Laughing at Racism or Laughing with the Racists? The ‘Indian Comedy’ of Goodness Gracious Me

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As Salita Malik reminds us, black people1 have been part of the British ‘entertainment industry’ since early modern times (Malik 91) and they ‘appeared on British television on the first day of transmission when the African-American performer, Josephine Baker, participated in one of John Logie Baird’s experimental television broadcasts from his London studio in October 1933’ (4). However, throughout its subsequent TV history, the ‘blacks as entertainers’ tradition raises the question of ‘whether images of Blackness in television comedy “play on” or “play off” the long-established Black clown stereotype, and whether we are being invited to laugh with or at the Black comic entertainer’ (92). Despite — or because of? — its great success, this is also a central question frequently asked in connection with the first all-Asian sketch show on British television, Goodness Gracious Me (BBC2 1998–2001), which will be at the centre of this chapter (Emig; Gillespie; Mendes; Weedon). But before turning to the show and attempting to answer the question, let me briefly introduce the cultural context of black and Asian British television comedy.

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In this article, we suggest a semiotic approach to the study of visual humorous texts. Our method is based on the multimodal script analysis, which is a useful tool for examining not only verbal texts but also more complex texts, which combine the presence of images and sounds with verbally expressed humor. The resulting framework highlights how some visual comic mechanisms may enhance a different perception of semiotically expressed humor. Moreover, we present a statistical model in order to detect and measure how the resolution of some incongruities may also be determined by specific variables, which help to establish the existence and the strength with which the appreciation of humor varies according to the ethnic group of origin. In particular, the study analyzes the clip 'Jodhpur Station, 1947' from a very popular British Asian sketch-show, Goodness Gracious Me (GGM). The sketch shares some similar features with the narrative strategies typical of joke-tellers and is characterized by a complex humorous apparatus depending on different levels of understanding relating to encyclopedic, cross-cultural, and even diasporic knowledge of the world.
The discourse of mimicry is constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference. Mimicry emerges as the representation of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal. Mimicry is the sign of a double articulation; a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the other as it visualizes power. The effect of mimicry on the authority of colonial discourse is profound and disturbing. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority. In mimicry, the representation of identity and meaning is rearticulated along the axis of metonymy. Mimicry is the process of the fixation of the colonial as a form of cross-classificatory, discriminatory knowledge within an interdictory discourse. The ambivalence of mimicry suggests that the fetishized colonial culture is potentially and strategically an insurgent counter-appeal.
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