Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature
or

Most nights of the week, rooms above pubs across London burst with stand-up comedy. But can the city be said to have its own distinct brand of humour?

This cluster of villages – some quiet and quaint, others rambunctious and bejewelled with electronic ankle tags – proves elusive when it comes to pinning down a sense of humour.

More than 8m people bring the capital to life every day, and while it would be an exaggeration to say humour oils the wheels, it is deep in the frantic mix and certainly does not hurt. When it is particularly good, it is relayed well beyond the M25 orbital motorway.

Fifteen years ago, Sacha Baron Cohen took Ali G and a growing London patter to the world. Refrains such as “aaiiiy” and “booyashaka” were never as funny to the yoof at the back of the bus who pioneered them as they were to the middle classes who don’t speak like dat. Seen?

Twenty years earlier, David Jason’s wideboy Del was imprinted on to the nation’s psyche, by the writer John Sullivan, in Only Fools And Horses. “Lovely jubbly” Del Boy, with his south London accent and nods to rhyming slang, personified the “Jack the Lad attitude” that comedian Arthur Smith tells me “typifies London humour”.

Implicit in this, says Smith – the self-appointed “Mayor of Balham” – is an “unspoken declaration that ‘I’m from the big city and you all drive tractors’.”

Londoners, it seems, regard themselves as foreigners to a degree. And then there are the foreigners themselves. If my dad said “Mind Your Language” when I was a child, it was to call my brother and me to watch the sitcom, set in an English-language school in the late-1970s.

“Squeeze me please, lady, I am coming here for to be learning the English,” the Pakistani student tells the head of the school.

“You’re early,” she says.

“I am Ali,” he corrects her, with a head-waggle.

Much to my parents’ dismay, it was cancelled in 1979. Racism was a big part of London humour back in the day but political correctness has largely decapitated it and a more intelligent and risqué humour has taken its place.

Stand-up comedian Jeff Innocent, whose unassuming “East End geezer” persona packs killer punches, refers to his wife as “inappropriately too young” in one of his sets.

“She’s from Sierra Leone,” he says, “and the fact that she’s black has never been an issue but it’s turned out to be an added bonus – because I now know when we walk the streets no one’s ever gonna think she’s my daughter.”

He describes sending his son to a “ghetto nursery” in Newham that is so multicultural it “makes Sesame Street seem like a meeting of the Aryan Brotherhood”.

Perhaps it is in exploring otherness that London’s humour excels – both the city’s sense of being separate from the rest of England and in absorbing cultures from far-off climes.

And let’s face it, foreigners can be funny. On the Hanger Lane gyratory in west London there is a restaurant called Golden Empire that advertises “Chinese and Polish” cuisine. A Polish flag adorns its doorway and the word “halal” appears large in Arabic on its window. A minicab driver tells me it is owned by an Afghan.

Back in 1873, the Shah of Persia had Victorian London in rapture when he visited at the invitation of Prime Minister Gladstone. The Shah was a vision of bling, draped with elaborate jewels, and press reports and cartoons of his outlandish dress and humour caught the imagination of the masses. He became a favourite topic in the music halls. In his 2003 book, Victorian Sensation, Michael Diamond quotes the Queen’s private secretary Henry Ponsonby, who noted in his diary that the Shah’s “total inability to make himself understood and his undisguised admiration for childish pleasures all fitted in with pre-conceived notions people had of Oriental potentates”.

All a tad paternalistic but this was the height of the British Empire and he did ask for a whole lamb every night he stayed at the Palace.

“Have you seen the Shah?” became a catchphrase and then a song that was sung at a West End burlesque. “Have you seen the Shah, boys, have you seen the Shah? / With five pound notes he lines his coats, it’s so peculiah / From head to waist with Paris paste he twinkles like a stah.”

I can almost hear Del Boy singing it. It’s also hard as I write this not to imagine his “bruv” Rodney pointing out that Ali G wasn’t a Londoner anyway: “He’s part of the West Staines Massif.”

“I know that you plonker,” Del Boy would say. “What would Staines be without London, anyway? Eh? It would be Pontypridd, bang in the middle of Wales. Sheep and all. What keeps it from that? London.”


Shappi Khorsandi’s family moved from Tehran to London when she was a girl. Her show “Because I’m Shappi” is now on tour.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.