Thursday, February 16, 2006

Restricted View - Fringe Comedy Bombs


Come back Aaron Barshak, all is forgiven. You may recall the self-styled “comedy terrorist” who bombed (ho ho) at the fringe two years ago after a series of publicity stunts which would probably get him a five bullets in the head today, instead of a volley of bad reviews.
Those were altogether gentler times. We now have genuine terrorists blowing up innocent people in London. Real blood real intestines aren’t just the projectionist’s nightmare; they’re the comedian’s as well. Random slaughter is no laughing matter.
Except of course that it is - humour knows no bounds except the law and good taste, or so it is often said. The Fringe has spend the first week of the Festival trying to find out whether that’s really true.
Like the devices themselves, jokes about suide bombers have to be handled with care, else they blow up in your face. Omar Marzouk, (“War, Terror and Other Fun Stuff, Pleasance) one of several Muslim stand ups on the fringe, had planned to conclude his show by detonating a flour bomb after advising the audience: “Look on the bright side. You may be dead in twenty seconds but at least you’ll die laughing”. But anxious, perhaps, not to be shot by over-zealous police marksmen, he dropped the idea.
I’m afraid almost died anyway, on stage, as he picked his way nervously through this comedy minefield, second-guessing himself and minutely guaging audience reaction. He was particularly on the look out for Americans. At an earlier show, one had taken offence at his criticism of Bush’s Middle East Policy and walked out shouting: “Okay asshole , after Afghanistan and Iraq, you’re next ”. Which would be interesting since Mazrouk, while a Muslim, is actually a Danish citizen. Bush invades Copenhagen!
The brilliant John Oliver and Andy Saltzman (Pleasance) are quintessentially British in their pleasant distracted wit. But like Mazrouk, they weren’t quite sure where to begin. So they made an elaborate joke about not being able to joke about the bombing. This was very much work in progress when I saw it, and it showed.
For a different take on terror I took in Ines Wurth’s one woman show: “I Miss Communism” (Pleasance), which she almost does. Ines is a Croation who went to live for ten years in America and discovered that it isn’t quite the land of opportunity she imagined. (Under Communism, her mother had had to have three jobs to survive; to pay her way through college, Inez found she had to do exactly the same. There was little after it but a failed acting career and penury in Los Angeles). But when she returns to former Yugoslavia she falls into the hands of Serbian militias with unpleasant consequences. This may not sound very funny, and it isn’t really. It is terror, pure and simple. She tries to lighten up with cod Communism and quirky family observations, but this doesn’t prevent her show descending into emotional exhibitionism. You can’t help feeling her pain over her disillusion with the West and the loss of her homeland.
By far the best attempt to come to terms with the world after 7/7 is from the London comedian Rob Newman, (“Apocalypso Now”, Bongo) formerly half of Baddiel and Newman. I came with few expectations. I’d been told he was washed up; that this metropolitian leftist had disappeared up its own dialectic. What I discovered was a genuinely gifted showman, with great stage presence and an extraordinary ability to turn the most unlikely historical material into comedy.
Making jokes about the CIA involvement in the overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in Iran in 1953 is not easy. You have to give your audience a history lesson first. Nor do you do yourself any favours trying to gag up a radical reassessment of the causes of the First World War. (Apparently it was about Germany and Britain competing for Iraq’s oil)
Newman isn’t content just to poke fun at Tony Blair’s accent - though he does as vivid impersonation of the Prime Minister as I’ve heard. Nor is he content with gags about George Bush’s dyslexia. Newman really wants to try to explain what is going on and try to make people think about complex issues like energy depletion, globalisation and the fragility of the financial system. And in this he is largely successful. His warnings about the imminent demise of he petroleum economy, and the geo-political consequences of another energy race were bang up to the minute. And his Arabic version of rock around the clock wasn’t bad either.
But what of the original premise? Is it possible to make fun of suicide bombers. Well, yes, of course it is. Here’s one from the amazing female Muslim comedienne, Shazia Mirza (“Between You and Me” Pleasance). “When male suicide bombers go to paradise they get seventy two virgins; a woman suicide bomber gets a day off”. Boom, Boom.

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