Gehalten am Tag der Offenen Tür der Universität des Saarlandes am 5.7.2003

Goodness Gracious Me!: A Shared Laugh is Better than None

Vera Alexander



I would like to start with two announcements:

a) this presentation is going to be in English; and

b) this is nothing to worry about.

If you find in the course of the next 30 or so minutes that at some point or other I have not made myself quite clear, just raise your hand or snip your fingers, do something to get my attention. I will be happy to repeat whatever I said, or say it a bit differently.


Goodness Gracious Me is a television comedy series which was broadcast in the UK from 1998 onward, and unlike all other comedy series that had run in Britain before, it was produced by and it deals with one particular group of people in Britain: Asians, that is, people mainly of Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi origins, and it deals with the rela­tion­ship between British Asians and other Britons. Goodness Gracious Me consists of a series of sketches and songs which reverse stereotypes about immigrants of South Asian origin in Britain and their encounters with white Britons, fellow immigrants and non-diasporic Indians.


You could say that this show is similar to what Kaya Yanar's Sat1 show Was guckst du? does with immigrants in Germany, except that Yanar focuses on Turkish, Italian, or Arabic people. In fact, GGM came first. Kaya Yanar copied quite a few of his sketches from GGM and adapted them to his social context, so Indian characters became Turkish, Italian, or Arabic immigrant characters.


But something is different about the backgrounds of the two shows. Turkey, Italy or the various other countries from which guest workers were invited to come to Germany were never colonies of Germany. By contrast, Asians and white Britons have a very long history of cultural relations. Most of the Indian subcontinent was under British rule (colonial government) for centuries until the year 1947. 1947 is when India became independent, and the country was soon afterwards split into two nations, India and Pakistan. And the late 1940s is the time when a fairly large number of people from the Indian subcontinent who, after all, belonged to the British Com­mon­wealth, decided to move to Britain. More Asians followed in the next few decades, so that now the UK has an Asian diaspora population of about 1.3 million, and of course, this has an important impact on British culture.


This presentation is from the field of Transcultural Anglophone Studies. This is a relatively new field of research ("the New Literatures in English", also known as "postcolonial writings"), and it deals with the cultures, especially the literatures written in English, which have come into existence because of colonialism and cultural imperialism. In Transcultural Anglophone Studies (TAS), we study anglophone texts – we use the  word 'anglophone' rather than 'English' to stress the fact that the English language no longer belongs only to England/Britain but to many other countries, and it is in fact not one unified language anymore but has many different regional varieties. Many of the writers we discuss in this field of study, whether for example from the Indian subcontinent, various African countries, or from the Pacific area, are migrants, and their works deal with prob­lems of identity, with the mix of several cultures, with stereotypes, with xeno­pho­bia, and many related issues. The writings of postcolonial authors can also change the way we look at Euro­­pean civilisation and western cultures, by providing new and different perspectives, for example on language, gender issues or on concepts of the centre and the periphery, that is, the concept of what is central and important and what is marginal or unimportant is no longer what it was. Some names will sound familiar: you may have heard of Salman Rushdie, or V.S. Nai­paul, the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, or Chinua Achebe who received the Friedens­preis des Dt. Buchhandels last year. In studying postcolonial writings, we deal with transcultural matters that are important not just to a handful of third world countries, but to globalised societies everywhere.


To return to the specific relationship between India and England and the situation of Asians in the UK: during colonialism, the British spread the belief that their culture was worth a great deal more than the Indian cultures. Especially in the nineteenth century the British therefore set up schools all over the Indian subcontinent and taught Indians English so that they could help the British to rule over the country. The colonised people were encouraged to imitate the British as far as they could. In practise this meant that many Indians learnt a lot more about English culture than the other way round, which gave them a certain kind of power, even though some Indians lost touch/contact with their mother tongues. You see the dilemma: on the one hand English was the language of the oppressors, of the people who were exploiting them, on the other hand, many Indians actually were interested in learning English or reading English literature. Altogether, the relationship between Indians and Britons was full of contra­dictions and ambiguities, and many of these mixed feelings exist to this day. Today, the British are no longer in India, but quite a number of Indians have come to live in Britain and there are many "Asians" born in Britain (the second generation of immigrants who feel they belong to both cultures).


What we are now going to do together is to look at one possible way of getting to know something about cul­tures different from one's own. We will be exploring how things like humour and comedy and laughter can be used to make people interested in other cultures. Humour, as I want to show, can introduce us to new ideas and make it easier to start thinking about a foreign culture, and maybe it can change the way we view ourselves in relation to it. Humour can even work as an ice-breaker by making people think about new ideas which they may not like, as is often the case with immigrant problems. Humour is a tool in communication that can be used to establish/make a contact between people or between different groups of people. Seeing or hearing something funny triggers/starts a thinking process, and this can help to make learning more enjoyable.

Laughter is also a good way of con­necting people; it can be used to defuse tensions between them, and it can, as is the case with the examples of comedy we are going to look at in a minute, significantly change the attitude which people of different cultural back­grounds have toward each other.

Differences are important in dealing with humour, but so are similarities. Comedy usually deals with issues which are almost universal: come­dies portray people who make stupid mistakes, or have fixed ideas, or they create un­usual situations or incongruous combinations which make audi­en­ces laugh about their own preconceptions and expectations. The comedy we are about to watch uses stra­tegies such as stereotyping, exaggeration (overdoing something), defamiliarisation (that is, making you look at something you know, that you are familiar with in a new way) and parody. Po­king / making fun at/of Asian immigrants and white British natives in equal measure, GGM exposes the hypocrisy (dishonesty) and xenophobia (fear) on both sides, and shows that ifnorance and fear are the main reasons for cross-cultural mis­under­standings. While comedies use the differences between people to create jokes, their effect – laughter – is something which people can share, even if they laugh at different aspects of a joke. People from different backgrounds will get different things out of this. There are passages in Punjabi or Hindi that the white English people will miss; other jokes will work well for, say, white working class Britons and so on.


One of the producers of Goodness Gracious Me describes today's postcolonial relationship between England and India as a "love-hate relationship": Asian and British culture are connected, whether people like it or not, and it is the responsibility of all the people involved to come to terms with that.

To illustrate this idea of a love-hate relationship, the first sketch we are going to watch deals with just that kind of a relationship.


1. Bunty-Song Sketch

In our first sketch, two women sing about an Indian man called Bunty. The first of these women is Bunty's innocent future Indian bride, who is looking forward to being married off in a typically Indian arranged marriage, and the other is a frustrated English working class girl who has been Bunty's secret lover for quite a long time, and obviously her feelings about the upcoming wedding – and about the man in question – are a bit different.

Here are the opening lines.

<show sketch>  (vorher: I can get you much cheaper, danach: East Meets Pest)


The duet between the two women starts out as a duel. Their love triangle is presented in an ironic manner. The whole setting suggests that this sketch is going to make fun of a love-song: both women are stylised by their outfits and by their accents, they are in an unspecified location, made to look unreal by dimmed soft lights. The artificial colours, camera filters, and of course, the slow tune which suggests harmony all lead spectators to expect a parody of a soppy romance. Contrast is the most im­por­tant element here, and the women represent not only East and West, India and Eng­land, but also two seemingly very different concepts of love relationships.

But which of them stands for sense, which for sensibility? The Indian girl is about to have an arranged marriage to a man she barely knows but who has been selected for her by her family.

It is safe to say that the institution of arranging marriages, of older family members looking for a partner for their sons and daughters and masterminding how they get to know one another, often with the help of an astrologist, seems very foreign indeed to most Europeans, and most European spectators would feel that even if the Indian girl claims it was love at first sight between herself and Bunty, a pragmatic "date in Pizza Hut" under family supervision does not sound very romantic.

After all, the ideal of romantic love being stronger than reason, financial interest and certainly the opinion of one's aunts and uncles has been central to Euro­pean literature from medieval Minnesang right up to modern soap operas.

In this sketch it soon becomes clear that the affair between the white girl and Bunty (incidentally not a name for a great romantic hero in either culture) does not suggest romantic love and a harmonious bridging of cultural and racial divisions. The fact that the English girl complains about Bunty "never" taking her "outside" shows that she feels used by him, and she also suggests that Bunty has had plenty of other lovers (when she sings "I wonder of the poor cow knows the score", and also when she suggests that Bunty needs more than her and "a Gauri", an Indian girl). Just a few lines into the song we can see that both women are in a no-win situation: even if the English girl never will be Bunty's wife, and even though the Indian girl has secured Bunty, we understand that he is neither a big prize, nor a great loss, a fact which the singers themselves eventually realise. At that moment, the emphasis shifts from a contrast between Eastern and Western traditions, which are both ridiculed, onto the plane of gender: the women, no matter whether they are Indian or English, are in the same boat. While the sketch begins by stressing differences, it ends on an ironic note which stresses the similarities between the women. It does not matter in the end, whether the women are from India or England: their shared problem is that men are from Mars.


2. The Cowflap

In our second example, we meet an Indian family who try to fit in with British society as best as they can, and since it is customary for people in Britain to keep some kind of a pet (a cat, dog, or bird), the father of the family after much nagging gets a pet for his children. He cannot stand cats or dogs though, because in India they are considered dirty, and so he makes what he thinks is a clever compromise between English and Indian human-animal interspecies relations.


<show both sketches>

4'30. Vorher: Aubergine lady in the supermarket.

Nachher: Hospital with aubergine lady; Travel Agent, Songsketch, Uncle, Audition, 2nd Cowflap.


There are several sketches in Goodness Gracious Me about Asians in Britain who try so hard to blend in that they end up parodying British ways of life, or sticking out more than ever. Most of these sketches show this problem by either exaggerating the Asian characters' Britishness, or they use slapstick in showing what stupid mistakes they make.

This one is more complex.

The cow has an im­portant status in Hindu religion, and every school­child in Britain can recognise pic­tures of India because there will be cows wearing flower garlands and sitting in the middle of a road with cyclists, pedestrians and taxis moving/inching carefully around them.

This forms the strongest possible contrast with the status of the cow in Britain, especially at the height of the BSE crisis when millions of cows were put down/killed, so an Indian character rescuing a mad cow from the slaughterhouse and giving her a loving home has a quixotic appeal.

So, on one level the joke depends on the recognition of this contrast between Indian holy cows and British mad cows.

On another level, it seems a funny mistake for a foreigner to make, to think that just any kind of animal can make a pet. Trying to keep a cow in a suburban semi-detached house, for those who haven't tried it, is a 'big mistake'. It is clear that the Indian family and Daisy completely fail to blend (like a chameleon) in with the fond pet owners in their neigh­bourhood. On yet another level, however, the Indian father completely matches stereotypes about British (or European) pet owners who are said to be so 'crazy about' their pets so as to treat them better than their children or the aged/old people, or, in this case, the entire family. His obsession with cow welfare clearly is stronger than reason and self-interest in his creation of the cow-flap, which reveals that he has underestimated just how much size sometimes matters, especially when you are mad about a mad cow. The sad case of Crazy Daisy is an example of a mixing, we speak of a hybridisation, of traditions which blends cow worship and pet 'worship' into one another to a comic effect. By putting together very different ways of behaving towards animals, the sketch gives insight into the problems of understanding cultural codes.

3. Indian tourists in Britain

In this last and fairly straightforward sketch, we are introduced to a group of 4 students from Delhi who are taking a trip around Britain, and by an odd coincidence, their experiences closely resemble those reported by many, many English tourists who have travelled to India in the past: they complain about slow trains, they are terrified by the large number of beggars in the street, they distrust the food and drink, they are worried about getting ripped off (being made to pay too much money) while shopping, they are impressed by the spirituality of the Church of England (C of E), and they fulfil every stereotype about how tourists behave in a foreign country and how they misunderstand/misinterpret te things they see.


<show sketch>

Cheap Funeral, then tourists.


This sketch simply reverses customary roles and locations. The customary group of British students who travel around India and maybe decide to stay there after getting involved with some flower children is replaced with a group of Indian youngsters. By turning the normal order of things upside down, this sketch defa­mi­lia­rises our outlook on both cultures (it makes the familiar situation something special) and it ironically stresses the parallels and similarities which exist between Indian and British life as seen by a foreign visitor at the same time as exposing the ignorance of the travellers.


Goodness Gracious Me shows that postcolonial themes are not the concern of just a handful of scholars who regularly deal with cross-cultural en­counters and postcolonial discourse. Humour in Goodness Gracious Me is the main ingredient which has ob­viously made the subject of immigrants attractive for a white British audience who may not have had a previous interest in the topic. It is also interesting to consider that the show was partly aimed at changing the image of British Asians in the media: before Goodness Gracious Me, Asians had often been played by white actors wearing an extra load of make-up and putting on silly accents, or they had been stereotyped or left out altogether,as of Asians in Britain did not exist.


Postcolonial discourse works on many different levels and addresses complex problems of race, gender, transculturality etc. It seems to me that post­colonial humour is a useful vehicle for conveying insights. Humour can help remove some of the foundations of racism and xenophobia: fear and ignorance. As the production discussed here indicates, humour often ope­rates experimentally, by doing the unexpected and achieving results before they can be explained.

Please promise not to tell any of the millions of white British viewers of the show that they have actually been studying postcolonialism!





Universität des Saarlandes, Tag der Offenen Tür, 05/07/03


FR 4.3: Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen


Vera Alexander, M.A.



Goodness Gracious Me!: A Shared Laugh is Better than None



Goodness Gracious Me, Series 1. Written by Anil Gupta, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Nina Wadia, Sanjeev Kholi, Sharat Sardana and Richard Pinto. 1998.





Indian Girl:

Bunty is the man that I've been waiting for. I met him through my cousin brother's son, and after just one date in Pizza Hut I knew that for me he was the one…

English Girl:

Bunty's been my lover now for six long years. I'm the English girl he never takes outside. And now I hear his mother's chosen him a village virgin for his brand-new bride!



Indian Girl:

Isn't it crazy he will be mine?

English Girl:

Isn't it crazy he won't be mine?