And now for our sketch about the Taliban
For years Asian comedians – and audiences – were a novelty on the circuit. Not any more, says Yasmeen Khan
Tuesday 19 July 2011
Asian women? Doing comedy? Don't be ridiculous, get back in the kitchen and make me some samosas." Comic Imran Yusuf is, of course, joking when I ask him what he thinks about the fact that I'm half of Asian Provocateurs, a female British-Asian sketch duo.
Arguably leading the pack of the crop of new British-Asian comics, Yusuf (who is African by birth) had a successful Edinburgh Fringe debut last year, where he was nominated for the Best Newcomer Comedy Award and has now had a pilot for his own show greenlit by BBC3. Paul Chowdhry recently concluded a nationwide tour by playing the O2 Indigo, while Paul Sinha's popularity on the circuit is matched by his regular appearances on Radio 4. Behind them, there are a handful of others with growing fanbases.
When I first started watching stand-up comedy, I would often be the only brown face in the audience. An Asian on stage would have been rarer than an un-hacked phone, so when Asian comedy exploded into mainstream consciousness with the arrival of Goodness Gracious Me, it seemed like a huge shortcut had been achieved. The legacy of both series was to inspire other Asians on to the circuit, although the tiny number who appeared were often viewed as a novelty act.
In 2008, while making a programme for Radio 4 about British-Asian comics, I came across the stand-up comedian Sajeela Kershi. Our mutual desire to write and perform sketches became apparent and Asian Provocateurs – the UK's only female Asian sketch duo – was born. We're about to hit Edinburgh with our debut show, Asian Provocateurs: Rule Britannia!, a satirical sketch show featuring television spoofs, original characters and cross-cultural comedy.
Do the recent success stories mean that Asian comedy is finally coming into its own? For many acts the term itself poses a problem. "My issue is that I don't understand what 'Asian' means," says the comedian and broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli, who returns to Edinburgh this year with his show Chat Masala. "My 'Asian' experiences are very different from someone who is not Punjabi and Sikh. My cultural background is part of who I am, but it's not everything."
Paul Sinha became a doctor (top of every Asian parent's career list) before turning his hand to stand-up. He is equally unsure about being defined by ethnicity alone. "It's not good enough for people to come and see a comic just because they are of the same background. People are, and should be, more choosy."
An element of being representative of a community is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. Asian punters tell me that they do enjoy seeing Asian comics because of their background; the desire to see yourself reflected, or to laugh at shared cultural experiences, hasn't gone away. Elements of our British-Pakistani cultural backgrounds run through a few of our sketches, but the aim is to be inclusive; this is not an act geared to only one community.
The starting point for all of our sketches is not culture, but simply what we find funny. We take our targets but place them in, say, a costume-drama setting. As two Asian women, who also happen to be Muslim, the chance to ridicule extremism in a Taliban sketch that sees the audience willingly join in with jazz hands to sing "jahadi-hadi" was too great an opportunity to miss.
Neither of us is the common media representation of an Asian woman – oppressed, suppressed and depressed, preferably in a hijab. Someone described us as the Asian French and Saunders – far too early for that, but nice words all the same. Like all comics, my primary aim is to entertain, but if along the way we challenge some of the preconceptions about Asian women, then I'll celebrate with a samosa – home-made of course.
Asian Provocateurs, Harlequin Theatre, Redhill (01737 276500) 29 July; Laughing Horse @ Espionage, Edinburgh ( www.edfringe.com) 4 to 28 August
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