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28 Aug, 2020 10:51

TV show that portrays Jamaicans as sex-mad drug takers with big d**ks proves that black privilege is alive in comedy

TV show that portrays Jamaicans as sex-mad drug takers with big d**ks proves that black privilege is alive in comedy

The BBC has robustly defended a hugely offensive sketch on the Famalam show, which prompted a complaint from Jamaica’s foreign minister. After months of apologising for its past comedy output, why the change in tack now?

I was stunned to discover that the BBC actually puts out comedy programmes that aren’t just Nish Kumar sneering at most of Britain. It turns out that it also makes a sketch show called Famalam, which has got itself into a bit of hot water over a recent episode. 

The sketch in question is called Jamaican Countdown and features a fictionalised version of the much-loved gameshow taking place on the Caribbean island nation. The characters portrayed have thick West Indian accents and dreadlocks, enjoy dancehall-reggae and ‘daggering,’ and are apparently illiterate with a predilection for casual misogyny and ‘ganja.’

During the two-minute long sketch, the contestants spell English words phonetically in a sort of parody patois such as “bokkle” (y’know when ya have a nice bokkle of Guinness) and “pingwings” (like dem summin ya fine on de South Pole). 

The famed Countdown clock is replaced with the shadow of a dancing man who at the end of the theme tune reveals himself to have a behemoth of a penis, and it eventually just ends in overtly sexual dancing and drug taking. If you were playing negative Jamaican stereotypes bingo, I reckon that pretty much makes a full house.

But worse than all the lazy stereotyping and exaggerated accents is the fact that it isn’t funny, not even remotely. It has all the wit of a 12-year-old scrawling a penis on a toilet door.

However, despite the fact that it is offensive and unamusing, the BBC is “backing it to the hilt.” The corporation is refusing to apologise even though Jamaica’s foreign minister has complained about the sketch. The head of TV comedy, Shane Allen, has told people not to “dis” (yes, really) his “beloved Famalam.” 

He added: “To be relevant in comedy at a time when things can feel more anodyne and in this one culture when things are getting a little bit more sensitive and amplified social media storms are becoming Daily Mail articles, to be relevant and finger on the pulse is where we want to be. If you’re going to do something about tricky topics it needs to be from those communities or from those people who’ve got that voice.”

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Robust defence eh? Very out of character for the BBC to stand behind its talent in the face of accusations of bigotry and racism, especially when it has spent most of this year either airbrushing parts of its past or apologising for airing some of the greatest comedy ever made because it was ‘offensive.’ Why the change? Could it possibly be because Famalam has an all-black cast?

Would the BBC be putting up such a staunch defence of a sketch performed by an entirely white comedy group called “Irish Countdown” featuring drunken characters with impenetrable accents being stupid with the odd paedo priest gag chucked in there for good measure?

Or how about Traveller Antiques Roadshow featuring men in vests and gaudy jewellery getting large quantities of copper piping of dubious origin valued? Obviously not; these programmes would never be aired in the first place.

Considering the way it has backed down over other offensive things in the past: calling Eamonn Holmes fat, the Queen having sex, Jo Brand saying Nigel Farage should be doused in acid and Irish comic Tommy Tiernan saying “Fenian” to name but a few, by its own standards it should apologise for the Famalam sketch.

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Plainly, it is only backing this show because it features an all- black cast and it wants to show its commitment to diversity. For all the talk we hear of “white privilege,” that does not seem to extend to the realm of comedy. It appears that BAME comics are allowed far more room to push boundaries, as in the case of Famalam, while at the same time BAME public figures are shielded from satire that their white counterparts are not. One only has to look at the knots ITV has been tying itself in over portraying BAME figures in the upcoming reboot of Spitting Image to see that.

In an ideal world the BBC, and other channels, should provide this same level of defence for their whole output, as they have done for Famalam. After all, it must get signed off somewhere and none of this stuff goes out live. Either it does that or it should capitulate with consistency, not grant grace to performers based on their race.

The Jamaican Countdown sketch is undoubtedly offensive and trading in stereotypes, but that in itself is not necessarily wrong; it depends on how they are dealt with. Stereotypes are a cornerstone of comedy, and are frequently used across the board by comics of all stripes.

The main issue with this sketch is not just the subject matter, but poor execution. That being said, comedians do have to be allowed to misfire to make good stuff; many of the best routines in history started off as rubbish, but with time and work came to be comic genius. The thing is these routines are usually filtered out before they make it on to national television. Given how unfunny Jamaican Countdown is, you have to wonder how it was ever broadcast in the first place.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.