Taking on the Arab world is no joke, even at Edinburgh Fringe
Have you heard the one about the Palestinian and the Israeli? Probably not. Comedians, even at the cutting-edge Edinburgh Fringe, are feeling nervous about wisecracking about the Middle East.
“For those comics, like myself, who like to be topical, it’s hard to ignore the Middle East – especially of late – as it very much dominates the news,” says Tiernan Douieb, whose show Read Something is on at the Beat venue. “But sadly I don’t mention the Middle East enough in my set, though I’ve really tried.
“I have a small bit about Syria and a bit about Gaza, but not a lot else. But the region isn’t entirely off limits. It’s not too dangerous to talk about, it just requires tact and making sure you’re not making the victims of violence and war your punchlines.”
The subject of the Israeli attacks on Gaza have been visible on the Fringe comedy programme. After the bombings, a group of British comedians, including Frankie Boyle, Josie Long and Ivor Dembina, organised a benefit to raise money for medical aid for Gaza.
Ten years ago, Dembina visited the West Bank and developed his show This Is Not a Subject for Comedy as a result of what he witnessed. But he has limits to what he considers right to laugh about.
“I love America, it’s my favourite part of Israel,” is guaranteed to get a laugh. “Even Zionists laugh at that,” says Dembina. “What I don’t do is make jokes about victims on either side of the conflict. I don’t make jokes about people having bombs falling on their heads.”
There’s a lot not to laugh about. The London comedian Joe Bor’s show A Room with a Jew has been voted one of the top 10 titles at this year’s Fringe. But the Fringe crowd didn’t find anything funny in it.
At his Fringe previews, Bor opened with the quip: “I’ve probably chosen the worst time to do a show called A Room with a Jew.” But the joke fell flat. “It didn’t work. It made the audience quite tense,” says Bor. He now closes with: “Thanks for coming. I was worried what the reception would be like. Comedy is about timing – and I’ve chosen the worst time to do a show with a Jew in the title.” The audience is still cautious. “There’s a pause – and then there’s laughter of relief,” says Bor.
The comedian Mickey Sharma, who recently visited the Palestinian Territories and gathered material for his show, says the audience can determine which gags you risk telling.
“Islam and the Middle East are hot topics and most of the times audiences don’t want to deal with it,” he says. “For example, the comic Nick Revel did: ‘Is it me? Or is ceasefire another Hebrew word for reload?” – and got nothing in response.”
Dembina agrees: “The audience determines what’s funny – not the comedy. The comedian just takes the risk – tells the truth as they see it – and leaves it to the audience to decide. The risk is the audience don’t accept your truth.”
• Mickey Sharma’s Sharma Sharma Sharma Sharma Sharma Comedian! and Joe Bor’s A Room With A Jew are at Laughing Horse; www.laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk. Ivor Dembina’s Old Jewish Jokes is at Gilded Balloon; www.gildedballoon.co.uk. Tiernan Douieb’s Read Something is at Beat. For more information on the Edinburgh Fringe festival, go to www.edfringe.com