Thursday, 3 May 2012

Meera Syal's Asian Comedy Night: Failing to Lift Off

Overbearing relatives, arranged marriages, aversion to loo rolls and subtlety, Bollywood, Sex, Sex in Bollywood, wool coats that smell of Aamchoor, the uncomfortable attempts at integration: whatever else it may lack, the British Asian community would never be found wanting for comic inspiration. 

These are eccentricities that Meera Syal – along with the likes of Sanjeeve Bhaskar and Kulvinder Ghir – so hilariously articulated in the seminal Goodness Gracious Me.

Appropriate then that Syal fronted the BBC Asian Network’s showcase for the best young British Asian stand-ups, ‘Meera Syal’s Asian Comedy Night’.

The two-part series was recorded on Monday night and attracted considerable interest; more than 8000 people reportedly applied for the 300 public tickets for the recording.

Syal was joined on stage by presenter Tommy Sandhu for a bit of banter before the duo introduced the night’s first act, Shazia Mirza.

She began familiarly enough.  Muslim men didn’t want to marry her because, she said, ‘she speaks’.  Her aunties want her to reproduce but have scant appreciation for how she might go about getting that done.  It was funny but a strange feeling of ‘Hey, I’ve heard that before!’ began to creep in.

Halfway through her slot, things began to slide in a hurry for Mirza as she came up with some really pedestrian gags about Facebook ‘Pokes’ and fingering.

An uninspiring start.

Mickey Sharma followed Mirza and soon he too was into tediously familiar territory: ‘Gingers’ and ‘Inbred White People’ and an Indian version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star – complete with grating accent – which had been first performed by an obscure Indian soap actress on YouTube.

Things began to look up – a bit – with the arrival on stage of the startlingly tall and wiry Imran Yusuf, a man who has the oratory style and energy of a televangelist.  Once again his material wasn’t groundbreaking but there’s a real buzzing energy about the guy that’s appealing.

Yusuf was soon followed by the undoubted highlight of the night; ‘the only stand-up comedian in Pakistan’, Sami Shah; a man who has the appearance and delivery style of an Anthropology professor and a caustic wit.
Remarkably, he was connected to the show through a Skype video call from somewhere in South East Asia but the time difference and technological boundaries failed to hinder his comic timing or the panache with which he brought such mundane topics as post-911 immigration rules to life.

Then, perhaps the most bizarre set of the night.  Sajeela Kershi and Yasmeen Khan – together known as the ‘Asian Provocateurs’ – first informed the audience that they weren’t going to be doing ‘Asian’ comedy, before embarking on several sketches about the BNP and the shopping habits of rich people in West London, none of which were really funny.

Things picked up again with the appearance of Humza Arshad – the man behind the 34-million hit YouTube sensation ‘Diary of a Bad Man’.  Humza’s got some good gags: one about an encounter between his father and a bear atop a mountain was quite funny but he relies mostly on a seemingly bottomless well of energy and a high pitched voice to keep the audience engaged.

A night which had promised much but failed to live up to the hype thankfully ended on a high with the appearance of the evergreen Kulvinder Ghir, trialling some brand new material about an aged, nostalgic shop keeper from the Punjab.

The sketch was a combination of gags, monologue and even a fresh interpretation of the YouTube sensation Kolaveri Di.

Ghir has lost none of the sparkle that made him the undoubted star of Goodness Gracious Me and his sketch was funny, witty and emotional; an evolution of what he used to do. Old material in fresh new packaging.

Jokes about the overbearing parents, arranged marriages and accents are all good source material but going by the performance of most of the younger comics, it seems that the jokes are still stuck where they first originated: a quarter century ago.

It seems that their idea of giving the gags a fresh lick of paint and bringing it up to date is to infuse it with expletives and crude references to everything from excrement to ‘Vajazzles’.

But then excrement and pubic hair is funny when you’re 10, an age which most people grow out of.

- Vijitha Alles

Meera Syal’s Asian Comedy Night will air on the BBC Asian Network at 10pm on July 11 and 12.

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