‘There is no such thing as British Asian comedy,’ says TV producer

Writer Sathnam Sanghera dissects British Asian humour with Shazia Mirza, Anil Gupta and Saurabh Kakkar

Writer Sathnam Sanghera dissects British Asian humour with Shazia Mirza, Anil Gupta and Saurabh Kakkar

‘There is no such thing as British Asian comedy,’ says TV producer

16 May 2014

By Chitra Mogul

The award-winning British TV comedy Goodness Gracious Me helped to change the national perception of what it is to be British Asian and how British Asians see themselves – but this wasn’t the original intention of producer and writer Anil Gupta.

Speaking at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival he said he felt that until Goodness Gracious Me was aired in 1998, there was not a sense that British Asian people could laugh at themselves or that they had a collective sense of humour. “I set out to make a funny show, nothing else,” he said.

Gupta, who later produced The Kumars at Number 42 and wrote Citizen Khan, and has made many other TV series, said he was working at the BBC when he heard a rumour doing the rounds that an Asian sitcom was being planned. He and a colleague immediately put up their hands for the job and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, he told the audience that he felt even today there was no such thing as British Asian comedy and that it was “a construct of these kinds of conversations,” referring to academic debates such as this one.

A hilarious clip was screened from a forthcoming one-off  episode of Goodness Gracious Me as part of celebrations to commemorate 50 years of BBC Two.

This was followed by a stand-up sketch by comedian Shazia Mirza.

There was a consensus among the panellists that, as time passed, Asian comedy would become mainstream just as Jewish humour has done in the US. In the 1950s, Jewish comedy could be seen as a distinct feature but it was not  any more and Jewish comedians could be found in all kinds of TV comedies.

Mirza said she preferred to do ‘general observational comedy’ and not British Asian comedy, unless the audience was British Asian. There is no such thing, she maintained, as the Asian comedy circuit and Asian comedians simply did gigs in various clubs. She said one of her favourite countries to tour was India as there was now a thriving stand-up comedy scene in Mumbai and Bangalore.

Head of Development at BBC comedy Saurabh Kakkar said comedy was not seen as a ‘proper job’ in the British Asian community where immigrant parents worked hard for their children to go to college and get good jobs. They considered comedy as a “fly-by-night, ephemeral business,” he said. However, this was true for other immigrant communities in other countries as well, and all immigrant communities went through the same cycle he said.

However, for those young British Asians who did choose comedy as a career, there was good news, he said. The Internet and YouTube had made it easier to get noticed as aspiring comedians could come up with an act and have air-time without having to wait for an audition, he explained. According to Kakkar the Internet was now the place to discover writing and performing talent, whereas traditionally producers like him would find comics through the live circuit and sketches. “It’s a fantastic place to find new talent and we do it all the time,” he said.

The panel felt that British Asian humour had evolved from the days of Goodness Gracious Me. While that show, aired from 1998 to 2001, had treated all British Asians as one homogeneous group, today there was more of an exploration of  different South Asian nations as that immigrant group grew in confidence. He cited Citizen Khan, which is about the British Pakistani community, as being an example of this.

Journalist and writer Sathnam Sanghera (author of Marriage Material, 2013) moderated the session.

To watch a video clip of the session click below:

To listen to the audio of the session click below:

Chitra Mogul is currently doing an internship at Asia House.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival continues until 21 May 2014. For more information click here.