Nervous laughter

'Does my bomb look big in this?' The Muslim comedian Shazia Mirza is still telling that favourite joke, but as Julian Hall finds, others are feeling gagged by the London bombings
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The Independent Culture

After an atrocity is committed, the usual comedy response is an outpouring of tasteless jokes on the internet, while liberal comedians sharpen their claws on the knee-jerk response of some newspapers.

In New York after September 11, the whole gamut of comedic expression was experienced. In clubs and theatres, audiences were congratulated for beating terrorism by coming out for the evening, and choruses of "USA, USA" would break out spontaneously. At a 9/11 charity fundraiser, Jerry Seinfeld suggested replacing the twin towers with three new ones named, Go, Fuck, and Yourselves. Meanwhile, among a number of comics taking a less emotional stance were Joan Rivers, who suggested that the firemen's widows would be disappointed if their husbands were found alive, given the compensation they were paid.

Many gigs on the London comedy circuit were cancelled after the recent Tube and bus bombs, mostly because of the resulting transport problems. At the gigs that went ahead, or in the days immediately after, the most prevalent joke tied in London's almost forgotten Olympic triumph, and was played out as variations of "Wow, those Parisians turned out to be bad losers!".

At The Comedy Store last weekend, Ian Stone told his audience: "It's OK, we're safe, we're underground...". He then described how at a gig outside London one woman had taken exception to the line and heckled "But people died!", only to be silenced by the rest of the audience. Meanwhile, the comic Robin Ince focused on the idea that you beat the terrorists just by turning up to a comedy show: "What did you do in the conflict? Oh, it was tough son, we went to Jongleurs... exactly how going to Cardiff Jongleurs and eating chicken in a basket and dancing to a Rocky Horror medley is like D-day, I do not know."

For some British comics, known for their jokes about the Middle East and suicide bombers, the terrorist attacks in London have come at a time when they were trying to distance themselves from their previous routines.

When Anglo-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili was recording his HBO Special in New York, he had to win over a small group of people chanting "USA, USA" in reaction to his joke about Iran dropping "Death to America!" from morning prayer for 48 hours out of respect for 9/11. For the most part, however, Djalili's material has been well received by both UK and US audiences. Now, however, he is changing his act away from the generic Middle Eastern character, and feels that the bombs in London are damaging both on a humane level and on a professional level: "I've had everybody ringing up asking me to do shows and comment on the events. I'm reluctant to do it a) because I don't have time, and b) because to say anything worthwhile you have to work on it, and I don't want that kind of thing in my show [No Agenda] this year."

Also reluctant to trade on her previous material is 29-year-old Shazia Mirza, a Muslim comedian of Pakistani origin who was propelled into the spotlight by her post-9/11 joke: "My name is Shazia Mirza - at least that is what it says on my pilot's licence." It should be noted that lines such as: "My dad has let me out for the night - he thinks this is a library" and "As a child I saw graffiti in big letters saying 'Paki go home'. It was my mum telling me it was time for dinner" were as much mainstays of her act, but the pilot's licence joke has had the last word for a while.

Mirza is not always comfortable being seen as a spokeswoman for the Muslim community, and understandably so when it comes to terrorism. Her approach to some media appearances has resulted in flippant and withering comments. Once when she was asked on the radio to talk about GCSE results from a Muslim perspective, she said: "Obviously the boys are doing well at chemistry, because they've got to make the bombs."

Along with numerous other members of the Muslim community, she has stressed that the suicide bombers are not a reflection on Muslims. "I'm not inside their heads," she says, while in the past she has stated that "there is no such thing as a Muslim terrorist - terrorism is terrorism. There's no such thing as an Islamic fundamentalist, because they don't believe in the fundamentals of Islam."

In the last few weeks, Mirza has been previewing her Edinburgh show, Between You and Me, focusing mainly on her personal life, and says that she would rather talk about her indignation that her local swimming baths have a "Muslim swim" day. "You wouldn't have a Catholic swim would you?" Nevertheless, old habits die hard and she did ask the audience at The Canal Café Theatre on one night last week: "Does my bomb look big in this?".

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh show of another British Muslim comedian, Patrick Monahan, The Road Map to Peace, is an effort to reconcile cultures based on what they have in common. The ethos of the show echoes Omid Djalili's philosophy that: "Life isn't clear cut, there are grey areas, and I think we should listen to those grey areas because that's where the truth lies."

Monahan himself, a Geordie comic with Iranian and Irish parentage, has an intriguing perspective on the troubles in the Middle East. On one side of his family his grandmother was an Iraqi who married an Iranian Armenian. On the other, one of his cousins is a US marine and has served in the two Gulf wars. "The Iraq war was a domestic to us," he quips, "20 years ago my Nan could have sorted it out."

The domesticity that he is able to bring to a global problem is refreshing. Monahan lives near Tavistock Square in London, where the bomb on the No 30 bus exploded, and recalls: "When my mother saw the news she rang me and said, 'Patrick, don't go near bombs, don't go near buildings and get your hair cut'."

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