Who are white male comics to tell ME what's racist? | Ariane Sherine's continuing adventures in stand-up

Who are white male comics to tell ME what's racist?

Ariane Sherine's continuing adventures in stand-up

Last month, I wrote an article here which had the headline Is this routine lazy?. Several comics took it upon themselves to tell me I am indeed lazy, based on a few jokes which I only use as links between songs.

I didn’t really mind, because I was a bit preoccupied with dying of flu at the time, and I didn’t see much point in arguing with them (though I did a little bit of that, to defend my honour and stuff).

When it comes down to it, I’ve realised that there are two things to ask when writing material, and two things only, because writing material is hard enough as it is:

Firstly: have I ripped anyone off here? I don’t just mean ‘Do other people do stuff on the same topic?’, I mean ‘Am I using someone else’s joke?’ Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure, because I can’t see all the thousands of comics in the world - and even if I could, everyone has jokes they don’t use. That’s why I was posting my jokes up on Facebook in the first place, to see if they were original… at which point, I was called lazy. Can’t win, shouldn’t try.

Secondly: is the material funny? Laugh out loud funny every time, rather than titters or smiles? Because that’s what matters. I’m always amazed when I see a comic who does stuff that doesn’t work, and then the next time I see them they’re doing the same stuff and it still doesn’t work. Everyone has bad gigs, but if material is continually not getting the big laughs, it needs a rethink.

This week, I have been thinking a lot about offence. Last Saturday’s audience of 120 at the pro gig were all Jewish, which shouldn’t make any difference to anything whatsoever, but I decided not to do my banker song Hitler Moustache. It’s an anti-Nazi song about going to the beauty salon and – much to my horror - the beauty therapist waxing my pubes into a Hitler moustache. It contains the line ‘I think that my waxer got it back to front/’Cause it’s true that Nazis are always cunts’.

However, the audience were antagonistic towards me from the off, having reacted with stony silence to two other comics, and I didn’t think that playing this song would help matters. A Jewish comic had already singled me out as ‘not Jewish’, so going on and making jokes about Hitler - even though they were anti-Hitler - could have resulted in a mass walkout. It just seemed way too risky. As it was, I did Love Song For Jeremy Corbyn, and the audience looked horrified.

I actually wanted to go on stage and say ‘Yeah, I might be a Shiksa, but I’ve had so much Jewish cock, I think I’m practically Jewish by osmosis!’ Then I would have gone on to talk about going out with a Jewish comic who has apparently also been out with Amy Schumer, so she and I are now ‘custard cousins’.

But there was a nine-year-old in the front row and a load of grannies, so I decided against that too. Eventually I just cut my set short, because I had no idea how to deal with the situation, especially as comics who were much more experienced than me had died.

I don't know what to do about Edinburgh next year. I love my little girl so much and, though her dad has said he'll look after her, I don't want to go a whole month without seeing her. 

The thing is, I have a great idea for a show, with a fab title, poster image and 40-word blurb all good to go. I’ve even written most of the songs. And I could, at a stretch, afford it without getting into too much debt. But then I think of missing my daughter like mad, long days of flyering, playing to audiences of four people and a cat, losing £9,000, iffy reviews written by teenagers on work experience, comics being egotistical about their shows, and I wonder whether I can stomach it. I guess I have about six months to decide…

This week, I wrote two more pieces for the Spectator. I'm pretty used to writing comment pieces after eight years, and these two were in my typical style: measured, nuanced and not overly or deliberately provocative. But oh, the fuss they generated! The furore the first one created among certain comics and promoters was unlike anything I've experienced before. (You can read the piece here.)

It was on jokes about race. NOT racist jokes: there is a distinction, which I made very clear in the article. I just said that some jokes about race (by no means all) are funny, and that it's OK to laugh at them. 

I am Asian; I find some Asian jokes funny. Because they are. Saying they're not is disingenuous. 

Having been the victim of actual racism on numerous occasions, I'd rather save my energy for combating this than trying to stop people laughing at or telling jokes about race that are funny. Like the joke about the Jamaican percussionist who played the triangle in an orchestra: he said 'I just sit at the back and ting'. It’s not racist merely because it mentions a different accent and ethnicity.

My word! I might as well have written the BNP manual, such was the over-reaction by (almost exclusively) white, male comics, who couldn’t see the irony in telling an Asian woman that she was wrong about racism. I was called an ‘enabler of racists’, an idiot, and told to ‘fuck outta here’ (on my own Facebook page). 

One particularly charming comic said disparaging things about my writing, and told me that I should write some comic routines before writing a piece on comedy. I’ve been a professional comedy writer for 14 years.

I tried to explain that I am Asian, unlike these white male comics. So if mild Asian jokes don't offend me, surely that's up to me? 

I also stated that, in my view, freedom of speech is paramount. I find Anthony Jeselnik's stuff unpleasant. He has the right to tell it. I would rather this than live in a world where all jokes are clean and comedians are censored.

Pretty much all the comics taking issue with the piece don’t make a proper living from comedy, so I think a lot of the heat stemmed from indignation.  ‘Who the hell is this newbie telling us what’s funny and what isn’t? She doesn’t have the right to put her opinion across, let alone write for a well-respected national magazine full of high quality journalism and get paid for it!’ 

Also, the Spectator is a Conservative magazine and most comics are left-leaning, so they took issue with that too.

One comedy promoter somewhat ridiculously called the piece(s) ‘hateful and divisive’, and said of the piece on race: ‘Do you not see that the underlying problem is that when jokes like ['Why are Asian people so rubbish at football? Because every time they get a corner, they build a shop'] are told, the people who tell them aren't laughing with Asians, they are laughing AT them. Your piece will now be used by real racists to justify their own racism. 'Look it's all right, this Paki girl said it's OK, so no one should be offended.' 

He said it was okay if Asian people told the joke, but not if white people did. Which is daft, as surely the 'look it’s all right, this Paki used the joke so I can tell it' argument could be used in this case as well. 

It also raises an interesting question: when white people laugh at Asian people’s jokes, how do we know they’re laughing WITH us and not AT us? Take Paul Sinha’s brilliant one-liner: ‘I’ve found an app that locates all the middle-aged Asian men in London. It’s called Uber.' Anyone of any race who is laughing at that is laughing at the misdirection, but also at the fact that loads of minicab drivers are middle-aged Asian men. I don’t see the problem with either this or the joke above, but that is what they’re laughing at. Ironically, I have no race jokes in my set this time around (I did back in 2003). I wrote a short blog expanding on the Spectator piece, which you can read here.

When it comes down to it, successful people do not generally bother taking issue with comment pieces, unless they’re writing a riposte of their own in a national publication. They’re too busy and they understand that people hold different views. 

Journalists in particular realise that a person’s character is not tied to their views, and that everyone has the right to voice their opinion as long as it doesn’t infringe on others’ freedoms or safety. Nor do they criticise a person for working for the right-wing press. My daughter’s father is a correspondent for the Guardian; his sister writes for the Daily Mail. I have never heard either of them berate the other, even jokingly, for working for a paper with the opposite political stance. Journalists seem to be a lot more broadminded than comics.

I remember in an earlier piece, writing a short paragraph about the wonderful camaraderie on the circuit. When it comes to the open mic circuit, I would stand by that to an extent. But now I’ve been doing stand-up for a bit longer, I’ve heard so many comics and promoters bitch about other comics, promoters and critics behind their backs that I find it quite unedifying. One comic went as far as to tell me to ‘run for your life’ from John Fleming and Scotsman critic (Kate) Copstick because they were ‘cunts personified’.

Now, I know John very well and Copstick a little, and they have both been wonderfully kind and warm towards me. I don’t really care if they hold views I wouldn’t agree with. 

I don’t think it’s the end of the world if people hold different opinions from me. I would rather hang out with people who are nice and funny and kindhearted but happen to differ from me politically any day of the week, than with people who are mean-spirited, spiteful and petty but are in complete political alignment with me.

There is a pack mentality within the circuit that is seriously depressing. A bunch of bitter, negative white men regularly shouting at and trying to do down an Asian woman, acting in a way that they most likely wouldn’t towards another white man: and they want to talk about racism?!

Thank goodness Facebook and Twitter have a block button.

* Extracted from Ariane Sherine's weekly Adventures Of A Stand-Up Comic email updates. To sign up, email ariane@arianesherine.com with 'subscribe' in the subject line.

Published: 7 Jun 2016

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