COMEDY / Displacement activities: Their elders may tell them it's not an Asian art, but a new generation is laughing on the other side of its race

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The Independent Culture
It's a funny thing, humour. There Jeff Mirza is, doing his bit on the large bare stage of the Hackney Empire, a slightly rumpled man in a pea green suit. 'You know something about Asians,' he says to the wary Asian audience. 'We don't have consciences. White people have consciences, but we don't need them . . .' He pauses. 'We've got the people across the road.'

He snaps into mimicry of an outraged Asian elder: 'Cut your hair] What will the people across the road think?' To chuckles of recognition, Mirza slides deftly into his Asian parents' suspicion of the very word 'fun'. 'Fun, what do you mean fun?': he imbues the word with all sorts of intimations of licentiousness. The laughter builds.

A few weeks later Mirza is on the same stage for the Hackney Empire's cheerful birthday party, but there are no more than a few spartan titters from the audience. This audience is predominantly white and gradually it dawns on you - a white audience, particularly in this super-conscious 'right-on' venue, is too nervous to laugh at what it fears could be an Asian put-down.

Political humour and ethnic humour arguably depend on shared prejudices. Fragment them and confusion follows. When The Other becomes your neighbour, humour leaves by the back door. This could be bad news for a new British commodity: the Asian comic. Five years ago Asian comedians were rarely seen on the circuit. Jag Plah had his moment of fame at the end of the Eighties but was dropped, he said, when clubs realised he was disabled. A spastic in a wheelchair ('Call it cerebral palsy if you want a fancy name'), who talked about disability and sex, was too much for them. And an Asian spastic, well . . . 'It's disgraceful,' he mourned, 'Because I love being on stage.'

While Plah sits at home waiting for a call from an agent, other Asians are starting to break on to the circuit. Mirza won a new Asian talent contest at the Hackney Empire recently. The cabaret group Men From Cha-Cha-Cha (of which Mirza is also a member) are testing out their new act in occasional gigs. And in January the Secret Asians double-act will return to the scene in a new, revised version after some years in purdah.

No one is more surprised by this development than the Indian middle classes, who will tell you that comedy is not an Asian art, that these new stirrings are a local growth, something born quintessentially from immigration. But that's too easy. The blame for comedy's bad name among Indian communities in this country lies in the subcontinent, and can be placed firmly at the door of the film comedian. The heroines of Indian films might be tougher these days, and the romance raunchier, but the comics live on in a time warp: a bumbling idiot, a village nitwit, 'They give him a funny walk or a funny voice or make him disabled, which is really naff,' said Sanjeev Bhasker, a Secret Asian. 'My dad said, 'You can't be a comedian,' ' quipped Mirza. 'He said, 'Where's your funny moustache?' '

But Miles Kington found a wealth of comic life outside the Indian movies for his radio series on different nations' humour, It's a Funny Old World. Indian regional jokes, political jokes, rude and baffling jokes abound. (Among the more obscure: ' 'Grandfather's shaved off his pubic hair,' sang women at a wedding, 'and knitted it into jumpers for all the village' '.)

None of these jokes, however, forms the stock-in-trade of Britain's new Asian comedians. All have escaped - albeit part-time, like Mirza - from more sensible professions: accountancy, business management or, in Mirza's case, engineering and a job (when needed) in the family concern. And where else should their material come from but real life? In Mirza's act you find his extended family and invented characters such as the sycophants (those Asians who go wild with delight at being patronised by a lowly white council functionary) and the trendies ('Jamal' who travels up from Chelsea to buy samosas in Ilford to demonstrate his street cred). It is all done, he says, in the best possible taste. 'You won't survive very long having a go at people. I don't talk about sex and I don't touch religious things. Why should I alienate people gratuitously?'

Other 'new Asians' have a different approach. Balbir Bahi, another of the Men From Cha Cha Cha and once the lynchpin of the now defunct performance act Urban Turbans, believes politics should be central. Asian humour should tell the truth if it is to stay honest to itself. But, he says frankly, that's no easy matter: the group's sketch about communalism in Bosnia only succeeded at an anti-Fascist gig, and they were cursed off stage by a robust audience of Punjabi men in a Southall pub. 'We blame ourselves,' says Bahi, 'We don't always have the right material for the right audiences.'

Sanjeev Bhaskar, a Secret Asian, has developed his own distinctive style, and performs in surprising settings. His intrepid schools' tour of The Tempest, put on by Tara Arts, has only two actors. The formula, with its multiple changes, gives Bhaskar an opportunity for inventive improvisation: most memorably in the performance I witnessed as a seedy Italian Trinculo clambering among the children, grilling them about the flotsam they might have saved from the shipwreck. The noise is deafening as he picks his way between the forest of hands and urgent shouts for attention. Occasionally he stops and indulges in a little surrealistic riff on the subject of trainers, lunchboxes and even best friends, offered to him by the children as relics of the wreck.

Reports of his skill didn't surprise Nitin Sawhney, the other half of The Secret Asians, an act invented by the pair when they were both at college, and before Sawhney made his name as a composer and musician. 'He's quite brilliant, an Asian Lenny Henry. My role is simply to support him.' Irreverence is the basis of The Secret Asians' comedy: 'It's open season for everything,' said Bhaskar cheerfully. 'Any situation which has elements of seriousness is there for the taking.' But mockery has to have the right tone and context. 'It's very easy,' said Sawhney, 'to point your finger at your own culture to appease another, but it's not necessary.'

Immigration is undoubtedly a rich source of material. 'The situations that arise when two cultures meet,' says Bhaskar, 'that's the interesting thing for me.' He is not a gag man any more than Mirza. He works through people, enjoying foibles and the happy accidents of real life. He relished, for instance, being in charge of a group of serious South Indian musicians on their British tour, enjoying their baffled response to Pizza Huts, and their rage after a visit to Madame Tussauds: 'They said, 'Those British, they're getting at us again. They made Mahatma Gandhi a small man, when everybody knows he was 6ft 4]' '

Relocation is, for almost everybody, a terrible adventure, and there is always a bill to pay. What better way to meet it - as other communities have discovered - than through humour? And who better placed to do so than the comedians who, in Bhaskar's words, 'must question where they come from, taking from both cultures but fitting into neither'.

(Photograph omitted)

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