Let's not shy away from jokes about race

The 'black stuff' is good for us all, says Paul Ricketts

Three weeks ago I was standing in the wings waiting to be brought on at a gig in Newcastle. The MC said: ‘The next act has come all the way from London…’ The crowd booed and I thought to myself: ‘Jesus Christ, they don’t even know I’m black yet!’

The next night I’m doing a gig in Bedford to another all-white audience. For the first time, in my five-year comedy career, a pissed posh gentleman shouts: ‘You would say that – nigger!’ At the interval the audience almost queued up to apologise: ‘I hope you know that Bedford isn’t like that.’ I tell them I know exactly what Bedford is like – I grew up there.

Then last week I read a good preview of Nathan Caton written by James Kettle in the Guardian Guide. He wrote: ‘Tackling race in comedy is full of pitfalls: if you’re a young black or Asian comic, it can lead you into a cul-de-sac… such material can be both funny and insightful but it can also end up feeling hackneyed.’

Really? Even if you’re not ‘young’ it can be troublesome. And before it appears that I’m questioning James’ undoubted expertise on the subject I’ll agree that I’ve seen young and old black British comics who deal with race in a hack ‘white people do this, black people do this’ way or a ‘I’ll smile, so you can see me at the back’ way.

So it’s not the subject of race that’s hack, it’s just some black comics might deal with race in a generic way – the same as any other comedic subject. This is changing as a diverse group of British black and Asian comics – such as Nathan, among many others - come through. We’re not all the same; we’ve had different lives in different places, different cultural or even class backgrounds and have differing funny perspectives on our lives in the UK.

But there can be a stereotypical reaction from white audiences to what some people call ‘black’ material, and I call observations on things that have happened in my life. Outside the major cities in Britain you still get white audiences who become almost visibly frightened of British black or Asian comics who mention race. Believing that by bringing up the subject, we’re ‘attacking’ them,they don’t know whether to laugh or feel guilty.

Some just get angry; as someone said to me after a gig in a Worcestershire hamlet: ‘I don’t wanna hear about this! The reason I moved here was to getaway from that sort of stuff.’ I realised I was being seen as a stereotypical ‘angry black man’ even though I’m hardly the Malcolm X of black comics.

I’ve had white promoters tell me to drop ‘black’ material in the sort of way I couldn’t see them saying to Jewish, white middle-class men, women or young student comics: ‘I’m sorry kid, but put on some baggier trousers and stop talking about Facebook – you’re frightening the regulars.’

And I know that there’s the well-paid, vibrant ‘urban’ circuit available but as mainstream promoters, agents, TV producers or even comedy critics seldom, if ever, go to these clubs they can be more of a cul-de-sac for some ambitious young for black and Asian comics.

Despite what David Cameron says, we need some multicultural comics to become mainstream successes and that means, up to certain degree, they and mainstream comedy industry and audiences have to face up to a fear of ‘race’ material – we can only learn and laugh from such a dialogue. Otherwise we might as well leave it up to Matt Lucas or David Walliams to continue to ‘black up’ and provide us with our quota of multicultural comic voices and faces on TV in future.

Published: 8 Mar 2011

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