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Nish Kumar on being a meme, the legacy of Goodness Gracious Me and choosing comedy over law

The comedian reveals his early influences and why Asian families care so much about education.

In September 2012, a publicity shot of a pensive Nish Kumar found its way into the possession of some mischievous members of the far right. The image was subsequently turned into a meme known as the "Confused Muslim" and used to peddle such piercing religious jousting as: “Angry that Christians insulted my prophet. Cannot insult Jesus as he is a prophet too.” Kumar, who was “raised Hindu”, dedicated an entire section of his stand-up routine to responding to the meme, and admits it did leave him a little confused. “I didn’t even know they’d used it until someone shared it on my Facebook page!”

Prior to that, while undertaking comedy’s rites of passage, Kumar was working a series of mundane office jobs, presumably to help perfect his material. He explains: “I got out of university and there was a general panic throughout my family as to what I was going to do. For about six months, I did this job in recruitment and I was just so awful at it. I jumped before I was pushed. It was like being asleep for six months, although truth be told they probably did wish I was asleep because my conscious efforts were that bad. All the while I was working these office jobs, I was still gigging until finally I got enough comedy to make a real go of it.”

Kumar attended Durham University between 2004 and 2007, where officially he read English and History, but “what I really did was comedy.” He performed in the sketch group The Durham Revue, helping him first reach the Edinburgh Fringe. The 31-year-old, though, is quick to point out that he learnt to laugh well before his move to the north-east. So, what’s your origin story? “I was bitten by a radioactive Meera Syal,” he jokes. “No, but seriously, I used to watch a lot of comedy. I think Romesh [Ranganathan] and me are sort of the offspring of Goodness Gracious Me. That was a really seminal moment. I was only a kid at the time that it got big; I was a huge fan of The Simpsons and Red Dwarf, and other shows around then, but Goodness Gracious Me came along and there was this moment where you just thought: ‘Oh right, Asians can do this too.’”

Goodness Gracious Me, widely regarded as the peak of Asian comedy and arguably Asian media as a whole, was a sketch show which addressed serious issues affecting the continent’s British diaspora, including racism, integration versus assimilation, academic expectations and mixed relationships. How much does your ethnicity instruct your material? “I guess you’d have to say that experience informs whatever you do in stand-up. Of course, I’m going to draw on what I’ve grown up with, but the key distinction that I’ll point out is that people like me and Romesh don’t have to mention it. And we don’t have to; because we’ve had those doors kicked open for us by Goodness Gracious Me. They [the cast] kicked the doors open for us by normalising the idea of Asians in mainstream comedy. And they were able to be funny, not just about Asian issues, but also appeal to a wider audience.”

It’s worth noting that while Goodness Gracious Me may have succeeded in lampooning many tropes of being a British Asian, it represented as much a genuine coping mechanism as it did a welcome quirk of concept. The sketch about a father ruing that his son only managed to achieve four As and one B at A-Level is amusing, but it also serves to highlight a very pressurised aspect of many Asians’ upbringings.

Kumar, who comes from a family guilty of their own almost impossibly high standards, believes that this is a cultural phenomenon that has a scale. The moderate side means a little bit of ribbing at a family get together; the more sinister side means a student desperate to pursue arts is discouraged in favour of the notionally more respectable career paths of medicine, accountancy or law. Why do you think those sorts of jobs are put on a pedestal? “I guess from migrants’ perspectives in particular, as in those who have taken the risk to come to England in the first place, they just want some sort of security for their kids. If you’ve come over to England and done whatever job you can, the theory is that the next generation should do something that is indispensable to society. Essentially, if your kids become part of the machinery of the state, they won’t get kicked out.”

In contrast, many Asian families view creative industries as unstable. Kumar concedes that might be the case, but stresses that it’s more important to let people make their own life decisions. Were your family supportive of your career choice? “On the whole, yes. There were some worries for the reasons I’ve said – you know, how was I going to make any money? But there comes a landing point, where you finally get to a stage where you have something to hang your hat on. Then your family see that this is definitely happening and you’re making a success of it. For me, that moment came when I started doing work with Radio 4.” The Asian obsession with education, it seems then, is only rivalled by the Asian urge for one-upmanship – namely the ability to say your son or daughter works for a company other families will have heard of.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has affected Asians as much as any other ethnicity; overflowing tensions relating to immigration don’t tend to differentiate between Europeans and non-Europeans’ freedom of movement. How much has Brexit become part of your routine? “The Brexit thing is really interesting. It happened in June and by August, lots of people were already doing sets about it. There was a real sense of defiance about it, but gradually it became more about just coping with the stark reality that this is actually happening. The challenge is to keep the audience laughing but constantly recognise the gravity of the situation.” Do you think that comedians have a political responsibility? “No, not at all. The job of a comedian is to make people laugh, but a lot of my interests are in politics so I’m going to use that.”

Has Brexit made the issue of race, any race, more sensitive on stage? Kumar recounts the story of a particularly obnoxious heckler at Soho Theatre: “It’s a real powder keg that you’re walking into. You have to have your own internal barometer of what is too far. I try and consider feelings of people in the audience. What you have to try and do is that when there is something that could be seen as a transgression, you actually have a reason to justify the joke. So I had to address it and stop the show. The rest of the audience got really angry with this guy.”

Kumar has come a long way since his days in The Durham Revue and is currently hosting Radio 4’s Spotlight Tonight on Wednesday nights. He’s performed on Mock the Week and Live at the Apollo, and contributed to last year’s hugely successful essay anthology The Good Immigrant, but is still reminded now and again: “What a great lawyer, I could have been.”

You can listen to Nish Kumar’s full interview with Rohan Banerjee and Hussein Kesvani on the No Country for Brown Men podcast.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.

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Former MP Bob Marshall-Andrews: Why I’m leaving Labour and joining the Lib Dems

A former political ally of Jeremy Corbyn explains why he is leaving Labour after nearly 50 years.

I’m leaving home. It’s a very hard thing to do. All of my natural allegiances have been to Labour, and never had I contemplated leaving the party – not even in the gloomy years, when we were fighting Iraq and the battles over civil liberties. I have always taken the view that it’s far better to stay within it. But it has just gone too far. There has been a total failure to identify the major issues of our age.

The related problems of the environment, globalisation and the migration of impoverished people are almost ignored in favour of the renationalisation of the railways and mantras about the National Health Service. The assertion that Labour could run the NHS better than the Tories may be true, but it is not the battle hymn of a modern republic. It is at best well-meaning, at worst threadbare. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about renationalising the railways while millions of people move across the world because of famine, war and climate change.

The centre left in British politics is in retreat, and the demise of the Labour Party has the grim inevitability of a Shakespearean tragedy. Ironically, history will show that Labour’s fatal flaw lay in its spectacular success.

Labour is, in essence, a party of the 20th century, and in those 100 years it did more to advance the freedom and well-being of working people and the disadvantaged than any other political movement in history. The aspirations of the founding fathers – access to education, health and welfare; equality before the law; collective organisation; universal franchise – have all to a large extent been achieved. The party’s record of racial and religious tolerance has been a beacon in a century of repression. These achievements have been enshrined in the fabric of British society and reproduced across the world.

The success brought deserved, unprecedented power and created political fortresses across the industrial heartlands of Britain. But with power, the party became increasingly moribund and corrupt. The manipulation of the union block vote at party conferences became a national disgrace. The Labour heartlands, particularly Scotland, were treated like rotten boroughs, and were too often represented by union placemen.

Instead of seeking a new radicalism appropriate to the challenges of the age, New Labour sought to ambush the Tories on the management of market capital and to outflank them on law and order: a fool’s errand. It inevitably succumbed to another form of corruption based on hubris and deceit, resulting in attacks on civil liberty, financial disaster and catastrophic war.

The reaction has been to lurch back to the status quo. The extraordinary fall from a massive majority of 179 in 1997 to a political basket case has been blamed on the false dichotomy between Blairism and the old, unionised Labour. Both have contributed to the disaster in equal measure.

I believe desperately in the politics of the 21st century, and Labour is at best paying lip service to it – epitomised in its failure to engage in the Brexit debate, which I was horrified by. The Liberal Democrats are far from perfect, but they have been consistent on Europe, as they were in their opposition to the Iraq War and on civil liberties. They deserve support.

But it’s a serious wrench. I’m leaving friends, and it hurts. Jeremy Corbyn was a political ally of mine on a number of serious issues. We made common cause on Tony Blair’s assaults on civil liberty and the Iraq War, and we went to Gaza together. He has many of the right ideas, but he simply has not moved into addressing the major problems.

To be blunt, I don’t think Corbyn is leadership material, but that is aside from politics. You need skills as a leader, and I don’t think he’s got them, but I was prepared to stick it out to see what happened. It has been a great, gradual disappointment, and Brexit has brought it all to the fore.

Frankly, I was surprised that he announced he was a Remainer, because I know that his natural sympathies have lain with a small cadre within Labour – an old-fashioned cadre that holds that any form of trade bloc among relatively wealthy nations is an abhorrence. It’s not: it’s the way forward. Yet there are people who believe that, and I know he has always been sympathetic to them.

But by signing up and then doing nothing, you sell the pass. Labour was uniquely qualified to confront the deliberate falsehoods trumpeted about the NHS – the absurd claims of massive financial dividends to offset the loss of doctors
and nurses already packing their bags – and it failed. Throughout that campaign, the Labour leadership was invisible, or worse.

At present, there is a huge vacuum on the centre left, represented in substantial part by an angry 48 per cent of the electorate who rejected Brexit and the lies on which it was based. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. There is no sign from Labour that the issue is even to be addressed, let alone actively campaigned on. The Labour leadership has signed up to Brexit and, in doing so, rejected the principles of international co-operation that Europe has fostered for half a century. That is not a place I want to be.

The failure to work with, or even acknowledge, other political parties is doctrinaire lunacy. And it will end very badly, I think. The centre left has an obligation to coalesce, and to renege on that obligation is reneging on responsibility. Not to sit on the same platform as other parties during the Brexit debate is an absurd statement of political purity, which has no place at all in modern politics.

The Liberal Democrats have grasped the political challenges of the 21st century as surely as their predecessors in the Liberal Party failed to comprehend those that faced the world a century ago. For that reason, I will sign up and do my best to lend support in my political dotage. After nearly 50 years as a Labour man, I do so with a heavy heart – but at least with some radical hope for my grandchildren.

Bob Marshall-Andrews was the Labour MP for Medway from 1997 to 2010.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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