Comedy has the power to reflect or to challenge mainstream values. Laughing at difference or “otherness” can reinforce damaging social norms, while shared laughter at a flawed or failed system tends to work more subversively. The new BBC comedy, Man Like Mobeen, is a subversive comedy that implicitly challenges ways in which British Muslims have often been badly represented through lazy caricature and stereotyping – as in the terrorist, the submissive hijabi, or the interfering auntie.
Man Like Mobeen is the brainchild of Guz Khan, who made his mark on the comedy scene through YouTube videos and stand-up comedy. Khan is a working-class former school teacher from Birmingham. He wrote this show with Andy Milligan, who is best known for writing Ant and Dec’s gags for I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
The show is set in Khan’s home city, a place that has frequently been the focus of Islamophobic scaremongering. In 2015, it was described by Fox News in the US as a “totally Muslim city” and in 2014 it was the focus of the notorious “Operation Trojan Horse” – a “fake news” story about a plot to Islamicise schools.
Khan himself takes centre stage in the show as Mobeen, accompanied by his buffoonish sidekicks Eight (Tez Ilyas) and Nate (Tolu Ogunmefun). Mobeen, 28, single-handedly looks after his teenage sister, Aks (Dùaa Karim), braiding her hair and tending to her needs while bearing the brunt of her sarcastic mockery. This is not your familiar representation of a young Muslim man.
Critics, including Peter Morey and Amina Yaqin, have described the ways that Muslims are often “framed” by the media, with recourse to a familiar set of stereotypes. Yet in this show there is no overbearing bigamous patriarch, Islamic Rage boy, blushing hijabi or interfering Auntie in sight. Man Like Mobeen simply does not engage with this series of stereotypes. Instead, the humour derives from its political commentary, tempered by the constant byplay of the main characters and others they come across, as in: “I saw your Mum last week. She still says you’re a dickhead.”
For psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, laughter is a release of psychic energy created through the social repression taken on by the superego. Jokes provide an acceptable means of engaging with subject matter considered taboo in other social contexts and the offensive subject matter is at once voiced and disguised through the gags.
In the case of British Muslims and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Britain, engagement with racist or Islamophobic sentiments have tended to take one of two forms in comedies. In one, repugnant attitudes are voiced by racist characters, with the apparently intended effect that audiences laugh at the racist not the racism. Yet this is problematic, as audiences can as easily identify with the racism as against it – a phenomenon that critics Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering describe as the “Alf Garnett syndrome” – after the central character in the 1960s sitcom ‘Til Death Us Do Part.
An alternative is to engage with racist or Islamophobic stereotypes by having them voiced or embodied by ethnic or religious minority characters, effectively legitimising the laughter. This can come across as lazy and conservative – and Khan himself distances himself from the likes of Adil Ray’s Citizen Khan for reiterating the same stereotypes circulating since the 1970s, asking people to “laugh at us rather than laugh with us”.
What Man Like Mobeen does differently is to take structures and systems, rather than individuals, as the primary source of comedy. In the first episode (Bagpuss), Mobeen, Eight and Nate find themselves improbably accosted by armed police. Nate quickly scarpers, leaving Mobeen to explain why his friend has run off: “If I had to guess, I’d probably say it’s cause he’s black…”
The question of Mobeen’s potential racism (in the implicit association between black men and criminality) hangs in the air for a moment before he explains: “Look, officer, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this thing called history, but these situations very rarely work out for the black man.”
Khan cites comedians Eddie Murphy and Dave Chappelle as his “comedy heroes” for their blend of “sharp political comedy” and “outlandish humour” and this influence comes across clearly in the show. Yet the comedy goes further than this in its generosity.
In a particularly poignant scene in the final episode (H-ALTRight), Mobeen is locked in a police van with a racist character, Robbie, who has been preaching Islamophobia to the assembled crowd. Here, the comedy does the kind of straight talking that critics of the liberal left claiming to speak for the putative everyman (Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, for example) suggest never happen.
The scene in the van allows Robbie openly to voice his questions and fears about Islam – yet the comedy doesn’t render him the butt of the joke at this point through superior laughter or intellectual snobbery. When Robbie suggests that “only the oppressed woman” wants to wear a burqa, Mobeen responds “Oo, Robbie. You dictating femininity to women against their will are ya? You sexist pig” – in a tone more suggestive of brotherly teasing than outright disgust. Mobeen challenges Robbie’s views, yet the colloquial speech and gentle ribbing leave his humanity intact.
It is interesting that, while the show shies away from stereotyping, reviews sometimes find it hard to do so. The Financial Times review claims in its subheading that: “Guz Khan stars as a Muslim man trying to shake off suspicions of terrorism.” Mobeen is indeed constantly hounded by the police, but this viewer understood Mobeen’s nefarious activity as being implicitly linked to drugs. When Aks is faced with snitching on a local drug dealer in episode one, she observes sarcastically that “there is one person in the family who don’t get involved in drug dealing”. Mobeen quickly dismisses the implication and changes the subject.
It seems that no matter how shows like Man Like Mobeen attempt to redraw the boundaries for what a comedy about British Muslims might look like, audiences may still be led to interpret it through all-too-familiar frameworks.
Sarah Ilott, Lecturer in English Literature and Film, Manchester Metropolitan University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.