Ethnic joke given freedom of Fringe expression makes a Fringe comeback: In his second despatch from his hunt for the best joke at the Edinburgh Festival, David Lister finds political correctness a thing of the past

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A JEWISH comedian claiming to be the first stand-up comic in the Fringe's 48-year history with an act devoted to Jewish jokes; Irishmen telling Irish jokes; four comediennes called Funny Black Women on the Edge: Edinburgh this year has lost all pretensions to political correctness. The ethnic joke is back.

Ivor Dembina, a former comedy promoter, has decided at the age of 43 to experiment on a show concentrating on his Jewishness which to the surprise of other comics and himself is selling out. It is a curious fusion of Jewish humour and alternative comedy. So we get Ivor recounting how he and his rabbi got stoned and disputed in true Talmudic fashion the difference between making pot legal and decriminalising it.

Some of his humour is old- style, Jewish one-liners: 'You want a good sex life, the answer is communication. If you're making love to your partner, tell them . . .'

But the modern-day Jewish joke risks upsetting some of the audience with lines that border on the dangerous but theoretically are rendered inoffensive because it is a Jew delivering them: 'On the comedy circuit in Israel they have professional hecklers, a shekel for a heckle . . . Spielberg is a clever Jew. He knew Schindler's List couldn't fail. The two things audiences love to see are Germans portrayed as horrible Nazis and lots of Jews getting shot.'

Offstage, Dembina acknowledges that Jews expecting to see a cosy Jackie Mason-style act might be disconcerted, as fellow comedians have been. 'I was the first British comedian on the alternative circuit to say the framework of my act stems from my own ethnic identity. But mine isn't Jackie Mason self- deprecating humour. I'm trying to take Jewish comedy out of that borscht-belt setting.'

If Jewish jokes are permissible when told by a Jew, then so are Irish jokes told by an Irishman. 'I bought an audio cleaning tape. I'm a big fan of theirs,' would not have gone down well told by an English comic. But delivered by Kevin Gildea at the Young Gifted and Green evening of Irish comedy, it got plenty of laughs from a largely Irish audience.

Self-deprecation also underlies many of the Irish jokes - 'the Irish army is so small. Who do they think we're going to be invaded by? Pizzaland?' Religion is also ever present: 'Applaud loudly now. Pretend it's the Pope that's coming on. And if you're not Catholic, pretend he's coming on but is going to apologise for the whole thing.'

Gildea also came out with some of the better one-liners: 'My girlfriend overdosed on the morning after pill and propelled herself into the future . . . My mum and dad are both dead and you know you always think of those things you wish you had told them, like 'look out, be careful of that bus',' and the cleverest one liner of the week so far: 'Brevity is the.'

Funny Black Women on the Edge employ more topical one- liners: 'I want to talk about black people on television, so I won't be very long', though most of their humour is sketch-based yet still pertinent - the black soul record company which only employs two black people, 'but they like working in the canteen . . . and if we called it white soul, people would think we were selling fish'.

If ethnic jokes are back, then it is good to see there is room for some of the golden oldies . . . Ivor Dembina does a second show of old Jewish jokes. So it's a welcome return for the man whose parrot could talk in Yiddish. He took it to the golf club, took bets at 25-1 that the parrot would perform. But the bird remained silent and he lost hundreds of pounds. Back home he was about to strangle the parrot. 'Why?' it protested. The man replied: 'You kept quiet and lost me a fortune.' 'Ah,' said the parrot, 'think of the odds you'll get next week.'

Tomorrow: In search of the women's joke.

Festival news, page 23