Leila Navabi has always loved gameshows and panel comedies but she could never see a space for herself in them. “I grew up watching Mock the Week,” she says “But as a little brown girl in Cardiff, I never thought I’d participate in that sort of comedy.” She wanted to break the mould and create something more inclusive. But, wary that this might be seen as a token gameshow for minorities, she decided on a more subversive approach.
Enter Bameshow, a Radio 4 panel show that parodies gameshows and tokenism in comedy. In the pilot, recorded before a live audience, Desiree Burch hosts an all comics-of-colour panel – Athena Kugblenu, Ken Cheng, Kemah Bob and Amrou Al-Kadhi (AKA drag performer Glamrou) – each given free rein to playfully mock the stereotyping, bias and tick-box diversity efforts they experience in comedy.
“There are a lot of things you’ve got to navigate in the industry” says comic Cheng, “especially as it is trying to be more woke.” He and Kugblenu agree that today there are more opportunities for comics of colour to experiment, but rarely on their own terms. “Your presence is always defined by your identity,” says Kugblenu. “We want to talk about this stuff as well – it’s not like I don’t want to do a show about where I come from. But if I propose a show with four parts on Brexit, will I get that show?” It’s this assumption, that minority comics must always operate from a point of identity, that Bameshow ridicules.
The sharpness of the show’s satire is evident as early as the guest introductions. Glamrou jokes that being invited to appear on British institution Radio 4 heals the wound of abandonment after this mother tasered him for wearing pink as a kid: “Assimilation really does heal.” Kemah Bob tells us, with an eyeroll you can practically hear, that she is feeling especially “BAME-y” as she leads us into a remix of the Fame track: “BAME – you can’t pronounce my name.”
The games continue to poke fun at the entertainment world. The Name BAME, for instance, challenges contestants to spell a “vexingly difficult white name”, from Tchaikovsky to Michelle Pfeiffer, a riposte to the routine failure to correctly spell or pronounce minority comics’ names. Get it right and we hear “Oh, that’s a pretty name”; wrong and it’s, “Where’s that from then?”
This is one of the delights of Bameshow: the satire is delivered through playful production flourishes. The jingle is a mash-up of racist soundbites from British comedians over the years, while the kid-on sponsor is Billy Bear ham (“Britain’s only bear baloney, with just a hint of black face”). Says Navabi: “That’s the acknowledgment of the past, a reminder of why we’re doing this.”
The show is also a commentary on the tired gameshow format, with TV news quiz and gameshow tropes pushed to chaotic new levels. Hundreds of points are assigned arbitrarily, wrong answers are right, and still there must be a winner: “How else would we be able to exploit each other for profit?” Burch’s warm voice only makes the barb sting more.
If you want real diversity, you can’t just put it on the shoulders of one brown person you happen have in the room
Alongside the satire and the chaos, there is a subtle, maybe spontaneous sincerity to Bameshow. As the panelists share jokes, laughs and their vastly different experiences of identity, it becomes clear that putting all these different experiences under the BAME banner doesn’t do them justice. “It wasn’t really intentional,” says Kugblenu. “But, naturally, it will come out when you fill a room in that way. If you want real diversity, you can’t just put that on the shoulders of that one brown person you happen have in the room. You need to see us all in the individual circumstances that we represent.”
More than this, it’s clear that having just one of these comics on a panel, or limiting them their talents to just talk about identity, would be a huge waste. “When a brown, black or East Asian person’s role within comedy is to play the token or counterpart or best friend, it makes it feel like the comedy is tired,” says Navabi. “There’s a big stigma about having inclusive comedy. Actually, once you remove that weird taboo it’s really funny.”
The final round comes down to a face-off between the two team captains. “You’re both used to being pitted against each other in the name in comedy, so this’ll work to your advantage,” says Burch. At this point, of course, the points are meaningless. Camaraderie wins. And everyone gets to go home with a slice of Billy Bear ham.