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  1. The Culture Interview
26 March 2022updated 25 Mar 2022 8:14pm

“The BBC won’t survive another Tory government”: Nish Kumar on the British comedy culture wars

The comedian reflects on becoming public enemy number one in Britain’s battle over what it can and cannot joke about.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

These days, when trying to come up with new material, the comedian Nish Kumar jokes that he thinks about his craft through “the prism of the bread roll”.

Back in 2019, a few years on from Kumar becoming a stalwart of the TV comedy circuit, he was pelted with bread rolls and boos while performing at a charity cricket lunch. The trigger for this response? Jokes about Brexit, of course.

“There seems to be this idea that I’m a sort of manifestation of a particular type of comedy that some people find distasteful… And I just couldn’t care less,” he told me when explaining the way he’s perceived by his detractors, punctuated with his signature cackle.

Despite the jeers at that charity-lunch show, Kumar kept on with the performance and incorporated the heckles into his routine, later saying that just as he was entitled to tell his jokes, his audience had “a right” to boo.

However, judging the event solely on its widespread coverage in the national media, you’d be forgiven for thinking he personally stole every staunch Brexiteer’s commemorative coin to use as lunch money. Even some Remainers on the right seemed upset. The Times columnist Matthew Parris, who left the Conservative Party in 2019 in opposition to Brexit, wrote that Kumar’s “stock-in-trade appears to be biting the hand that feeds him”.

“I’m delighted to have upset those people,” the 36-year-old from Croydon, south London, smiled between sips of his Americano. Speaking in the New Statesman studio on a rare day off from his new tour, “Your Power, Your Control”, Kumar’s boyish energy was matched by his fanboy wardrobe: a cap with The Bugle satirical podcast’s logo and a red T-shirt bearing an image of the rapper Little Simz from her latest album (“Andy Zaltzman and Little Simz: my North Stars“).

Of all the left-leaning comedians who made Brexit jokes, it is Kumar who appears to have been singled out as the personification of everything wrong with modern, “woke” comedy. The reason, to him, is simple: his ethnicity. “I don’t feel like that’s a particularly contentious thing to say,” he said. “When you look at some of the comments that were made about me, it felt like there was something much more loaded happening in some of the criticism.

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“The phrase ‘anti-British’ has been used by some people… Andrew Neil,” Kumar pointed out, referring to a Twitter rant in January 2020 by the veteran broadcaster regarding a Horrible Histories sketch Kumar fronted, which highlighted “British things” that are the products of colonialism.

“We young people of colour, we think that we’re facing these things for the first time. We’re not,” Kumar said. “It’s just the same conversation going over and over again, about who gets to have an opinion; if you live in a white country, who gets to express an opinion about that country itself?”

After a number of panel-show appearances in the early stages of his comedy career, just before the EU referendum, Kumar was propelled to the forefront of the culture war when he began hosting BBC Two satirical news programme The Mash Report in 2017.

Broadcast weekly over four series between 2017 and 2021, the show was critical of the Conservative government, with clips and sketches often going viral on social media and angering figures on the right. It was cancelled by the broadcaster last year, officially for funding reasons.

However, media reports from the time cited sources close to the then-incoming BBC director-general Tim Davie, referring to his plan to end the perceived “left-wing bias” in BBC comedy. The decommissioning of Kumar’s show was framed in these reports as the new regime’s first casualty.

“There’s such an opacity to the decision-making process,” said Kumar. Accepting the official line that the money wasn’t there to keep the show on air, he nevertheless pushed in vain for the BBC to dismiss the media briefings as a point of principle.

“This idea that the BBC is basically a kind of ceaseless, rolling, seven-day communist orgy, where gang bangs are interrupted by staged readings from Das Kapital, could not be further from the truth. There’s a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure that you can’t just outright produce pieces of propaganda,” he said. “I think the danger with the BBC is [the corporation] thinking that you can appease people that are out to destroy you.”

Long-running attacks from both the left and right, and the government’s existential threat to the licence fee may eventually end the BBC as we know it, Kumar warned. “I don’t know that the existing version of the BBC can survive another Conservative government,” he said. “A lot of left-wing people are very much struggling to defend the BBC, and I understand and sympathise with a lot of those things. But what I would say is that you never want to find yourself siding with the Daily Mail – that’s a great rule for life.”

Becoming public enemy number one in the comedy culture war was not destined in this comic’s origin story; his influences include Nineties pop-culture staples like The Simpsons, stand-ups Chris Rock and Ross Noble and the classic BBC sketch show about British Asians Goodness Gracious Me.

A cocktail of these mainstream influences, the comic sees himself as a fundamentally harmless, yet patriotic, British-Asian man. Yet the vitriol aimed his way over the last few years has “definitely made me feel less connected to Britain and Britishness”, he reflected.

“I think The Mash Report would not have caused the problems it caused if it had a white host. I really believe that,” he said. “I think there is definitely still a sense of: ‘How dare this P*ki have these opinions?’”

That said, events such as the 2020 toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and the unity shown by England football players taking the knee in the face of adversity during the Euros in 2021, have helped “re-engage” Kumar with Britishness somewhat.

“I think it’s interesting to ask the question of what is a patriot: is it somebody who is constantly trying to recapture an imagined past glory? Or is a real patriot somebody who’s trying to improve the country, and move the country forward and create real progress? 

“I would say it’s the latter – but that’s the sort of thing that gets bread chucked at me!”

Nish Kumar’s show “Your Power, Your Control” is touring the UK and Ireland

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