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.

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13 thoughts on “‘Citizen Khan’ racist or Islamophobic? Neither, it’s just not funny !!!

  1. I take your point, and it’s well made, but I only have the one thing to say – I thought it was really funny! It made me laugh! Proper good, healthy belly laughs – I know it’s kind of old stylee and all, but there’s no accounting for the fact that it ticked my box and marked my bench! Can’t wait for episode 2…
    :-)

    1. Fair enough…comedy is of course entirely subjective so maybe I was just being a bit harsh !!! It didn’t make me laugh but then again, that’s not the benchmark is it ?!?!
      C

  2. Well, I really liked Citizen Khan as well. Two points from me.

    I can’t remember who said it (Jerry Sadowitz?) but all comedy is at the expense of someone. That bucket of water in Laurel and Hardy, or the rolling pin in a Carry On film, eventually has to hit someone. In Citizen Khan, the bulk of the jokes hit Mr Khan himself. His pomposity, obsessive social climbing, his inability to relate to any other member of his family, his ability to blunder into embarrassing sexual misunderstandings and the fact he is manipulated with ease by the female members of his household – all whilst resolutely acting as if he is the king of the castle. These staples of comedy should be familiar to anyone who has watched a British sit-com in the last forty years. Citizen Khan may be set in Sparkhill, but remove some of the religious content and it could just as easily be the Smith family in Stockport or the Jones family in Swansea.

    One thing Jerry Sadowitz certainly did say was that it is dangerous to leave certain groups of people, be they a religious or racial group, out of comedy. What does it tell us about our society if a particular group is left out of a section of our social discourse, permanently? I would not want to live in such a society, and I suspect, deep down, neither would many others.
    Over 20 years ago I saw Jerry Sadowitz play Wolverhampton Polytechnic. Part of his routine concerned the ever younger family members he had been served by in his local Asian corner shop – one day he was convinced he would go in and be sold a packet of cigarettes by an embryo. For a moment the crowd hesitated (Wolves Poly was a pretty left-liberal place from 1988-91) then the audience roared with laughter. They were mature enough to realise Sadowitz was not some Bernard Manning figure solely disparaging one section of the community he knew nothing about – he was observing, in a exaggerated way, a small part of all our lives.

    And that is what Citizen Khan tries to do. Leon Moosavi argues the programme reinforces stereotypes about Asians and Muslims to an non Asian audience. That remains to be seen. But if British Asian comedy writers observe humour in the Muslim community (or any other community) who are we to say they cannot articulate that?

    Ultimately – if it is funny, it works. And I suspect enough people, from a range of backgrounds, will find Citizen Khan works.

    1. Beautifully put – and I think you’ve helped me articulate something more about my own reaction to the programme – my uninhibited belly laughs would not have been possible had I felt uncomfortable about people being singled out and bullied for the benefit of majority group bullies and, in fact, I felt and feel very warm about the characters, which is a triumph for the writers, the actors and the programme makers after just ONE episode! I feel that they must be very clear about what they are doing, and, as you say, much of it is about pricking pomposity, a tradition that reaches back even further than Only Fools and Horses and Dad’s Army (which the programme reminds me of in its tone) to Pickwick Papers and, perhaps even back to Shakespeare, with Polonius and others. I don’t want to over-extend all of this, but I do feel that the level of criticism against the programme misses a massive point about social inclusion – it was pretty amazing, actually, to see something of the reality of Asian culture – yes, it’s a stereotype, but for all that, it all felt very real, very human and there was clearly a lot of love felt between the characters – it makes me smile to think now (and positively, warmly) about the characters!

      1. Thanks Bill…I think that the responses to this post have been really interesting and I might have to re-watch it with a different eye !!! Maybe I just watched it with the view that it wasn’t racist and by default, assumed it also wasn’t very funny !!! You’ve inspired me !!!

        Chris

  3. One thing I forget to say was about the character of the white Muslim convert who worked at the mosque.

    The way he entered the room where Mr Khan was with his mother in law, was a carbon copy of the mannerisms Derek Nimmo used to adopt when playing a Vicar in however many sit-coms.
    Which other programme gives us comedy references like that?

  4. I liked it too – it’s not hilarious but it’s amusing and I did not find it racist. If anything, it helps to show people who are racist that Asian people experience the same things as they do, and are not something completely alien. I love the way it is set in Birmingham, and its references to the city give it an authentic feel. There aren’t many programmes portraying the Asian community, and there aren’t many programmes that feature Birmingham either. I think it can only help people who don’t have much exposure to other communities to see them on tv, whether they are good or bad portrayals – perhaps it can encourage better portrayals in future. I used to love “All About Me” too – another ok comedy with an Asian family, Jasper Carrott and a boy in a wheelchair, set in Brum. Curiously that had bad reviews too… was there was too much difference in there for people outside London to cope with?! Citizen Khan is amusing and I think it can help people to stop seeing others as different but just to see them as people…

    1. To be honest, the response to this post has been great and even though I didn’t find it funny, I’m glad that others did. If nothing else, it’ll stop the stupid claims being made about racism and Islamophobia !!!

      Chris

  5. Personally I think it’s hilarious. It’s a shame to hear about all the complaints – it’ll be interesting to see how it deals with them, given that they refused to apologise for airing Jerry Springer – the Opera after receiving 60,000 complaints. They fell back on John Cleese’s dictum “nobody has a right not to be offended”. Will they hold to this, I wonder?

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