Not a great show for me today. I’ll go so far as to admit it was probably the worst show I’ve done this year.
It all started yesterday, when I was at the International Showcase. One of my new comedian friends, a depressed Jewish New Yorker called Matt, had invited me to see his one-hour show later than night. I went along and really enjoyed his material. Unfortunately, the rest of the audience didn’t and it took me a good 20 minutes to realise why. I’ve spent more than a year living in the US and most of my childhood was wasted obsessing about American sitcoms, movies and video games. I understood every stateside reference in his act – Jewish Princesses, Puerto Rican Day Parade, hypocritical televangelists, fanny packs, closeted gay Republicans. No one else in the audience did, however.
Anyway, afterwards, we went through the usual post-mortem that comedians have when a show is less than well received. Matt was grateful for the feedback and now had a better idea of why some of his material wasn’t resonating with the audience. He also told me that a friend of his was running a daily Performer Showcase, and that I might want to lobby for stage time there.
I contacted his pal and was delighted to find I had a booking for a multi-arts show in the basement room of a Youth Hostel, near the Royal Mile, the next day. I now had thirty more unsuspecting people upon whom I could inflict my nasty humour!
It really was a mixed bag of “talent” – musicians, comedians, a spoken word poet and… what looked like a mime act! No way I could be worse than the last two right? (Famous Last Words!!!)
Wait a minute. Who’s that at the back of the room? The guy in the cowboy hat looks familiar. I’m sure I know him from somewhere… Holy shit, it’s my comedy hero Christian Reilly. How awesome!
What’s that? I’m going on AFTER Christian Reilly? I’m going on DIRECTLY after one of the greatest comedy talents of our generation??
Needless to say, he rocked the joint. And straight afterwards I stank up the place.
My only ray of daylight from this dark, depressing debacle is that he left the room at the start of my slot to go and get a drink, so missed how awful I was, and by the time he came back I was essentially at the end, just in time for my hero to see me deliver a poorly received joke about Indian lesbianism.
He was very nice to me afterwards though. He initiated a handshake – which, embarrassingly, caught me by surprise – then gave me a flyer and I told him I was a huge fan and was coming to see him soon anyway.
Was I the worst received act of the show? Well that depends. What’s worse? Thirty people staring at you in silence, unimpressed? (Which is exactly what the mime, poet and a comedian faced.) Or having some of the audience enjoy your material but the rest take offence at what you’ve just said from that stage?
The aftermath of the show was the most interesting part, however, and I suspect this is something I will have to tolerate for the rest of my comedy career – or whatever remains of it anyway.
When you are a non-PC, right-of-centre, offensive comedian then on the days you do well the other comedians in the room will tolerate you afterwards. They will mumble pleasantries and tell you why you are “wrong” to do that material – despite the audience clearly telling you otherwise through their laughter. They might even make eye contact.
On the days you do badly, you can expect one-word replies, zero eye contact and they will not bother to conceal their contempt for you. That’s what I got today, even from the performers who had clearly died on their unimaginative and unfunny arses.
Thanks to them, however, today I’ve had another epiphany. I would rather be the comedian that 80% of the population hates and 5% loves, than the comedian 100% of the crowd thinks is “fine”. Play it safe, never offend anyone, and you are like 99% of the amateurs trying to make on the circuit. I will never be that guy. I never want to be that guy. That guy is wasting my time and their own.
Which neatly brings me to another kind of performer I can’t stand… The “ethnic comedian”.
Some people think “ethnic” in this context means “non-white”, but I apply the term to any comic who isn’t ancestrally from the British Isles, or at least pretending to be.
There are plenty of “ethnic comedians” on the scene nowadays, many of whom seem to have nothing to talk about except their ethnicity. They attract two types of audience. Firstly, people of their own ethnicity who are expecting cultural in-jokes – a very limited market. Secondly, everyone else – who has usually come to laugh at the funny accent that’s almost inevitable with an “ethnic” act.
That’s the LAST thing I want for myself. If you cannot connect with a broad audience then, to me, that’s failure! One of my favourite comedy routines is Omid Djalili’s story about his dad, his uncle and the skinhead. The story itself is funny. NOT because of the silly accent, but because the people in the story say and do funny things! They came out of the encounter as heroes. Everyone can relate to that.
It’s fine to do material about your immigrant parents, but if the totality of the “joke” is a silly accent and poor English then you just ain’t a comedian sonny! Some of the worst offenders for this are household names that comedy aficionados are familiar with. And I can’t stand them, to be frank.
Like many second-generation immigrants, I grew up in a world where my parents’ generation were ridiculed, and even attacked, simply because they spoke differently to the native population. For me to go on stage, put on a silly accent and encourage punters to laugh at Johnny Foreigner’s inability to speak the Queen’s English would be a betrayal of the people who worked hard, suffered horrendous abuse and yet still did their best to raise me.
One of the worst offenders for this is Jeff Mirza, who has a show here in Edinburgh called “Meet Abu Hamsta and Paki Bashir.” The title didn’t fill me with confidence, but I went to see him today anyway, hopeful that his show would be more than just the “look at me, I’m brown and can do funny accent” act I’ve hated all my life. Predictably, he disappointed me.
Mirza doesn’t seem to understand comedy, and relies on lazy stereotype and his “funny” accents. Here’s an examples of his humour:
“My wife’s name is Jameela. But I call her ‘Jam’ because she’s sweet and has a strawberry-shaped birthmark.”
Are you laughing? No? Neither was anyone else. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Most of Mirza’s structured jokes failed to secure big laughs. The only time he managed to be genuinely funny was when he was ad-libbing banter with the audience. He seems like a personable and entertaining guy, who just doesn’t know how to write good material.
Instead, he thinks a silly costume and an even sillier accent will be enough. Well, I can tell you, for £10 a ticket it certainly isn’t enough. Especially when genuine comedic genius is on offer at the many free shows playing in Edinburgh this year.
Mirza had also promised his fans that his show would be reclaiming the word “Paki” and this was the part I was most intrigued about. As it turns out, reclaiming and redefining racial epithets is somewhat outside the wit and talent of Jeff Mirza. Apart from occasionally using the word, and a joke about being racially abused by his Physics teacher – which he delivered so badly no-one in the crowd knew what he was on about – there was no real commentary about the usage and significance of “Paki” as a term of abuse or endearment.
I’m no critic, but if I was giving the man a mark out of five for today’s performance he would be getting a one-star review. However, I don’t want to be too harsh on Jeff Mirza. So he didn’t do too well today. It happens. Sure it’s strange for a paid show to sell less than half the available tickets on a Saturday night. Suggests it shouldn’t be a paid show at all. (And it’s pretty unlikely Mirza will be making a profit if what I saw today is a typical audience throughout his run here.)
The most important question I’m left asking is whether it’s his fault he’s created a one-hour show peppered with lazy stereotypes about Asians and Arabs? Should he be braver and branch out into more challenging, thought-provoking material? Or is it the audience’s fault because they wouldn’t accept his act if he wrote jokes that were about anything else but his ethnicity and religion?
Ultimately, the comedian has nowhere to hide and no-one to blame but himself. That applies to all of us. If you choose to play it safe and give the audience exactly what they expect from you then that makes you a “performer.” That’s what Jeff Mirza is to me – a performer.
However, if you choose to push the boundaries, deliver a message that the audience doesn’t expect and that challenges their preconceptions and prejudices then that elevates you to the level of “artist.” That’s what I hope to be some day. And I won’t find my inspiration from the likes of Jeff Mirza or anyone else peddling lazy stereotypes for the sake of cheap laughs.