, it's just a subject that compels him. Even so, he's unequivocal about the apparent mixed blessing of having so much source material.

“I would happily not be talking about the news if it meant that I wasn't fearing being racially abused in the street,” he says. “This is not great for me in any way, shape or form, because I have to live and exist as a person. If I wasn't fearing the genuine repercussions of this decision I would happily settle for writing an Edinburgh show about fucking cheese.”

Unfortunately, as Bilal Zafar discovered, even a seemingly innocuous Twitter joke about a Muslim cake shop can prompt a storm of bigotry. The British-Pakistani comic wouldn't be making his Edinburgh debut this year with Cakes were it not for the online prejudice he's attracted and subsequently channelled into mocking satire.

Unwilling to be seen as representative of his race or religion, in his club sets the East Londoner actually downplays the abuse he's suffered. But he concedes that “it's quite easy for me to write anything around Islamophobia and racism because unfortunately, it's been a part of my life since I was very young.”

Mixing the silly and serious, striving first and foremost to be funny but pleased to counter negative portrayals of Asians and Muslims, he feels that he's been “gifted all of this material in a kind of horrible way, so I have to write about it. It's confusing and depressing that I wouldn't be seen as an interesting a comedian without things currently being so weird for Muslims.”

Tez Ilyas can even quip that “if there was no racism or Islamophobia, I wouldn't have an act!” But the Blackburn-born comic of Pakistani descent suggests that, being politically inclined, he's naturally drawn to “the bad stuff … I'd rather it didn't happen and I could make jokes about toasters or whatever but it's just the way my brain works, it looks at the world and what's not working.”

Made In Britain, with its sharing of his “untypical British experiences… which, by virtue of the fact they happened in Britain, means they are now British experiences – even if they're not mainstream”, was always going to explore race. Like Kumar, Ilyas feels that part of the problem with UK race relations is that as a country, we've never truly confronted our colonial past – there's not the same shared, base knowledge of slavery and segregation that makes race such a potent, abrasive and even celebrated source of standup comedy in the US.

The EU referendum has afforded his show “a bit more focus, and perhaps focused the audience's attention a little bit more as well”. Race-based material suddenly feels more urgent.

That's true, says Jamali Maddix, but only up to a point. “You're going to see a lot more people be more vocal about their views on race… liberal white people feel more guilt and racist people more justified.” Making his Fringe debut with Chickens Come Home to Roost, the Ilford-born comic of mixed black and white parentage explains that his show, which focuses on him owning his life decisions and taking responsibility for them, “isn't an hour of me going 'white people are evil'.

“But right now, I'm 25 years old, living in London, watching people who look like me being harassed by the police. How can I not speak about that?”

What's more, race “has always been a valid thing to talk about. It's not like since the EU vote we suddenly have a race problem. We had the riots. This shit's been going on for years.

“Yeah, it's more to the forefront, more into the mainstream because it affected white people, because for some it went against their political agenda. People feel a little more justified as it's been brought out into the open a little bit more. It needs to be spoken about a little bit more. But it's always been pressing to speak about.”