Make jokes, not war

While politicians cross swords, a crop of talented comedians is bringing the truth about Iranian cul

Patrick Monahan is used to hecklers. The half-Iranian, half-Irish stand-up comic usually raises his own ethnicity in the first ten minutes of any routine - mainly because he's got a decent opening gag about spending all his holidays in customs. During the naval hostage crisis, however, an MC introduced him to a riotous crowd with the quip that he "hasn't brought any sailors with him". The response was a stony silence.

"Comedy audiences are usually pretty sophisticated, but this was the first time I'd actually been alarmed when walking on stage," he confesses, adding with a comedian's brash confidence: "It took me almost a minute to win them round." Monahan admits that the state of Anglo-Iranian relations has caused him to change the title of his forthcoming Edinburgh show from Cowboys and Iranians to Feel the Love. "My agent thought everyone would turn up expecting Bush jokes, whereas really I'm just doing routines on what it was like growing up on Teesside with an Irish father and an Iranian mother."

Monahan also knows full well that with the current crop of headlines he's far more likely to get the punters in than if he was Canadian. "Iran has been at the centre of news pretty much constantly since I was a kid," he explains. "That means being an Iranian comic is always going to generate interest. I hope I'm helping break down the stereotypes of Iranians that you see on telly and in the papers - certainly I always get people coming up to me after shows and saying they didn't expect Iranians to be funny."

And yet, if the past couple of years is anything to go by, Iranians are very funny indeed. From a small base (the Iranian Community Centre in London estimates there are just 50,000 Iranians in the UK), the Persian diaspora is producing unusually large numbers of stand-up comedians. When Omid Djalili started performing on the circuit in 1995, he used to joke that he was the UK's only Iranian comic - "which is three more than Germany". Since he won a Perrier Award nomination in 2002, however, a quietly growing group of young British-Iranian stand-ups has picked up the mike, taking the truth about their culture to clubs and bars across the country.

Besides Monahan - who will appear in this summer's Armstrong and Miller sketch show on BBC1 - there is Shappi Khorsandi, daughter of the exiled Iranian satirist Hadi Khorsandi, and the newcomer Jody Kamali. All these acts deal with the complexity of their personal experiences. Shappi Khorsandi, for instance, has a routine about the Metropolitan Police protecting her father from Iranian hit squads, which confronts liberal rage over heavy-handed policing with gratitude that Scotland Yard saved her dad. At the same time, each act takes time out to explain Iranian culture, depicting the people as warm, witty and comically eager to please. At the end of Djalili's No Agenda or Khorsandi's Asylum Speaker shows, you can't help wishing you had a few Iranian mates.

At times, the material feels slightly similar to that of American Jewish comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Jerry Seinfeld, who have familiarised mainstream audiences with chicken soup, overprotective mothers and other elements of Jewish culture. This may not be a coincidence. For British-Iranian comics, it is certainly true that much of their humour sprang from feelings of alienation, persecution and isolation. "Growing up here as an Iranian in the early 1980s was very hard," Djalili says. "We were the enemy. I would literally go to parties and there would be 13 boys and 12 girls and they'd all be copping off and I'd be the one with the lurgy. Among Iranians, I couldn't say I was Baha'i, because among Muslims that's like saying you're a Satanist. I would pretend I was an Italian called Fabio, and that way I was accepted, but it was horribly humiliating when I was exposed."

Monahan argues that there is something in Persian culture which helps create a comedian. "Every Iranian you meet has the potential to be a comic," he says. Fans of Iranian cinema already know this, thanks to films such as Secret Ballot (2001), about an idealistic election agent and a trigger-happy soldier trying to get the villagers of a small island to vote, or the banned farce The Lizard (2004), in which a thief escapes from jail in clerical robes, only to find himself running a huge mosque. Last year's Offside, about female soccer fans trying to sneak in to World Cup games disguised as men, displayed a subtly satirical approach to life in the Islamic republic.

It may be naive to imagine Patrick Monahan or Shappi Khorsandi transforming the perceptions of drunken punters at Jongleurs. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that, while the media and our politicians rant about how the mad mullahs are ready to hurl their nukes at Britain, the counter-attack is based on humour.

Shappi Khorsandi

Khorsandi arrived in the UK in the late 1970s when her satirist father fled a fatwa issued under the revolutionary regime. Her sell-out show at last year's Edinburgh Festival, Shappi Khorsandi - Asylum Speaker, told the story of her childhood. She opened with such jokes as: "When I say my body clock is ticking, everyone hits the deck," but went on to explore the pressure of the death threats to her family in her adolescence and the eating disorder she developed as a result. "I wouldn't say the ayatollah was directly responsible, but he certainly put the fat into fatwa," she said.

"Everyone has stresses in their life, but comedians are the kind of people who make it into material," she says. "With the tensions between Iran and the west at the moment, I'm finding that people are reacting to me in a positive but slightly strange way. It's like, 'Hey! You're funny! I didn't know Iranians were normal!' They seem to see the place as dark and desolate, when in fact it's rich and full of life. I wouldn't call myself an ambassador - I'm not sure comedy is about changing minds - but it's good to be out there showing another side of Iranian culture."

Jody Kamali

Kamali is a relative newcomer to stand-up, having spent the past five years or so switching between straight acting and character comedy - including an Iranian refugee character partly based on his father's experiences as a student in Bristol at the time of the revolution.

His material plays on misconceptions about Iran. He says that his biggest laughs come from gags about the nuclear programme - including a skit where he goes on work experience in the kitchen at a nuclear reprocessing plant and is shown the cooking area: "This one is the grill, this one is the oven and this one nukes America."

Kamali recently visited Iran while preparing for his Edinburgh show - a series of monologues by characters including an Israeli backpacker - and says how surprised he was. "I guess the news propaganda does worry you," he admits. "But the whole place feels really European, and the younger generation are as much about being creative and having fun as any teens or twentysomethings in the UK."

Patrick Monahan

Monahan's father was an Irish welder who met his wife in a bank in pre-revolution Tehran. Leaving after the revolution with two boys and a girl, they got their three-year-old to pose as his grandparents' son, because only one boy per couple could leave the country.

Monahan's new show talks about life on Teesside with brief nods to the occasional racism he encountered. "People would shout, 'Go back to where you came from'," he quips. "But I'm half-Irish, half-Iranian. The mid-point between the two is the Caspian Sea. I suppose I could have become a pirate . . ."

"I'm not a political comic," he says, "but I'm playing to a crowd that knows they've got more chance of getting killed walking home through the estate at night than from an Iranian bomb."

Hadi Khorsandi

Hadi is the godfather of British-Iranian stand-up - in Shappi's case, though, he's actually her father. He fled Iran after jokes about Ayatollah Khomeini in his satirical newspaper column put him on an assassination list. Despite the threats, he has continued to write and perform in Farsi, running riffs on the old "Waiter, there's a hair in my soup" gag that play with the idea of a Muslim wife being flogged for showing her hair to guests, even if it's just a hair floating in a bowl of aash-e aloo.

He still performs in Farsi, so his audience is from among Iranians in exile. In 1999, father, daughter and son Peyvand all toured the United States with a show called How to Be Iranian. Despite his profile among Persians in the diaspora, Hadi is yet to try to cross over to the mainstream club circuit. But he probably has better things to do, running a samizdat Farsi version of Private Eye called Asghar Agha that is smuggled into Iran.

Omid Djalili

Djalili is a bona fide film star, with roles in The Mummy, Gladiator, Casanova, Spy Game and Pirates of the Caribbean III, but Hollywood plays second fiddle to his love of comedy. This autumn he will become the first Iranian with a sketch show on prime-time TV when his series debuts on BBC1.

Djalili was born in Britain while his father was working as a foreign correspondent for an Iranian newspaper. He was 12 at the time of the revolution, and his family won refugee status because of their Baha'i faith. He used to start his set in a broad Middle Eastern accent, cracking funnies about flying lessons and urging people to "keep the laughs coming - they help with my asylum application". He would even do belly dancing. Then, halfway through the set, he would switch to his real Home Counties accent, confounding the audience.

These days, Djalili is too well known for that trick. Instead, in his forthcoming DVD No Agenda: live at the Palladium, he unravels the absurdities of Iranian politeness and excessive hospitality. Not bad for a man who switched to stand-up when his acting career in experimental theatre hit the skids.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning