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Friday, 19 October, 2001, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
War View: 'Don't gag our gags... we do it ourselves'
Comedians fear that proposed laws against inciting religious hatred could mean their acts being censored. But Ivor Dembina, a stand-up working in London, says there's no point censoring comedians - they do it themselves.

Less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks on the US, comedian Al Murray was on stage at the Red Rose Comedy Club in north London in his celebrated comic character The Pub Landlord.

It had been yet another storming performance and, to complete his final encore Murray raised his glass of beer in an arc above his head. For a magical split second, the beer glass became the torch of Statue of liberty herself.

"God bless America," The Landlord declared, then a perfect comic pause during which he lowered the glass to chest level and, with head perfectly still, the final exhalation, "and God help us."

In a couple of phrases he had told 200 people what they were thinking and feeling

When I heard Murray's inspired comic remark it knocked every other joke I'd heard about the terror attacks into a cocked hat. He'd targeted the US, Britain, Bush, Blair, religion, God, terrorism, militarism, patriotism, globalisation, the present, the past, the future and, above all ourselves, in one go. Not bad for seven words.

Clever enough

In a couple of phrases he had told 200 people what they were thinking and feeling; we don't support Mr Bush but we don't exactly oppose him either. It looks as though we'll have to go along with it and let's hope Mr Bin Laden doesn't notice we've sided with the Americans and he continues to terrorise only them and leaves us alone.

If this wasn't clever enough, Al Murray then took our individual insecurities and gave us the jewel of being able to sense them collectively. The fears of the audience were dragged to the surface but at least as people they weren't alone.

Most modern stand-up comedians are weedy characters

There are few things funnier than Murray's joke than the idea that such moments of comic truth can be censored. I'm baffled by the idea of the introduction of censorship in comedy. How can you introduce something which already exists at every level of the industry?

Self censorship

The principal censors are of course the comedians themselves. I've lost count of the times I've sat in dressing rooms and heard stand-ups "top" each other with increasingly wicked truthful remarks which they dare not repeat on stage.

Paradoxically, the comedian is seen as a brave soul prepared to risk public humiliation at the hands of a merciless audience. Brave? My arse.

Brasseye... the bravest and funniest thing on TV for years

Most modern stand-up comedians are weedy characters who wouldn't address the content of their act even if they knew how to.

Maybe they refrain from a quick peek at what they do in case they find nothing there. Maybe they're prevented from self-examination by the army of managers and agents who "advise" them. Maybe they just don't have time to reflect. Not when they have crucial matters like the next five-minute spot on TV or that corporate gig in Dubai to think about.

Opinion palls

Not that it's their fault entirely. TV producers constantly look over their shoulder at "public opinion" articulated by the likes of the Daily Mail.

Witness the outcry over Brasseye, the bravest and funniest thing on TV for years. And now, even at live gigs, acts are being told to watch what they say.

A couple of weeks ago one club promoter told me that before a gig he warned the acts that "There are to be no references on stage to the current crisis". His thinking went like this. If one act upsets the audience this can jeopardize the whole evening and the punters will never come back and me, the promoter would make a loss.

His loss would be our gain. And, I'm pleased to report; Al Murray won't play his club.

This is one of a series of differing opinions on issues thrown up by the War on Terror. You can send your view about this or other articles by using the form below. Your comments:

I fear if you ban religous jokes, then it would be like prohibition in the US in the early 20th century. Religous comedians would be driven underground. Members only religous joke meetings would crop up in secret places. Well organised police raids would be occuring all over the country, trying to put people in the slammer for telling the one about the actress and the bishop.
Steve Sullivan, UK

Some people pay good money to hear a comedian "refer to the current crisis." Mark Thomas gained enthusiastic applause 3 weeks ago in Leeds, for saying onstage all those things about the US, the Middle East, and Mr Bin Laden which we'd all been been itching to hear said aloud since 11 Sept.
Vicky Dunn, UK

The funniest American comedian of the last 15 years was also the most outspoken - the late Bill Hicks. He was ostracised for telling what he saw as the truth eg his Gulf War jokes. If we ban comedians from telling jokes about what is currently happening then all is lost. Mind you it would be good to ban some of the so-called patriotic comics who only appear out the woodwork when things happen and then proceed to go on about how wonderful the UK is - these people should get a reality check and find out what is really happening. Al Murray only commented on what most people feel
Gordon Paterson, Scotland

Censoring comics? It's not going to stop the jokes in the same, and worse, taste being told in pubs, offices and wherever people meet.
Billy Kirby, UK

Perhaps we need to recognise that humour also forms a "release valve" for the tensions within us regarding any terrifying situation. I have heard some jokes from school children about Mr bin Laden that would probably make most comedians "run for cover", so I doubt that any 'ban' on humour would actually be effective. Perhaps those considering such a move need to read Sigmund Freud's book "Humour and its Relationship to the Unconscious."
Paul Carney, UK

Although I am a fan of alternative comedy, I can only wonder why certain individuals, when hearing of these new religious hate laws immediately think of their careers and not the various problems targeted (and of course the various genuine problems that may arise) by these new laws. Truth be told, after the various race hate laws were introduced we still had such stellar greats as Bernard Manning littering the comedy scene.
Ibrahim Al-Timimi, UK

The Life of Brian was one of the funniest and most thought provoking commedies I have ever seen. Just think, it could be made illegal! Anybody who takes religion to seriously should be made to watch it.
Gareth, UK

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Shaazia Mirza, British Muslim comic
talks to the Today programme
See also:

17 Oct 01 | Showbiz
Downing Street reassures comics
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