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13 February 2017

“The idea Brexit caused more racism is stupid”: Romesh Ranganathan on comedy in changing times

The comedian discusses the EU referendum, writing jokes about being a British Asian, and why he wouldn’t punch a Nazi.

By Rohan Banerjee

Romesh Ranganathan is fairly confident that he is Britain’s best vegan comedian. “Certainly of Sri Lankan origin anyway,” he quips.

Dietary habits notwithstanding, the former maths teacher probably ranks in the country’s top five – “If you say so, mate” – which is a real victory for the British Asian community. Ranganathan, though proud of his ethnicity, is reluctant to let that be all that defines him. “When I started doing stand-up, I wanted to be the best comedian I could be. I didn’t think about it in terms of being the best Asian comedian I could be.”

In a western country, however, being brown isn’t exactly inconspicuous and the 39-year-old admits that his material will have naturally been influenced by his experiences, which has in itself posed some problems.

“When I’m writing, I just write what I think is funny and obviously I’m going to draw from my background. The issue is that regardless of how British I might consider myself to be, my upbringing means that I have different experiences to a white British person; and every time I mention it, I get accused of ‘Oh you’re always mentioning your ethnicity’,” he says. “So as an Asian comedian, you’re basically screwed because you can never mention it the right amount.”

It would seem, then, that Ranganathan finds himself in a similar limbo to most second generation migrants – wary of the fine line between integration and absorption.  Even if he did want to hide his Asian heritage, mind, Ranganathan couldn’t – “It’s the beard, isn’t it?”

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Has he ever experienced any racism in his career? One instance on the pub circuit sticks out. Complete with a mocking head-bob he explains: “I think the worst for me was that I was doing a Christmas gig and this one guy kept saying ‘bud bud ding ding’ after everything I said,” he recalls. “It wasn’t loud enough for everyone to hear, but loud enough for his mates. And I had to make a decision. Because if I addressed it, I’m sure the crowd would have turned on him and it’d ruin the gig; or I could move on and ignore it, which is what I did.”

That was just five years ago.

Now, Ranganathan is philosophical. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s not cutting edge racism. He’s gone for an old school one. He’s gone for something nostalgic.” But can he afford to be so glib? Against the backdrop of Brexit, retrogression seems to be in vogue. Harking back to the good old days is a feature of “taking back control”, is it not?

Indeed, how does the ostensibly left-leaning Ranganathan feel about the country’s decision to leave the European Union? “I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Let’s be honest, before this referendum, I didn’t hear anyone saying ‘Oh isn’t it great to be European?’ But now all of a sudden you’ve got people saying they’re passionate about it.”

Equally, he pulls no punches when talking about the Remain campaign’s lacklustre efforts. “I liked the (Leave campaign’s) bus. I don’t care if it [the £350m-a-week for the NHS pledge] was a lie. I just thought it was a nice colour. Where was the Remain bus? I wanted to see a Remain bus telling us that the other bus was lying.”

Joking aside, though, is the correlation between the Brexit vote and an apparent rise in racism something to be worried about? Ranganathan offers a controversial take. “Isn’t that a good thing, though? People haven’t suddenly started thinking like this. They thought like this before. I’d much rather know you’re a bellend than suspect you’re a bellend, but not know for sure.

“If you’re racist and you come out and say it’s because of Brexit, then great. Then I know definitely not to talk to you, rather than you give me a sideways glance in a shop. Now I know, I’ve seen your Facebook post.”

He adds: “Listen, I’m being slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the idea that Brexit caused more racism is stupid. It’s the same amount of racism, it’s just now these people feel empowered. It’s good they feel empowered, because then we’ll have a kick against it in the future rather than having these feelings in the undergrowth.”

While the diplomatic Ranganathan attests to abhorring myriad alt-right opinions, he refuses to condone neo-Nazi Richard Spencer being punched at the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. “I think punching a Nazi is ridiculous. I’m sure there’s an element of satisfaction to be had, but the fact of the matter is that you’re just encouraging the siege mentality that has led to this situation,” he says. “The left has constantly been accused of not being able to accept opposing arguments and that just exacerbates it.”

Why should the left debate Nazism? “Well if he’s inciting violence then that’s one thing. Still, to get angry about someone inciting violence and then punch them seems a bit remiss. The fact of the matter is that as repulsive as his views might be, he still has a right to hold those views. In any case, if you say you’re going to try and reason with a Nazi then good luck.”

Whether Ranganathan’s diplomacy leans towards defeatism is open to interpretation. “I don’t know anyone that’s been entrenched in their views that after a thorough arguing with will hold their hands up and say: ‘You know what, you absolutely smashed that mate, I’ve totally abandoned my views and I’m now totally on board with what you’re saying.’

“You might get a softening of views; you might get someone thinking about something but I just think it’s far more deep-rooted than that. In answer to your question: punching a Nazi – not for me, mate.”

At their best, Ranganathan’s own views seem live-and-let-live; at their worst, they could be construed as too hands-off. But as one of them himself, it would be unfair to suggest that he has not flown the flag for ethnic minorities.

Finally, does he miss teaching? “No.”

You can listen to Romesh Ranganathan’s full interview with Rohan Banerjee and Hussein Kesvani on the No Country for Brown Men podcast. His latest tour, Irrational Live, is available here.