Comedy: Laughter without prejudice

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jeff Mirza, a British Asian comedian, has a gag about a group of Indian boozers reeling out of an English restaurant in Bombay at four in the morning while throwing up Yorkshire pudding. He also takes on the character of Arthur Patel, a British Asian who complains about Australians - "they come over here and take our jobs".

"The whole purpose of it is to show what prejudice is," Mirza (right) explains. "It's a way of getting people to laugh about stereotypes. If a white comedian did it, of course, it wouldn't go down so well. But when I do it, it's turning a stereotype on its head. It's all tongue-in-cheek, but I've found comedy is a great vehicle for pushing ideas. Talking about issues through comedy can really help."

For some time, Mirza, a one-time structural engineer, was ploughing a lone furrow in British-Asian comedy. "It's all to do with role-models," he sighs. "For years, I was out there on the circuit on my own. Now other people are picking up from me.

"You've got to keep pushing, but your families discourage you. They'd say: `You can do some comedy on television, but then come home and work in the shop.' When I started out as a stand-up, my parents would say to me: `What are you doing this for? What's wrong? Are people paying you for this? Are they mad?' They were bewildered."

They are equally baffled by Mirza's fascination with football, which forms the basis of Cornershots, his topical show about the World Cup. "Asian children are caught in a classic pincer-movement: they love the game, but their parents are saying: `Football is no good. You'll come back with dirty kit. Cricket is better.' It's a throwback to the Raj, and tea and tiffin. When Asian children get good at football, there is no parental enouragement there. That X-factor is missing."

Mirza acknowledges that Goodness Gracious Me, the highly-acclaimed comedy series on Radio 4 and BBC2, has also helped bring British-Asian comedy to a wider audience. "It has raised the profile generally. It has helped because people now think `Asians can be funny'. Beforehand, the stereotype was always, `black people are cool and Asian people are doctors'."

For all that, Mirza is keen to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. "My comedy is not for Asians specifically. I'm not an `Asian comedian' as such.

"I've played Edinburgh three times and Jongleurs. I've even played Inverness. There are no brown faces in sight there, yet the audience still went with me."

Jeff Mirza's `Cornershots' - a topical show about the World Cup - is at The Bull, 68 High St, Barnet, Herts (0181-449 0048) tonight and the Waterman's Arts Centre, Brentford (0181-568 1176) next Sat and Sun

EXTRA

The Cambridge Footlights, where such luminaries as Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Eleanor Bron, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Germaine Greer started out, is touring with a new show which it is taking up to Edinburgh. For this year's offering, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the company has employed a professional director, Cal McCrystal from the Peepolykus Theatre Company. You can see the resulting show at the Cambridge Arts Theatre (01223 503333) until 20 June.

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