When terrorism is the object of humor

Special to The Times

A good joke can be cathartic; laughter often helps people bond. So, when people start telling one-liners about disasters they’ve lived through, it’s a sign the healing has begun.

Britain’s satirists and stand-up comics are wrestling with the challenge of laughing off the London suicide bombings in July that killed 52 people.

But for all the effort at cheerful revenge, none of the dozens of acts addressing this year’s hot issue know quite what to say about it. Although rich seams of comic material are being uncovered as the professionals laugh over the bigger story of the rise of fundamentalism and religious intolerance of one sort or another, the bombings still appear too abstract and unlike normal life to be reworked as jokes.

“The sad thing about it all is that you will never get the true answer from these people.... They die. We’ll never really know, will we?” muses Shazia Mirza, a comic who might be expected to have views on the rise of Islamist terrorism in Britain.


Mirza, the sophisticated daughter of Pakistani parents, is one of the rare Muslim women to do stand-up comedy. Her intimate show -- just quiet talk, raised eyebrows and quizzical looks down her nose -- draws on the contrast between the cool poise of her British persona and the inhibitions about men she learned growing up in Birmingham in the British Midlands.

Offstage, she talks about the summer attacks with the same unflinching honesty she brings to her performances.

She expresses impatience with politicians and the media for diverting attention from what she regards as the main issues, and focusing instead on whether young Muslims are being misled in their mosques or community centers. “What do you mean brainwashed? If you are 18, 19, 22 and 30, you do have a mind of your own.... Somebody must have been pleased. They blew up the London Underground.”

Perhaps her feeling that the motives and influences on the terrorists are unknowable explains why, onstage, Mirza makes just a passing crack at the suicide bombers. “They are going to be rewarded with 72 virgins” for blowing up innocent people, she says. “That’s quite a high price to pay for a shag.”

Other comedians on the London stage largely shy away from the attacks.

“The July 7 bombings ruined my show,” laments Omid Djalili, a roly-poly British-Iranian stand-up who has slyly mocked both his shape and his ethnic origins since his act back in 1995 called “Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son.”

Djalili’s comic material focuses on British multiculturalism, the perception of Middle Easterners and, since 9/11, the war on terror. But as others since 2001 moved into the darkly humorous terrain he covers, Djalili decided to move on, saying he would drop all the multicultural material and called his 2005 show “No Agenda” to underscore his change of heart.

Then came the carnage of July 7 and a failed attempt, two weeks later, to repeat the attacks on the London transit system. That left Djalili with a dilemma. After all, he’s someone whose Middle Eastern features draw reactions from people -- viewing him as if he is a potential terrorist. He’s thought of as Muslim, although his family observes the Bahai faith. Would it be strange if he ignored the bombings?"I felt pressured. I did a show just after July 7 that didn’t mention them and somebody asked me why I didn’t have any views on suicide bombers,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it. It’s such a white elephant of a topic.”


His solution was one that many other stars of London’s late-night comedy venues have tried: Mention July 7 -- often -- then segue into a non-sequitur.

Onstage, Djalili’s musings on theories that the British suicide bombers were confused and didn’t know where they fit in British culture are repeatedly interrupted. First, he allows himself to be sidetracked into talking about Iranian interference -- how an aunt will offer unwanted advice about anything from peeling an orange on up. Then he lets himself be distracted by people slipping out to the bathroom.

Finally, he says in melancholy tones, “People say you have to talk about suicide bombers. I did that years ago, and this is what I said: Suicide bombers and the manipulators behind them are bastards.” Gales of relieved laughter. “Capsule -- that’s it dealt with. Let’s move on!”

That approach also seems to work for Stewart Lee. This veteran of stand-up has had plenty of bitter personal experience this year, dealing with religious fundamentalism -- though in his case from Christians. Christian groups went to court to halt the BBC from showing the show he wrote, “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” which depicted a gay Jesus in a diaper.


When I woke up in the afternoon of 7/7 ... " Lee’s show begins, to nervous titters. It takes a while for his audience to find out what happened next. Instead they hear riffs on late-night comedy in the provinces, animal noises, the stomach-eating-itself complaint he’s suffered from since embarking on some hard drinking after the trial.

Finally, he gets to his experiences of that day in July: the 89 e-mails all saying the same four words, “Are you all right?” The dozen text and phone messages with the same words. And the unconscious comedy in the words of some of shell-shocked survivors of a bus bomb just outside the British Medical Assn.: “If you’re going to do this sort of thing, that’s the place to do it.”

“It makes you nostalgic for the IRA gentlemen bombers,” he concludes, deadpan, in a comparison Al Qaeda’s broad aims. “The finest terrorists we ever had. Decent British terrorists. They didn’t want to be British. But they were. They embodied British values. America: Thank you for funding the best terrorists this country ever had.”

Yet Lee’s main target is Christianity -- understandable for a man who has spent most of the year being hounded as a blasphemer. His happy audience freezes in panic when his monologue veers off into a long, alarming anecdote about Jesus appearing to him as he stumbled home drunk from the pub -- a story featuring so much vomit that the Times of London called it “bad taste.”


“I’ve been doing stand-up for 17 years,” Lee says to his petrified listeners, “and I can tell when there’s tension in the room.”

Comedy is an everyday art that works most successfully when it relates closely to the concerns of the comedian’s own life. So Mirza’s act is still all about sex -- or the lack of it. The practical problems of her balancing act between family and friends weigh more heavily on her than the theoretical reasons why a handful of young men should plunge into extreme violence.

She starts off, blushingly, “I’m 29 and I’ve never had sex.” Then she goes through rousing descriptions of the “Islamabad Yellow Pages” matchmaker who for £25 will arrange six introductions to potential Muslim husbands; the pitfalls of no-eye-contact Muslim “dating” with the potential husbands; and a death-threat e-mail from a Muslim man she gallantly shrugs off.

Yet her punch line, at the end of her act, embraces Britain’s experience with terrorism, and relates her practical anxieties about love and marriage to the events of July 7 -- if reluctantly.


“I feel 100% Muslim,” she says. “I don’t really mind being a virgin. But what really bothers me,” she pauses, and grins wickedly as the lights dim, “is the idea that if I die a virgin I might have to sleep with a suicide bomber.”