Holy Jokes

A Catholic, an Orthodox Jew and a Sufi walk into a gig. No, really. Jay Richardson explores an unusually spiritual perspective on making people laugh

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 26 Jul 2018
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Imran Yusuf

Conventional wisdom suggests that all comedians are flawed somehow, seeking laughter to plug holes in their corrupt souls. But acute hypochondria notwithstanding, the genially upbeat Luca Cupani thought he confounded the stereotype. Until a backstage chat set him right, as he reveals in his latest show, God Digger.

“The other comics said, 'Well, you are Catholic, so that feels like a flaw to us',” the Italian standup says with a laugh. “Having faith was felt to be odd, considered somewhere between something fake and an addiction.”

A former altar boy, Cupani rejected pressure to join the priesthood because he wanted a girlfriend. Nevertheless, he remained “fascinated by the stage, the ritual”—the performance—of Mass. Anecdotally, plenty of comics have kicked against the pricks of their parents' religion. The number of corrupt priest and overbearing mother jokes you hear on the circuit is reflective of a disproportionate number of lapsed Catholics and non-observant Jews performing standup. Yet the 2015 So You Think You're Funny winner still manages to both have his communion wafer and eat it.

“When I was little, [Catholicism] was a very good story, almost a fairytale,” he reflects. “I'm used to people not sharing my optimism about the afterlife, especially in standup.

“But you can have arguments with God. I like the idea of someone who thinks about me, makes me feel special and loves me. But since he's a father figure, let's say sometimes I have father issues. And I share them.”

Equally, “a collateral effect of being Catholic is realising you are presented with a beautiful story, but this story is told by people who are not necessarily beautiful. It's like being part of a club that has high moral values but not so high practised standards. You quickly learn of this contradiction and the funniness in it, you require humour to digest it. I like to try and fill in the things they don't tell you in the Bible because there's a lot of fun in it. And it makes me more human.”

As a teenager, Ashley Blaker wanted to be a Catholic comic too. Or, rather, as a football-mad, Jewish kid, he admired and aped the RC comic Frank Skinner. “But I had nothing to say,” the UK's only Orthodox Jewish standup concedes. “I had no experience, no identity.” So instead he became a facilitator of others' comedy careers, producing shows like Little Britain. Meanwhile, as he recounts in his Fringe debut, Observant Jew, he'd begun to embrace his religion more devotedly. And when a rabbi asked him to give a talk at synagogue about his career, he realised he'd found his calling.

“I had to become Orthodox in order to find not just an identity but something I wanted to talk about,” he says. But the largely atheistic, even hedonistic, late-night environs of live comedy don't exactly complement attending synagogue for morning prayers. Or having six children, which, as Blaker says with a chuckle, is about “bang-on average” for his community.

“Outwardly, it's lunacy,” he admits. Gigging is "such a hassle for me in so many ways, so why do I still do it?” Obliged by a precept of Judaism known as 'Kiddush HaShem' to sanctify God’s name with his act, Blaker justifies it with an appeal to Elijah’s acclamation of two comedians in the Talmud. Also relevant is the fact that “nothing else has ever given me more meaning in my life”.

Not to mention material. As a producer, being unable to shake hands with women has caused no end of social awkwardness. “My response to that is where my creativity comes in,” he says. 

He's excited by his first Edinburgh run. His recent Goyish Guide to Judaism on Radio 4 gave Blaker a "confidence that people are interested. You've heard lots of Jewish comedians but from a more-or-less secular perspective. You've never heard anyone talking about this.

“I can make a real case for how great it is, how impressed I am by this Orthodox world. I talk about the charm and naïvety to it. There's a real charming innocence.”

Contrastingly, Imran Yusuf, bored of the club circuit, recently considered quitting standup and returning to the gaming industry. Television exposure following his 2010 Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination had waned, yet his Muslim faith remained constant. Adjusting his spiritual outlook from a binary conception of morality, Saint, Sinner, Sufi reflects his efforts to find some moderation and inner peace, “to talk about something I don't get to talk about in a club environment. I don't want it to be just gag, gag, gag.

“I just realised that I wanted and need to do more with my standup, because what it effectively is, is transformation through self-expression.” Rather than fully commit to Sufi Islam or Sufism however, he's using it as a model for his comedy, reining back his animated delivery for a more thoughtful, less judgemental perspective.

“Sufism for me is a lot more inward-looking and personal,” he explains. “It's not looking for something external to justify or validate it, an external monolith. It's more relaxed and about an emotional response to the world you live in.” Rejecting conceptions of saints and sinners, he's focusing instead on the "middle path that emerges naturally through having experienced those two extremes. And, I have to say, approaching middle age with certain patterns emerging.”

Likewise, Ola has lent on his Christianity in hard times. He's adamant that an angel counselled him after some tough early gigs, "esoteric as that sounds. But I've embraced it as a supernatural encounter”. And he spontaneously uttered God's name when an audience member slashed him with a knife.

Yet he too was recently wrestling with the uniformity of the standup circuit, was concerned about his wife's pregnancy and “having a bit of a crisis of faith, really struggling to go to church”. But where Yusuf has looked inwards, Ola instead adopted the communal model of his church for standup, cancelling all his regular gigs and devoting himself to Ola's Sunday Service.

Mixing standup sets from guest comics—including Yusuf—with debates about topical issues, semi-serious anthemic singing and audience confessionals, it features Ola himself, often unseen on the 'God mic' at the back of the room. His role? “Just gently guiding” his fellow comics onstage, “as I get out of my own way to make the best show possible”.

The show's genesis was “social relevance”, he ventures. “There are aspects of church that are very, very useful, even for those who don't necessarily believe. It's the one place I go to a week that contextualises what I'm seeing in the world and helps me navigate it.

“We have some very funny and talented standups. But when they apply themselves to a topical and poignant issue, it has much greater impact.”