ONCE again I realize that I
have missed my calling.
When other people seized the day, I seized the remote control. On the up side, there’s little risk that I’ll die in a hail of bullets. On the down side, I might drown in hail itself from sheer ennui.
“What’s she on about, then?” you ask in that enchanting accent of yours. I’ll tell you what: I should have been a terrorist.
Not because I want to terrorize anyone. Perish the thought. If people run away from me screaming, I’d like it to be for the usual reason -- hygiene issue. No, I wish to be a convicted terrorist simply because of the fabulous retraining program.
For I’ve just discovered some news from late last year, which is that an Al-Qaeda operative who was convicted of plotting to bomb buildings in London was given the opportunity for free lessons in stand-up comedy. Zia Ul Haq (remember that name -- you’ll be seeing it on marquees in 2030) was one of 18 prisoners who signed up for them at England’s Whitemoor Jail. He’s in stir for the long haul, so must’ve figured he’d have plenty of time to polish his act.
Haq -- and what a great name for a funnyman! -- is a graduate of construction management from Paddington, England, who was recruited by a terrorist cell. He got caught, and blah-blah-blah, the terrorist thing didn’t work out, and oops, there he is in another type of cell, one with government-funded perks.
Haq’s stint at comedy camp was short-lived. But he wasn’t hooked off the stage by himself because of the miserable quality of his gags -- his confreres at Whitemoor also bit the dust. Prison guards enraged by the $20,000 training scheme protested and, with the support of UK Justice Secretary Jack Straw, got it yanked after three days.
“Prisons should be places of punishment and reform…” said Straw, the ultimate heckler. He has obviously never been subjected to the punishing rants of Lewis Black, which have made many a viewer swear off stand-up forever.
Proof that nothing gets by the English, somebody named Kaveh from Manchester dashed off an email to the Times in response to its story on the scandal. “Oh come on, an al-Qaeda stand-up comedy act can’t be that bad,” he/she said, adding a snappy opener for Haq: “‘So what’s the deal with these infidels?’”
On a more serious note, Londoner “Chris” emailed the newspaper to ask, “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to have terrorists thinking about how to make people laugh than sitting alone in a cell thinking about how to make them die?”
(Lighten up, Chris. We’re just in this concept for the jokes.)
I think comedy could use an injection of Haq’s brand of -- may he forgive the term -- chutzpah. You can’t accurately describe any jihadist as “irreverent,” but in the context of an opinionated loudmouth with a microphone and a bunch of audience members hanging on his every word, what could be wrong with giving somebody like Haq a new take on things?
My guess is that he won’t abandon his goal to be the funniest terrorist alive. My chief concern is whether his act will be original or, after a couple of decades of incarceration, even vaguely relevant. A martyr-worthy opener like “Take my life, please” has, sadly, been done -- it’s even the name of a Simpsons episode. And of course, religious fundamentalism is unlikely to be an asset in the world of stand-up -- when you don’t drink, date, or casually fornicate for religious reasons, you’ve cut yourself off from the majority of comedy’s central themes.
Still, I have great expectations. Fortunately for Haq, if his mug shot is any indication, he’s no better in terms of appearance than the average funnyman. That’s helpful as he enters a profession where the sorrier you look, the sharper your edge. You couldn’t find a worse dressed, homelier bunch if you took a rake through a barful of freelance journalists. Do we want our comedy served up to us by a muscular hunk with no conceivable chip on his shoulder -- somebody who looks like Matthew Fox from Lost -- or by a quipster with a face like a slowly collapsing party balloon, who’s spent his life enduring the name Brent Butt? Sad sacks (Jackie Mason), lantern jaws (Jay Leno), the follically bizarre (Steven Wright, Demitri Martin), the minuscule (Billy Crystal) and people who look like puppets (Garry Shandling, Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey) -- all have found a forgiving home on the comedy stage.
So Haq’s a shoe-in. He does have plenty of competition in the “religious/ethnic outsider” category, of course. For instance, there are already American Muslim comedians like Mohammed Amer, Ashar Usman, and Preacher Moss, one of whose jokes is, “Osama bin Laden is like the Muslim Tupac. They can’t find this guy, but he releases a DVD every month and a half.”
That particular trio came out with a movie last year called Allah Made Me Funny, but the men’s humour derives from their awareness of non-Muslims’ irrational fears about Muslims since 9/11. People were obviously right to be afraid of Haq -- that makes his schtick fresh. He could turn out to be the Mickey Rourke of jihadists, relentlessly preaching about his conversion to the sunny side of life, but still seeming scary as hell.
The real pity is that Haq can’t immediately unleash his hilarity worldwide, and all because of something stuffy people like to call “criminal justice.” But there is hope for him to dole out the gold from “inside.” Last year, the BBC and Channel 4 inexplicably rejected a comedy about would-be suicide bombers by satirical documentary maker Chris Morris, who is known in Britain for his Channel 4 show Brass Eye. This was despite the fact that Morris was careful to make sure the program was not offensive to Muslim viewers. “It is fatwah-proof,” his producer boasted to UPI.
Rumour has it that Morris plans instead to make a film version called Four Lions this summer. And who better for him to hire to ensure the yucks keep coming than your enemy and mine, Zia Ul Haq?
I’d make the introductions myself, but I
prefer to keep an ocean between Haq and me. As we all know, comedy doesn’t
travel. On the other hand, terrorism is always on the move.