I missed the first episode of ‘Citizen Khan‘.
And so after reading reports that the ‘comedy’ show was racist of Islamophobic and that the BBC had received hundreds of complaints, I thought that I’d best watch last night’s show.
Instead of seeing anything resembling a comedy, I found myself instead watching something that was tired, poorly written and produced, and far from anything that might remotely be described as funny. Far from insulting the religion of Islam or Pakistanis, the show insulted the intelligence of its viewers.
Far from being discriminatory or racist, it was just decidedly unfunny.
My friend Leon Moosavi last week claimed in the Independent that the show “…can be defined as racist because it reinforced stereotypes that exist about Asians and Muslims to a non-Asian audience”.
I would disagree. Using and indeed reinforcing the stereotypes of Asians, Muslims or indeed anyone else is not necessarily always going to be racist or Islamophobic. In fact laughing at stereotypes is what a good deal of comedy is about: imagine Fawlty Towers without the stereotypes of both Manuel and Basil Fawlty?
Having written about comedy on this blog before and having had an article published in the magazine, Speak Out on the Carry On films, it is the way in which stereotypes are used that is important. Some of the funniest comedies – my own penchant for the Carry On films included – are founded entirely on stereotypes.
Take for instance Father Ted. Without the stereotypes of Irish-ness and Catholicism, the hugely popular show would have had little additional material to make its audience laugh. Likewise Borat. Whilst many now have cause to laugh merely at the mention of the name Kazakhstan, Sacha Baron Cohen’s use of stereotypes about Jews in the feature film based around his character were both funny and uncomfortable in equal measure. Either of these racist…? Far from it.
The best comedies therefore use stereotype for comedic value. Stereotypes are extremely funny.
Whether relating to nationality as in Father Ted, age in The Inbetweeners or class as in Only Fools and Horses, it is the stereotypes these comedies draw upon that make us laugh.
Citizen Khan therefore sits in this long-standing comedic tradition, drawing upon stereotypes to make an audience laugh about themselves and others. As I previously noted on this blog, “the ability to laugh at ourselves comes out of a sense of constancy and continuity, not least the conscious or sub-conscious recognition of who we are and more probably, who we think we are”. I added how much of this typically takes place “via some of the most mundanely stereotypical characters in some of the most mundane of settings”.
Undoubtedly, Citizen Khan ticks all the established comedy boxes: it doesn’t break any moulds.
Where it doesn’t tick the box however is in terms of whether or not it is funny. Comedy – even that which draws upon the most crudest of stereotypes – has to be funny. The benchmark has to be that it makes you laugh.
Sadly, Citizen Khan does not.
So let’s not over-react nor devalue terms such as racism or Islamophobia; let’s not use them inappropriately or without good cause. Instead, let’s just say it as it is: Citizen Khan isn’t funny.