Until two decades ago, British Asians never really saw themselves on their tellies. The few brown characters that appeared in sitcoms were unrecognisable caricatures, a whitewashed idea of South Asians, like Ali Nadim and Ranjeet Singh of Mind Your Language. Enter Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42: two comedic offerings that contained familiar archetypes, including a meddlesome mother and a fearsome father, all battling family and culture shock with equal elan.
For desis in the UK in general, these programmes were a representation of their life. But for some like Nish Kumar, they became the catalyst for a career in comedy.
“I don’t think I’d be doing comedy without Goodness Gracious Me,” declared the star of the satirical news show The Mash Report, whose tongue-in-cheek takedown of Trump crony Piers Morgan and castigation of sexual harassment in the wake of #MeToo have gone viral. Kumar was 12 when the sketch comedy show started in 1998. “It gave me permission to want to be a comedian,” he said. “I loved comedy and grew up watching various shows like The Simpsons, Fawlty Towers and other British sitcoms. But watching Goodness Gracious Me made me feel like, ‘Oh, that’s something I could do.’”
This comes as no surprise. Goodness Gracious Me, with its desi central cast, was made for an audience consisting of second-generation immigrants. Like them, Kumar is decidedly British, but has deep roots in the homeland, which is evidenced by his yearly pilgrimage to India since childhood.
Kumar’s career in comedy started while he was at Durham University. He was part of the Durham Review, and developed a double act, called the Gentlemen of Leisure, with a colleague. They took this “comedic cornucopia of culture” to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for two years, before Kumar had his first solo show called Who is Nish Kumar? in 2012. A show a year followed until 2016. Meanwhile, Kumar also became a familiar fixture on popular panel shows like Would I Lie To You? and Mock The Week, on which he wasn’t afraid to get political – a trait that started bleeding into his stand-up. Earlier this year, The Guardian described him as “the face of combative British satire”.
“My 2016 show [Actions Speak Louder Than Words] came in the aftermath of Brexit, and then the one I’m working on now [It’s In Your Nature To Destroy Yourself] comes two years later, in the run-up to our final decision on that issue,” he said. “I’m very lucky to have the outlet to scream about Brexit...It was exciting to have these weird bookends to a very odd and unhappy period of British history.”
Kumar’s comic takes on the political zeitgeist seem like a natural continuation of his childhood comedy consumption: comics like Chris Rock who spoke truth to power, “illegally downloaded videos of The Daily Show”, and shows like Goodness Gracious Me that reflected the cultural mood of his community.
It isn’t hard to understand why the three seasons of Goodness Gracious Me left such a profound imprint on him. The very first episode aired on BBC Two was an indictment of the behaviour of drunken British revellers at a local curry house after a booze-soaked night. In a clever role reversal, the Bombay boys in the four-minute sketch went for “an English” after getting “tanked up on lassis” in the city and found themselves turning British reference points on their head when they asked for their blandest food and mispronounced Western names. It was a nice change of pace. “We [South Asians] were the butts of jokes here – Indians in British comedy shows would usually be a white person with boot polish on their face and a ‘funny’ Indian accent,” Kumar said. “Goodness Gracious Me was the first time you felt like you had control over why people were laughing. That was a pretty fundamental and significant distinction.”
Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42, which premiered on BBC Two in 2001, wore their weirdness proudly and celebrated every outrageous antic of its classic desi characters. They pointed out the logical gaps in this kind of normative thinking: were these characters to be made fun of only because they were different from the familiar?
According to Kumar, many people, including show co-creator and lead Sanjeev Bhaskar, thought Goodness Gracious Me would be the first in a wave of South Asian comedy. But this was not to be. After both shows wrapped up, there emerged a dearth in desi comedy in Britain. Movies such as Bend It Like Beckham and Anita & Me filled the gap to some degree, but, as Kumar points out, while these were fantastic additions to the cultural consciousness, these were comedy-dramas, rather than pure comedy.
Kumar believes it was an outcome of demographics over anything else, pointing to present-day desi comedy stars such as Romesh Ranganathan, Ahir Shah and Tez Ilyas as examples of those influenced by the show. According to The Guardian, Ranganathan’s BAFTA-nominated 2015 show Asian Provocateur relied on the same formula of cultural in-jokes and observational comedy that gave Goodness Gracious Me legendary status. In Bounty, Ilyas’s entry for Channel 4’s 2018 Comedy Blaps (often a test run for shows that will be picked up for a full season), he starred as the prodigal son returning home to Blackburn, in Lancashire, to a family as infuriating and endearing as the Kumars. This would not be an unfamiliar story in Blackburn, where there have been waves of Asian immigration – and consequent racial tensions – from the 1970s, resulting in a population that is over 30% Asian as of 2011.
Another reason why Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t followed by a wave of South Asian comedy was because the British Indian community it was aimed at was “a bit older”. According to Kumar, “it took a full generation for the people who had been influenced by them to come through”.
This gap also meant a change in tone. Cultural stereotypes are tropes comics rely on to connect with an audience. But for marginalised communities, they can be a way to reach out to an audience that rarely sees itself in mainstream media. Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No. 42 always poked fun at those in power, but they did so using the foil of a familiar, wholesome desi family. The conversation has now moved on from relatable archetypes to something a bit more charged.
Kumar’s first two solo shows were heavily “storytelling based”, but having watched a lot of political comedy growing up, he always knew he wanted to move in that direction – he “just needed to figure out how to do it in a funny way and what my specific angle was”. Whether it’s solving racism by holding Beyonce hostage, advocating for a black James Bond, or revamping Monopoly to expose the follies of capitalism, Kumar’s takes drive home divisive political perspectives using a light touch.
Comedy sets might still feature jokes centred on family-friendly “subtle curry traits” (memes largely created and shared by desis to make fun of in-group stereotypes), but more and more comics are using their minutes to not play nice. South Asian comics today are unafraid to lean into their anger – whether it is at juvenile sociopathy or at an unjust world. It could just be comedy evolution – jokes that were revolutionary in their time have now been repeated and watered down to an extent that they no longer surprise – but Kumar thinks it is more a response to troubled times.
“In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Goodness Gracious Me was born of a lot of optimism and confidence about where we were as a community, I think. And I remember that optimism and confidence – and I really value it now that we are in a more difficult cultural moment. Being a person who isn’t white in a Western country, the atmosphere has slightly turned, shall we say?” Kumar said, laughing uproariously.
The optimism, Kumar says, faded in Britain post-Brexit and in the United States following Donald Trump’s election and the “rise of racism”. “In an ideal world, what would have happened was that all the comedians Goodness Gracious Me birthed would be less angry,” he said. “[But] it now feels like we are fighting to re-establish ourselves as legitimate parts of British society. That’s what has fuelled us. It is not a comedic evolution, but a necessary response to a change in social conditions.”
This kind of social consciousness in comedy is not an exclusively desi phenomenon. Before Goodness Gracious Me, black comics like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock dropped jokes that defined people’s understanding of institutionalised bigotry. Even today, comics like Michael Che and Trevor Noah drive conversations around race. “A lot of Asians in this country owe a huge debt of gratitude to the black community,” Kumar explained. “We didn’t have the cultural vocabulary [to talk about racism] because there weren’t that many prominent South Asian artists, especially in comedy. So we ended co-opting the vocabulary of African-Americans to deal with racism. Chris Rock was one of the first comedic voices that ever resonated with me, because even though it wasn’t directly my experience, he was speaking out against prejudice in a way that resonated with me very strongly.”
Comedy tends to be most popular when it taps into a collective cultural zeitgeist. It is also a way for the disenfranchised to punch up against the powers that be. Despite the impact shows like Goodness Gracious Me had in representing minority lives and its successors have had in calling out institutionalised prejudice, the function of comedy is not to seriously address social issues, a fact Kumar is aware of. “Regardless of how much social commentary you do, ultimately I am still a professional idiot. I don’t want me to be the spokesman for my community. I want somebody smarter and more qualified and someone who hasn’t devoted their entire life to acting up, as my Mum would say.”
Nish Kumar’s It’s In Your Nature To Destroy Yourselves is on tour in the UK. Tickets available at www.nishkumar.co.uk.