Religious rib-ticklers

Heard the one about the Muslim comedian? This and much more in our round-up of quirkier parts of the

What with the rain, the football, and the massive data loss on an unprecedented scale, there was not all that much to laugh about this week.

Bucking the trend was Allah Made Me Funny, a Muslim comedy tour which reached the UK recently. Its arrival caused a fair bit of chin-stroking in the British press, despite the fact that there are already a number of cracking Muslim comedians around, including NS columnist Shazia Mirza and members of the provocatively named Axis of Evil group.

There are also quite a few websites where you can get a regular dose of Islamic drollery (check out the one about a Rabbi, a Mullah and a Nun).

So why is 'Muslim comedy' still treated as such a novel phenomenon? Do shows like Allah Made Me Funny utilise this novelty factor in the way they are promoted and thus implicitly give sustenance to the unhelpful notion that funny Muslims are pretty rare? Or should the tour be praised for effectively and flamboyantly counterbalancing a number of damaging and pervasive stereotypes?

Either way, it’s been hailed as a genuinely amusing show and the debate it has provoked is a good deal more interesting than the increasingly unedifying 'Is Martin Amis the new Bernard Manning?' spat, which is still trundling on, its news value buoyed by a number of celebrity interventions.

Meanwhile, racial identity underlay a number of the other arts stories of the week as we asked if the modern music scene has become too segregated, while The Guardian questioned if a film telling what it called "a black story" should be made by a black director.

Fakebook Revisited

It was recently revealed on this blog that Noble Laureate Doris Lessing has a MySpace page.

Which other great writers are maintaining a strong web presence? The good news for Doris is that she is streets ahead of most of her contemporaries, aside from trendy Dave Eggers who has a page over on MySpace rival facebook.

However, there are a number of unofficial and spoof literary MySpace pages, some of which are serious minded fan sites (like this one on Martin Amis), some of which are blatant parodies (on this page someone purporting to be Salman Rushdie lists their interests as “pissing people off” and “watching the telly”). Worryingly for Doris, despite her page being legitimate, she has only a paltry 345 online chums while the obviously fake Salman has an impressive 487.

Moreover, aside from the fake contemporary novelists, an alarming number of deceased literary greats are living out a ghoulish electronic afterlife on the net. Even Shakespeare has a page (“It is correct. I am backeth!”): he’s got 6298 friends, lives in Elsinore Castle and offers you the chance to buy ‘original merchandise’.

You can check out a blog from "Tolstoy" (who is currently reading If I’m So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?) or pages ostensibly set-up by TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf and multiple Dostoevskys.

This is all waggish enough but as publishers latch on to the marketing potential of social networking sites (“Hi this is Philip Roth inviting you to check out my new novel”) it might not be long before someone clamps down on the fake literati of cyberspace. It seems only fair to Doris.

Related

MySpace homepage

A blog entry on literary fakers

Short Cuts

Things you may have missed this week included the Third Annual No Music Day and the bizarre news that Queen star and physics buff Brian May is to take over from Cherie Blair as the next Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.

Meanwhile, the opening of the exhibition King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs at the former millennium dome (now rehabilitated as the London O2 Arena) has been causing a stir, with some commentators criticising the hefty admission price, the choice of venue and the allegedly gaudy design of the galleries. Are the complaints of King Tut’s Wah Wah Club justified? We’ll have a full review in our next issue. In the coming week you could check out work by the acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge, support a popular Youth Theatre’s redevelopment plan or enter yourself (ethnicity and gender permitting) into the 2007 Miss India UK Competition. Enjoy.

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.