Welcome to the first edition of Comedy Corner, What Culture’s new fortnightly column about various aspects of both modern and classic comedy. The focus of this week’s piece is the debate around BBC One’s latest sitcom Citizen Khan.
It seems these days that making a comedy centred around a minority group is a real minefield. On the one hand, you may find yourself being praised to the hilt for doing something new and different. But on the other hand, you run the risk of coming under fire from the political correctness brigade and the especially humourless members of the minority in question. The bulk of the media attention surrounding new BBC One sitcom Citizen Khan seems to be the latter.
The character of Sparkhill’s self-proclaimed community leader Mr Khan first appeared in Radio 4’s spoof phone-in show Down The Line in 2008. Following this, the character migrated to the BBC2 sketch show Bellamy’s People in 2010 before a full BBC One series centring on his family life was commissioned.
Four episodes in and the BBC has received over seven hundred complaints, and communications regulator OfCom has received twenty and are debating whether to carry out an investigation. The reasoning for some people’s anger is somewhat understandable. Mr Khan is hardly a great representation of the Muslim community. He’s tight-fisted, hard-headed, and self-obsessed. Add to that the running gag about Mr Khan’s daughter Alia and the disparity between the Westernised aspects of her personality and her wanting to please her father by appearing to be a good Muslim being played for laughs, a large number of stereotypes being used to a minor extent, and storylines usually centring around the local Mosque, and it is understandable that some people could take offense.
But what’s important to keep in mind that the programme’s s creator, writer, and lead actor Adil Ray is of Pakistani and Kenyan descent. BBC producer Anil Gupta also writes for Citizen Khan and has produced Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me and spoof chat show The Kumars At No. 42. The fact that the driving creative force behind it is comprised mainly of Asian people means that it is not racist. It’s self-deprecating. After all, The Vicar Of Dibley was never called racist. And neither was Rev. Because they were conceived, written, and performed by English people. The same people that they affectionately mocked. Citizen Khan isn’t brave or new in that respect. Those barriers were broken down over a decade ago with Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No. 42. If an Englishman is able to write a sitcom with some focus the Church of England, then surely a Pakistani should be free to do the same about Islam.
For me, what Citizen Khan and its title character really brings to mind is Roy Clarke’s sitcom Keeping Up Appearances and its main character Hyacinth Bucket whose primary concern was raising her social standing, always causing disaster as a result. Mr Khan is pretty much a Pakistani male version of Hyacinth Bucket. Determined to increase his social standing while his beleaguered family and friends try to both rein him in and limit the damage as best they can. It also shows diversity in the Muslim community and that Muslims can come from all walks of life with supporting characters including Somalian Muslim Omar, and British convert Dave (played by Kris Marshall) who is the manager of the local Mosque.
Various jokes and stories take place around the Mosque but that should be a given in a sitcom focussed on a Muslim family, especially since Mr Khan’s social climbing efforts usually centre around helping out at the Mosque such as him holding auditions for the new call to prayer as he believes it might get him a position as one of the Mosque’s trustees. Of course, I can see how some of the jokes might be a little near the knuckle to the more devout members of the Muslim community such as the call to prayer being followed by an advertisement for a mobile phone shop (as part of a bargain made by Mr Khan so that the shop would rehire his future son-in-law), and Mr Khan being polite to a cold caller until realising that they are Indian, but on the whole it’s pretty inoffensive stuff. It’s got a lot of classic Britcom’s staple gags in there such as the husband and wife having a sexless marriage, and a simple misunderstanding escalating into a much larger problem. Also, it’s worth noting that things such as the act of praying have not been shown in a negative light, the Koran is not mocked, and the Mosque staff members that make up part of supporting cast are administrators who take care of the day-to-day running of the Mosque such as holding meetings about administrative matters, organising trips for the Mosque’s members, and repairing the photocopier. Islam is usually discussed in broad tones and nothing that is potentially divisive or offensive is included, and the Mosque’s Imam is not a character, thus preventing the position of an Imam being used as a joke.
Russian playwright Anton Chekhov is famous for the principle of including important plot devices early on in a play and making them relevant later, writing that “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” The same principle can apply to character traits, and in this case nationality and religion. If you write a comedy focused on the characters of a Pakistani Muslim family and are not going to make jokes that stem from their nationality or religion, then there’s absolutely no point to them being Muslims or Pakistanis. That was the entire point behind the Kumars being Indian, the reason for Red Dwarf character Dave Lister being a Scouser, and it’s one of the reasons for Citizen Khan’s character being Muslims. It’s a comedic device that’s even been seen in the satirical plays of Ancient Greece.
As I said, I can see how some may consider it offensive. But the fact that it’s not intended maliciously, and that it’s written by a Pakistani and features a predominantly Asian cast means that it isn’t racist. The Pakistani News Watch’s website put it better than I ever could: “Shows like Citizen Khan are essential in multicultural societies and help put all communities on an equal footing – if everyone can have a laugh at everyone else’s expense, then no one can claim superiority”. For a well reasoned defence of Citizen Khan, I’d recommend this piece in the Yorkshire Post by Sabbiyah Pervez: And it’s on that note that this first edition of Comedy Corner comes to a close.
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