I’m used to attracting the ire of strangers. In fact, I enjoy it. It’s one of the reasons I’m often a deliberately offensive and contrarian comedian.
All experienced comedy acts have “bankers”. A joke or routine that they can “take to the bank” and, without fail, cash it in for laughs. Well, mine is called Bambam Shaikh. He’s the one asset in my comedy arsenal (we’re going with an IED theme?) that’s absolutely guaranteed to generate paroxysms of delight, regardless of the venue or audience demographic. He’s also the catalyst for much of the online hate mail I receive – exclusively from Middle-Easterners who’ve never actually seen me perform.
In much the same way that God has come to hate one of His creations, the Arab, so too have I come to hate my own creation, the Arab stereotype character of Bambam Shaikh. Whose machine-gun delivery (is this necessary?) and simplistic stereotyping has caught the public imagination at comedy clubs across England.
If you’re unfamiliar with him, Bambam Shaikh is a racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist hypocrite from the Persian Gulf, who is unashamedly candid with his idiotic and offensive opinions, and has been terrorizing (Oy vey!) audiences up and down the country. And like many comedians – Andy Kaufman, Al Murray, Ricky Gervais in Extras etc. – I’ve come to despise my most one-dimensional, and yet most popular, creation. To the point where I want to retire him from my repertoire entirely.
When I was a teenager, planning my dream comedy career, I imagined my act would (somehow) effortlessly blend puerile banter with meaningful dialogue, embodying my two greatest comedic inspirations – the Farrelly Brothers and Bill Hicks. It’s maddening, then, to admit that not only have I been unable – so far, anyway – to achieve the comic fusion I dreamed would be my forte, but that the more cerebral routines I’ve written are being outshone – according to audiences and comedy promoters – by material I consider to be simplistic and clownish.
Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I am often specifically asked by comedy clubs not to do the material I want to perform, and instead roll out “The Arab Guy” – a character created six months ago as a one-off production to fill five minutes at short notice in a London comedy club. And I’ve been regularly performing him ever since, usually at the insistence of the venues. The demands to silence my own voice in favour of Bambam’s are frustrating, and the resulting exasperation is re-shaping my relationship with comedy.
I wasn’t able to vocalize this feeling, or indeed even acknowledge its existence, until earlier this week when it came to a head. I was booked to perform five minutes for a comedy competition at one of my favourite venues, The Frog and Bucket. It’s a competition I’ve won before, which makes the experience much easier as I simply have nothing left to prove there anymore. Or so I thought.
Now, winning competitions is important for new-ish comedians. And as other comics keep reminding me “The crowd loves Bambam. He’s the bomb!” (Why are you doing this?) So it would be sensible to just do the bit, win the trophy and crow about the victory all over the internet. But, for reasons I now understand, I was in no mood for that.
For months now, Bambam has become a bigger and bigger part of my stage life. To the point where it’s hard to remember the last time I wasn’t Bambam. And, subconsciously, I’d gotten so frustrated with his overshadowing presence in my comedy career that I became desperate to escape him.
So I did two things that no comedian should do. Firstly, I spent the day writing an explosive (God, make it stop!) new routine that would be premiered, unrehearsed, at a competition just hours later. Secondly, rather than attempting likability – which is what you need to win – I characterized myself as frustrated and sexually deviant. I was deliberately angry and philosophical; challenged the audience for their love of simple-minded, low-brow comedy, and for their childish views on social privilege and prejudice. I shouted racial epithets at them in order to demonstrate how insults can be rendered powerless if we make a choice to redefine them. I summarily told them they were wrong about the world. And I was having a blast! (No-one thinks this is funny!)
This was a suicidal choice. (That one was unintentional.)
I should have been boo’ed off the stage.
Instead there was a happy ending… of sorts.
I didn’t win – that was never on the cards. The prize went to a likable and polished musical double act. However, to everyone’s surprise – including mine – I made it to the final and received praise afterwards from other acts and from the audience for the indignant, and also funny, message I’d delivered.
That was a revelation! (No “Road to Damascus” references, please. We’re done with the cheap asides.)
I’d always promised myself that I never wanted to be a Bill Hicks clone, even though I love his work. Yet this was the most Hicks-ian I’d ever been. And because it had been delivered to such acclaim, it changed my perspective on Bambam entirely. I’d proved that I could be funny without him. And this has allowed me to see him for what he is.
While I may never learn to truly love performing as Bambam, he is a part of my comedic inheritance. He naturally belongs in a Dumb and Dumber style caper that I myself would enjoy. So why am I aggrieved that punters enjoy him too? If audiences love him, then I should rejoice in the happiness that he brings to others.
I see now the problem was that while I was judging myself negatively for inventing something so puerile, I also imagined others were doing so too. Every time I performed as Bambam, no matter how well he was received, it chipped away at my self-esteem. And I realize now that it shouldn’t have.
After all, did I question Laurel and Hardy’s talent because they excelled at slapstick? No. I giggled like a mental patient at their every on-screen humiliation. Did I judge Mike Judge for the inanity of Beavis and Butthead’s banter? No. I laughed like I was high at all their idiotic antics. So why am I imagining other people dislike me for inventing a character that is unsophisticated and fatuous?
Furthermore, why should I deny the public the joy Bambam so clearly brings to them? As I’ve proved this week, there’s room in my comedy career to express different facets of my personality and tastes. It’s possible for me to be me on stage, and still enjoy success.
So, I’m giving Bambam a reprieve, and keeping him in my rotation of comedy characters. That does mean I will continue to receive hate mail for the foreseeable future. But that’s just a fortuitous dividend for a contrarian comedian.