Bahai News - People like the immediacy of live comedy. We're like CNN in that way

Review: Arts: SOUNDING OFF: People like the immediacy of live comedy. We're like CNN in that way

'WE SHOULD bomb Mecca.' 'It was Mossad that did it.' 'The American government shot down the fourth plane.' 'There was a fifth plane.' 'It was done by a coalition headed by David Icke and Marilyn Manson.' How do we deal with paranoia and hysteria like this?

One option is to lock ourselves in a room with the TV on and slowly go mad. The other option is to get on with life. And if you want to get hysterical, go to a comedy club.

There's a lot of madness out there. When I hear that an army surplus store in Blackpool has sold out of gas masks, I start to wonder if I'm missing something. Would Arab terrorists really target the entertainment capital of the North? If they were comedy fans, they just might.

Obviously, things are a bit more edgy in the States. Aside from the fact that everyone is armed, satirists are having to watch their step. Bill Maher, who presents a chat show called Politically Incorrect (the clue is in the title), has upset a lot of viewers and, more importantly for him, advertisers by expressing some not entirely on-message opinions. Rich Hall, last year's Perrier Award winner, told me that he was desperate to get back here just so he can talk about the horrors on stage. It's not banned as such. They just don't want to hear about it.

Over here, it's all been a bit of a rollercoaster. On the night of 11 September, I did a topical team comedy show at the Comedy Store in London. Two hundred and fifty rather tense souls, who'd spent the entire afternoon watching re-runs of planes crashing into the World Trade Centre from different angles, were waiting for us. It all went very well and they left feeling a lot better than when they came in.

Since then, I've written a lot of material about the attacks and their aftermath and the response has been varied. I asked an Arab man in the audience how the flying lessons were going (you have to believe me when I say that everyone laughed including Abdul from Syria) and two hours later, we were hugging each other on stage. It was one of the highlights of my life. The next night, an English policeman in Norfolk asked me whether all Jewish boys were as ugly as me. Nice to see race relations in the force are going so well.

I'm not the only one dealing with the situation. My mate Omid Djalili spent half his show last weekend at the Bloomsbury Theatre discussing the various aspects. Obviously, a north London Jewish boy is going to have a slightly different perspective from an Iranian Baha'i but there's two things we agree on. One is that neither of us has a choice. I'm a Jewish comedian who does topical jokes. Omid is one of only two Iranian comedians in Britain. Secondly, we agree that Jews and Arabs should unite on this issue. And then gang up on the Buddhists.

The audiences for comedy have been great, as opposed to what's happening in West End theatres. The theatre producers believe that people are a bit subdued and feel guilty enjoying themselves and that's why they're not selling any tickets. Or it may just be because most West End theatre is irrelevant, overpriced, middle-class nonsense.

And it's not just numbers. Punters at my gigs seem much more aware of what's going on in the news and more specifically the Middle East. People who never had the slightest interest in what's happening outside of their immediate circle are now learnedly discussing whether the Northern Alliance are going to overthrow the Taliban. George Bush for one.

People seem to want the immediacy of live comedy. We're like the CNN of the performing arts. Comics, at least those with a dose of self-awareness have an ambivalence towards doing comedy. We know that we entertain people but deep down we also know that to seek adulation from complete strangers is surely indicative of an emotionally shallow, insecure human being. But sometimes, we have our uses.

Before you start reaching for the sick bag, I'm not making any great claims for stand-up comedy. I phoned in to one of the three thousand radio programmes devoted to the terrorist attacks and an American psychologist very earnestly pointed out how humour can be a great weapon against terrorism. To which I replied that I was sure that Osama bin Laden was quaking in his cave at the thought of what jokes I was going to do next. Maybe we should drop comics into the war zone. 'Look out, he's got a pun.'

Ian Stone is performing at Brighton's Comedia (13, 14 Oct) and the London Comedy Store (19, 20 Oct)

©Copyright 2001, The London Observer

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