I have repeatedly been amazed by the daring intelligence of Rowan Atkinson’s sketch “Drunk English in an Indian Restaurant.” Youtube comments below the most popular of several video uploads show that while some view his performing as an Indian waiter as racist and stereotyping, many instead argue that he is rather putting the ridicule on the imaginary drunk, vulgar and soccer-loving English guests he is waiting on. I was reminded of this witty and provocative wonder when I went to the Flic Flac Circus’s latest show Höchststrafe in Berlin. Comedian-juggler Patrick Lemoine also took on an Indian accent for comical purposes. But I didn’t laugh.
It all started well. The Flic Flac Circus can indeed boast of many mind-blowing acts. I have only praise in my pocket for the group of tightrope walkers, the motocross riders and the cool German wheel virtuoso Evgeny Nikolaev. And when Patrick Lemoine began juggling, I thought he was skilled. I juggle myself and have often found jugglers who try to beat the numbers a bit boringly mechanical. I have less fun watching someone throwing as many clubs, balls and hoops as he/she can, than someone instilling poetry and comedy in the movements of his/her two or three accessories. In a similar vein, Lemoine had chosen to impersonate an awkward flop who could only juggle with three balls, at the same time making fun of this himself by describing the poor tricks he pulled.
Yet, as soon as he laid his balls at rest, his performance began to crumble. After a silly, fremdschämender magic trick enabling Lemoine to slip a predictable, harmless joke on the Nazi salute, the lights went off for a second to let him put on a scarf on his head. A sound engineer pressed play, and Panjabi MC’s Mundian to Back Ke rang loud in the tent, while Lemoine’s character showed off his dancing skills, waving his hips, encouraged by the whistles and cheers coming from the German crowd. Edward Said must have been turning in his grave.
The orientalist show was just starting. After this problematic choreographic interlude, Lemoine went on with talking. In contrast to the cleverness of Atkinson’s character, whose amiability obliges him to acknowledge, tongue-in-cheek, the trickiness of a “deceptively flat” floor for boozed up Englishmen, Lemoine’s so-called “Indian” spoke unintelligibly in a simple English. He walked hectically to and fro, jabbering around under the punctuated laughs of the audience. I felt some pinches of unease at times in the crowd’s tone, but I might have been deceived. In the meantime, the cliché character had picked up a young first row spectator to accompany him on stage for his act. He greeted the youth with a frenzied shake of the hand, rhythmically modelled on a flood of syllables supposedly imitating an „Indian“ variety of English. The continuous blathering in that stereotyped accent got more and more annoying, especially when it forced the teenager to ask him to repeat himself, pathetically striving to create a comical effect on (intercultural?) misunderstandings. This is when I became aware of his lack of talent: Lemoine was actually wasting time on stage. After a few minutes of unrelated gags involving some prop assistants, the young guest rolled the drums while Lemoine’s foolish character attempted to force a teddy dog to jump through a hoop, reminding us that the Flic Flac Circus did not exploit animals for its profit purposes. He kicked the teddy’s butt to score it through the hoop. I would have gladly done the same with his.
Some might ask: why do I bother? I usually flee from massive popular entertainment. Take that “oriental dinner show,” MADI – Zelt der Sinne. I have seen their advertisements a thousand times in the Berlin U-Bahn and can already foresee how my own academic postcolonial background will ruin my dish if I ever eat there. What is then the point of writing about Lemoine’s performance in Flic Flac?
Well, the show Höchststrafe is an overwhelming success. Until its departure from Berlin on 29th February, it will probably have been seen by over 100,000 visitors, some of them coming from Brandenburg as well. The rest of the performances were breathtaking, I recognize that. At the same time, I consider Lemoine’s act as harmful. First, it could be insulting for some of its audience. Secondly, it fuels false stereotypes about people from India and Pakistan. Many children have seen Höchststrafe. What do they learn from such clowning? A Eurocentric cliché. Thirdly, if Lemoine had impersonated another dim-witted character, say supposedly from the African continent or from East Asia, the Flic Flac board would have perhaps denied him the stage. The presence of this show on a best-selling stage implies one can publicly mock people from the Indian subcontinent with impunity.
Lemoine was once awarded the “ZDF International Artist Prize.” These credentials will surely help him integrate other shows whenever his contract with Flic Flac comes to an end. I hope he will stick to juggling in the future. On a more positive note, we can surely rejoice in the apparent lack of wit that arose from his act. But because of its participation in shaping public consciousness on a large scale, it is important to condemn it. Patrick Lemoine’s starters were not bad. Then, he fell flat, and remained a (ob)noxious chump for the rest of his performance.