Over the last few nights I’ve been watching a new sitcom TV series commissioned by the BBC called Citizen Khan. It features a Pakistani family based in Birmingham. The original character’s inception was based in Leicester via shorts from a separate series called Bellamy’s people (A TV version of the Radio 4 phone-in satire show Down The Line. ‘Clueless DJ Gary Bellamy is let out of the studio to meet people face-to-face’). Khan is played by the same actor, Adil Ray. Adil’s a writer, DJ and co-producer of the show. Interestingly, the character wore the same outfit – A 70s style brown chequered suit with a half-sleeved jumper as a waist coat and a Karakul. .For Bellamy’s shorts the character was positioned as a ‘community leader’ combining ‘off the cuff, in street’ public discussions and armchair based rhetoric advice for the public and politicians.
For Mr Khan’s current incarnation, or should we say ‘Citizen Khan’, he returns as a budding business & community leader. On first watch his opinions are timewarped with canned laughter to ease the cringes! Its true to say that there are some very funny universal themes exploited at the characters expense. For example, husband-wife and mother-in-law relationships with an inflated / exaggerated egos thrown, ‘into the mix’.
Humour is really difficult to write and its easy for writers to choose the lowest form of wit. With regard to Citizen Khan although it often invokes a laugh-out-loud reaction based on ridiculous stereotypes, at times its humour borders on risky themes. However, most appear harmless enough compared to other attempts to engage a cross-cultural audience (my view). For example, the film 4 Lions.
Maybe there is a Lenny Bruce thing going on, a suggested negative racism to challenge pre-conceptions ?
There are some questions to ask. Firstly, without a balanced schedule, such programmes will suffer more reaction (bad) & complaints. Either not enough thought and talent centred on mainstream themes is emerging or again just like news reporting editorial bias exists in what makes it to prime time. In terms of can communities laugh at themselves even if they do not represent a positive view of their society? The answer is likely to be no as British comedy appears to focus on slapstick and polarised constructs. US sitcoms on the other hand create loveable characters that show an integrated life-style. The hugely popular My wife and kids (US based) sitcom focused more on relationships. That is not to say that US sitcoms don’t steer away from say Jewish humour or ridiculous situations.
In summary, my point is that although Citizen Khan offers some great laughs, we need more variety shows with characters representing our society in general. Playing on a stereotype may work in a skit but creating loveable characters requires a story-line that people can identify and reflect on.
NB We’re only 2 episodes in and I’m already wondering who will be offended more, the stereotyped lifetyle, Birmingham, religious communities or gingers!? Saying that, its really just for laughs and a situation not real life !
BTW – A very clever tactic used in hugely successful comedies of the past is to use an invisible character, for example Maris (Frazier), Cliff’s mother (Cheers). In this sitcoms case, its Mr Khan’s rival: Mr Malik.