Comedian Ricky Gervais has a gift for saying outrageous things. For this reason, he has traditionally appealed to his liberal-minded fans, including Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the hit TV series Little Mosque on the Prairie.
But in a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Nawaz said that one of her daughters wasn’t nearly as impressed when she saw Gervais on TV making fun of trans people. As Nawaz continued watching, her daughter walked out of the room, saying she could no longer listen to him.
That prompted Nawaz to think more deeply about the impact of comedy on marginalized people.
“You know, I’m embarrassed to say I thought it was funny,” she said. “And I had to think about it and say [to myself]: ‘How could this hurt people? And why should it matter?’ If it had been Muslims, I would have cared more.”
She acknowledged that it’s human nature to care more about one’s own tribe. But she also recognizes the importance of being aware of how comedy affects other communities.
She thinks that this is especially so when a comedian tries to get laughs by “punching down” on those who are weaker.
“People say comedy is the last bastion of free speech and we should be allowed to do anything we want—I think that’s wrong,” she said. “We bring all our prejudices. Comedians can be just as horrible as other people and can hurt people. Just because they’re funny doesn’t give them carte blanche.”
At this year’s Indian Summer Festival (July 4 to 14), the Regina-based Nawaz will join Vancouver comedian Yumi Nagashima and Ladner’s Darcy Michael to discuss whether there should be boundaries on comedians’ right to offend. It will be moderated by Richard Side, creator of the CBC Radio One comedy show The Debaters.
When asked which comedians she admires, Nawaz immediately mentioned Ali Wong, the San Francisco–born standup who has four dates later this month at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver.
“She’s so smart, so clever,” Nawaz said. “I find that I like the people who can look at society—look at the changes—and call them out, and do it for a reason, for a purpose.”
In a similar vein, she’s impressed by the edgy Sarah Silverman, who isn’t afraid to deliver stinging jokes to highlight abortion rights.
Nawaz also mentioned Vancouver’s Charlie Demers as another comedian who can make broader points about society without “punching down”. Then there’s Hasan Minhaj, who wasn’t afraid to mock Indian prime minister Narendra Modi for his followers’ persecution of minorities.
“Those socially conscious comics are raising the bar on comedy,” Nawaz said.
Most comedians succeed as stand-ups before they get their own TV series and write books.
Nawaz, on the other hand, is trying to do the opposite: she first wrote and created a TV show, Little Mosque, then wrote a book called Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, which was a series of comedic essays. Now she’s eager to practise standup comedy.
“Comedy is always a way of processing the world and helping other people process the world in a way that’s accessible. ’Cause when people laugh, they’re willing to let down their guard and think about something more critical,” she said. “Whereas if you sort of give them a lecture, their minds turn off because it’s not entertaining.”