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The British Sense of Humour by Mark Duguid
Introduction Class Sex Violence Work The Family
Politics and Society Fools and Losers Madness & Surrealism Race    
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Still of Ali G

Ali G (Sacha Baron-Cohen)

Comedy can often be a way of coming to terms with change, and one of the greatest changes of the past half-century has been the transformation of Britain into a multiracial society, following a process of immigration beginning in the late 1940s.

TV comedy's attempts to deal with race in the 1960s and 70s can be uncomfortable viewing now, although they weren't necessarily seen as racist at the time. The bigoted ravings of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part were intended to satirise racism, although many felt that this message was lost on some of the audience, who considered Alf a hero for giving voice to their own feelings. Love Thy Neighbour mocked the anxieties of a white couple when an African family moves in next door, but this worthy aim was undermined by too many jokes about the jungle.

Mind Your Language, set in an English language class for non-native speakers, had something to offend almost everyone with its collection of characters identified largely by simplistic national stereotypes. Even in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum, where most of the jokes were at the expense of the British soldiers stationed in India, the stereotyping of the Indians is embarrassing today.

In the 1980s and 90s, Black and Asian writers and performers finally found space for their own comedy on television. In Desmond's, set in a West Indian run barber shop, race was only rarely a subject of humour, although the series did present the different outlooks of West Indian and African Britons. The comedians of The A Force went further in ridiculing racism as well as exploring the Black experience of living in Britain, while Goodness Gracious Me sharply challenged ingrained attitudes to Asians.

Among the most controversial figures of recent years is Ali G, created by white, Jewish comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen. Depending on your point of view, Ali is a white man playing a Black man to ridicule Black youth culture, a white man playing a white man desperate to appear Black in order to look cool, or even a white man playing an Asian man trying to appear black. Ali G has divided commentators, but he continues to attract huge audiences, many of them Black, who just think he's funny.

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