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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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution