This article was written by Stephen Milton and first appeared in the 2012 Nov/Dec issue of Sorted magazine.
After the BBC’s new sit-com Citizen Khan caused consternation among the Muslim community, the touchy subject of religion in comedy has hit the headlines once again. So just what is the right way to go? Sorted asked Greg Davies and Russell Howard whether religion remains a taboo subject in comedy, and whether humour might actually be the ultimate bridge for faith.
Back in September, the BBC and Ofcom found themselves inundated with complaints – reportedly more than 200 of them – from irate viewers venting their anger at the stereotypical depiction of Muslims in new sitcom Citizen Khan. Created by Adil Ray, himself a British Muslim, the six-part series, starring former My Family star Kris Marshall and Eastenders actress Shobu Kapoor, follows a Muslim community worker and his family living in Birmingham.
Of course, close cultural stereotypes are nothing new in comedy. Runaway hit Goodness Gracious Me, for instance, leant on these while subverting our own ideas, but following comedic references to the Qur’an and hijab, some labelled the new series, a stereotyped and glaring misrepresentation of Muslims.
One viewer who complained to the BBC said the show “insulted” and “ridiculed” Islam: “We feel as though this show has crossed the line. We expected a comedy but now we have witnessed a mocking show,” said one angry viewer, while another called the content “bigoted” and “offensive”.
And comedian Humza Arshad, star of hit internet comedy Diary of a Badman, was quoted by BBC’s Asian Network as saying that some of the jokes went “a bit too far”.
“I wasn’t offended, but I think some other people might be. Scenes with the Qur’an, for instance, should be played safe. Some people will rightly complain about it. After all, the Muslim community is one of the most sensitive out there.”
It’s not just in Islam, though, where humour and faith come to a crossroads. Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan inadvertently made a household name for himself at the beginning of his career when he lampooned the crucifixion on live TV, while American talk show host Jon Stewart rather deftly offended millions recently when he jokingly claimed Christianity was created by a pregnant teenage girl who told her parents an angel had come down from heaven and impregnated her.
So when it comes to religion, be it the Qur’an, the Bible or the Book of Mormon, where should the line be drawn? In 2012, is all spiritual belief fair game for a ribbing roast, or should the funny men and women maintain a healthy distance?
Two of Britain’s most prolific comedians, Greg Davies and Russell Howard, generally pursue the route that ‘all is game for laugh’ when it comes to subject matter on the stage, but does that really stretch as far as religion?
“I am not a religious person, but there are plenty of things in life I do believe in, have passions for, and [that] I use to shape who I am and the way I live,” begins Greg. “Will I reference those subjects in humour? Of course, because in my opinion humour is the best thing to link people, no matter what method of life they subscribe to.
“But I think it’s important to be genuine in what comes through in comedy. I don’t subscribe to a strong faith so I won’t reference large parts of religion in my act. That’s a bit like me making gags about windsurfing yet having a phobia of water. Ultimately, you have to be true to your subject matter, true to your audience and true to those whose passion it is you talk about.
“I think for me to start referencing religion in my act – which I may well do one day – I’ll need to be a bit better informed on the subject. Comedy is such a fantastic bridge for powerful messages. Everyone likes to laugh, it’s the ultimate feel-good feeling, so conveying powerful messages through comedy must be the answer. It’s almost like laughter loosens up our natural resistance to a subject. It allows a message to permeate between the chuckles.”
Irreverent comic Russell Howard appears to echo this sentiment. “I wouldn’t say I ever drew the line; I think everything is fair game as long as it’s funny, simple as that,” he says. “With a series like Good News I tend to go after what’s topical, what’s newsworthy, and if religion is the current affair of the week, I’ll certainly reference it. I think it would be unnatural if I didn’t. People want honesty and transparency.
“I think when I was starting out as a comedian I’d go into the subject of religion a little less than I do now. I think you have to be brave to tackle it because you know it’s a fine line. I know a number of comedians who adlib tend to steer well clear. Religion is probably the one subject that can ruin a reputation or get you into some very hot water.
“If I’m going to go down the religious route, I’ll make sure I think carefully about everything I say and will make sure I can justify it. I tend to go by the motto on Good News: ‘Say the joke only if you could say it to their faces’. If not, you kind of know, deep down, that it’s not really fair.
“Some comedians can lose sight of what they’re there to do – entertain people, not offend them.”
As two of the funniest men in the country, it’s interesting to learn each comedian’s own belief system. Does faith play a part in their lives?
“I think there’s a large amount of whatever it is you find comfort in,” says Greg, soon to tour theUKwith new stand-up show The Back of My Mother’s Head. “For me, that’s humour. I wouldn’t ever say that’s a replacement for faith, but it does give me comfort and warmth.
“I guess the being I believe in is a pretty awesome stunning thing with an amazing sense of humour. I mean he or she would have to be wouldn’t they?”
Howard, again, seems to run with similar ideals: “I’m not religious, I don’t think too many comedians out there are, but I think heaven is a lovely idea,” he says. “It must be awesome hanging out on clouds with angels strumming harps and Jimi Hendrix floating by. I don’t know if the reality is as lovely; I certainly hope so.”
Howard, who’s still officially the youngest comedian to sell-outLondon’s O2 Arena, and recently returned with a brand new series of his self-titled show, holds some strong views of his own on faith, but equally maintains that everyone should be free to believe in what they want.
“I find certain things unsettle me in religion, just as they do in most other subjects. I’m not sure about the whole speaking to spirits thing. It all feels a little false to me.
“But, I suppose, on the flip side, if you’ve lost someone and you need to take comfort, and that helps you get through your day, then that’s your business – who am I to say anything to the contrary?”
But where comedy is concerned, religion clearly has a part to play. Christian comedians Tim Vine and Milton Jones have seen a rise in the popularity of their stand-up shows over the last few years, with Jones recently claiming it’s down to his lack of swearing and suitability for family.
But can a Christian comic ever rise to the highest echelons of British comedy or will that glass ceiling always remain?
“I would just say whatever kind of comedian you are, good luck to you because it’s not easy,” Howard sums up. “It isn’t easy for anyone. And it’s something that you have to be very brave to attempt, in whatever capacity. Starting comedy is no mean feat and any comedian I doff my cap to.”
“I’ve seen Tim Vine and I wouldn’t know the difference to be honest,” Greg adds. “I imagine being a so-called Christian comedian would be somewhat limiting, but he is on-point hilarious; his gags are spot on.
“Again, I feel faith is not really the issue, it’s whether you reference religion or you don’t. Just be funny, that’s the simple rule to follow.”