Stewart Lee: Noises Off

Heard the one about the comedian who couldn't do jokes about Islam? Stewart Lee takes issue with Ben Elton over his criticism of the BBC
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The Eighties comedian Ben Elton told the Christian magazine Third Way last week that the BBC is too scared to make jokes about Islam. Apparently, Elton himself even had a line about taking the mountain to Mohamed disallowed by the BBC on religious grounds. Comedy fans may find it ironic that this line vanished when the whole of his recent ITV series, the woeful Get a Grip, was somehow allowed to be broadcast.

To be fair, it is true that there are fewer jokes on television concerning Islam than there are jokes concerning Christianity, but it is a leap of faith to assume this means such jokes have been removed to protect Muslim sensibilities and BBC staff. It may be that Muslim comedy simply isn't being generated at source.

What do we really know of Islam, beyond the most basic stereotypes of burkas and bombs? Life of Brian brilliantly used the understanding its audience had of Christ's life to substitute a bewildered, normal bloke for him. But it's not possible to take people under the skin of Islam in the same way, when it remains a mystery to most writers and audiences.

"Culturally Christian" comedians at least understand the taboos they break when writing about vicars and virgin births. The Muslim world's response to the Danish Mohamed cartoons remains deplorable, but perhaps a rigorous, thorough satire of Islamic themes would be better executed by someone with experience of it.

There are Muslim comics in stand-up, such as Shazia Mirza, who can speak about their culture from a personal point of view, and who have earned both praise and hostility from their own communities. Perhaps we should look to them to fill Mr Elton's Muslim joke quota?

And, of course, there are jokes about Islam in circulation. I have a routine about being asked to leave a WeightWatchers meeting by a woman in a hijab which has been described as both "politically correct" and "ignorant and offensive". Chris Morris is working on a comedy film about suicide bombers which one expects will be characteristically illuminating. And Roy Chubby Brown's latest CD includes the following material: "You can't say anything about religion these days can you? They say you can't say Protestant, you can't say Muslim, you can't say Jew. Which is a shame, because I like to go in my newsagent on a Sunday morning and say, 'Here's a quid. Keep the change, you Paki bastard.'"

Chubby's wonderful timing and shocking vulgarity mean one can't help but laugh. But his joke doesn't mean anything. It sets up the expectation that it will address anxieties about faith, then jumps into simple racist abuse. It would be difficult for the BBC to justify broadcasting such a flawed joke. Yet it is received by its audience as if it has heroically exposed the PC establishment's fear of addressing non-Christian religions, a glib truism that the increasingly disconnected Ben Elton has now also embraced.

At the end of his interview, Elton, whose children attend a church school, said he believed in "almost nothing". But he went on to say that schools should teach the essentials of Christianity, if only for cultural reasons. In making this statement, he begins to unravel his own confusion. Schools should teach children not just about Christianity, but about all religions, for cultural reasons. Religious separatism in education encourages the teaching of religions as revealed truths. This will not build the kind of society where we know enough about each other's religious and cultural backgrounds to understand them, accept them, question them and, yes, make jokes about them in anything other than the most ignorant manner.

Stewart Lee was the co-writer of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' and is now on tour with his show '41st Best Stand-Up Ever'