In a country whose greatest derogatory slurs are rooted in the acts of singing and performing, artists seldom lead easy lives. Words like ‘miraasi’ and ‘bhaand’, colloquially meaning ‘performer’ and ‘comedian’ are heedlessly regarded as the highest degree of insults and are often used in Urdu to casually refer to seemingly dishonourable professions. In this context, when privileged, educated individuals deliberately choose to follow a career in comedy, people around are aghast.
Being educated enough to have command over the English language mechanically translates to privilege in Pakistan. Thus, the concept of young, urban, privileged people coming together to pursue stand up comedy is especially peculiar. The divide between different social classes in Pakistan is enormous, and the urban elite, who make up the country’s smallest percentage, hardly enjoy being associated with the masses; the average, poor Pakistani citizen. But that’s where this profession originated and its genealogy and provenance serve as the basis for this stigmatization.
Now, however, the country is beginning to see a growing cohort of stand-up comedians, albeit currently miniscule, scrambling to shake off the shambles of stigma and infantilisation. They follow the Western model of stand-up comedy and while their social class lends them some advantage, this art form as a profession in a country like Pakistan is anything but comical. Paying for art is a concept not everybody wants to get too familiar with and emerging stand up comedians are forced to look for other financially viable avenues. The model of Western comedy clubs is also present in the country, leaving performers with limited platforms to perform on.
But not all is dreary. Attitudes are changing towards stand-up comedians and a more liberal approach to this art has meant a growing demand for comedy troupes. Groups like Pakistan Tehreek-e-Comedy and Auratnaak have been gaining a significant band of followers while comedians such as Shehzad Ghias Sheikh are successfully touring the country. Clubs like Strictly Social are consciously trying to bridge the divide between artists and money, providing financially viable avenues for performers like stand-up comedians.
Amid such a socio-economic climate, The Correspondent talks to some of Pakistan’s eminent stand-up comedians and club owners, about what it’s like being a comedian in Pakistan, how an overly socially conscious world has fared for comedy, and whether comedians can be both politically correct and funny.
Shehzad Ghias Sheikh is a Fulbright Scholar and one of the most popular comedians in the country. He believes stand-up comedy in Pakistan is already a ‘plummeting’ career.
How careful do you have to be to always remain politically correct? Does this slow down the process for you?
I view the entire political correctness debate very differently. My philosophy is that you’re always going to offend somebody or the other. You just have to be very conscious of who you offend whether you’re punching up with your comedy or punching down. I’m just careful about punching down in terms of what I can say or can’t say. Obviously subjects like religion, or the deep state are tricky. Those are the red lines which will get you into real trouble, so we’re a little conscious of that.
Was 2020 as bad for comedy as it has been for everything else? How hard was it for you to curate humor in the midst of rising death tolls and infection rates?
I think 2020 was terrible for comedy especially stand-up comedy because this only works when it’s live. Even though I have done those zoom shows it’s really not the same. I don’t think you can really replicate that entire live culture on a zoom call. So for performers, it was terrible. Obviously you lost all revenue. You didn’t make money all year. Stand-up comedy in Pakistan is already a plummeting industry. So the little momentum that did manage to rise in live shows, also diminished. It’s already not a sustainable career. People who were previously thinking about it, aren’t anymore. Even for venues, it’s not sustainable to run a live performance art venue over here.
During the pandemic, everybody needed to go to the place that made them not think about the world for two seconds. So whether you’re on Netflix binge watching The Office for the ninth time, you need sometime to yourself where you’re not constantly refreshing the coronavirus deaths rates.
People who are creating online content, I think all that is doing really well. Because while you’re not directly joking about coronavirus, you’re joking about ‘work from home’ or the situation that we’re all in. That cathartic value of laughter and comedy was very much realized in 2020.
Can standup comedy be a viable career option in Pakistan? Or is it only feasible to keep it on the side?
It’s really not a viable career in Pakistan. Even if people ask me about it, I tell them if it’s your passion to the extent where you can’t see yourself doing anything else, then yes, do it. Then, the financial concerns are outweighed. But as a sustainable career, it wasn’t sustainable or viable pre-COVID, and post-COVID it’s even less so.
The problem is we don’t really have live venues. So even if I’ve developed an act, where do I go if I want to try out an audience. I can’t just hit an open mic. There are very few comedy clubs so how can stand up comedy be a viable career when the actual place that employs stand-up comedians doesn’t exist. That’s like saying is being a chef a viable career when there’s not a single restaurant in the city.
How hard is it to find an audience here? Is the market too niche?
Audience is really not a problem because with your content you have to find your own audience. Social media does make it easy. If like minded individuals are liking content it will promote the content to other such individuals. But it will also be niche. If you’re trying to be too general with your content, I don’t think that does well. The more specific you are the better. And now that the way the digital landscape exists, everybody is going towards their own niches which depends on their own interests. So yes it is a niche audience; especially with stand-up comedy, people who are going to buy your ticket and come to the venue, are extremely limited. You cant compromise what you do just because it will appeal to the masses more.
You cater to mostly Pakistan’s English-speaking urban elites, who make up a very small percentage of the population. Does this occasionally make you feel limited, in your profession? Would you want your content (and its language) to be inclusive enough to attract the average Pakistani citizen?
I don’t make any conscious effort to cater to English speaking urban elite, in fact I’m quite critical of them. I mock the DHA protests a lot. With the podcasts, we try to do a lot of them in Urdu and we take a very anti-colonial stance. We try and normalize the use of certain Urdu terminology as well. The problem is that the things you talk about, that makes certain people politically inaccessible to you. It has nothing to do with content and language. It just becomes a question of whether I politically agree with this person or not.
For instance, if I make a comical video of me explaining Aurat March placards, I will become inaccessible to people who hate the Aurat March and feminism. They’re going to probably block me. They’re going to probably think I’m foreign funded or a “yahoodi saazish”. So in that way, you become inaccessible.
Unfortunately, politically, on certain issues, we are divided on class lines whether that’s a conscious effort by the state to further their own interests or its the general lack of awareness. There is that information gap which unfortunately cuts across class lines but never do I want to cater to a specific type of population. in fact we are constantly looking for more venues that aren’t as urban. We were actually planning to tour smaller cities. But logistically it’s hard to go to Sukkur and do a show.
Does censorship affect stand up comedies? Have your shows been cancelled for political reasons?
Sometimes brands are a little hesitant to put their names behind a person who might be vocal about political issues and they don’t even have to be controversial. Even if I put up a tweet saying there’s a genocide against Hazara people in Pakistan, which I don’t think is a controversial opinion at all, brands would start deeming me as too controversial and they would not put any money behind me and my shows.
Other than that, you generally get threats but they become a part of your life so you just ignore them. I made a video about the Taliban and got a call from them which was kind of scary. So you’re always conscious of this. That a clip or a joke might be taken out of context and posted somewhere.
Does Pakistan provide a comfortable and encouraging platform to potential and existing comedians? Less than a handful of privately owned places cater to standup comedians but has there been any official effort to promote this art?
To get state patronage for stand-up comedy is very difficult. When you think about legends like Amanullah, he was struggling to find a grave. We’ve seen legends like him suffer with little state support so if they didn’t get anything, we’ve very very far back. The day where there will be state patronage for arts and comedy clubs is extremely far away. There’s no encouragement, no platforms, no venues. Mostly comedians have to pay the venue, and sell their own tickets and shows. I’m still doing this 10 years on.
Asad Bukhari is the co-founder of Strictly Social, one of the first comedy clubs in Pakistan. He says people in the country frequently lament the comedy “scene” in the country and the absence of comedians. “The thing is there are many comedians out there, but they have no platform to showcase their talent. They just need somebody to invest in them.”
With years of experience in dealing with performers, Bukhari insists on the importance of sponsorship.
“People don’t want to pay for shows. They want to attend for free. But when you don’t pay the artist they cant make money. It isn’t viable. Places like us should pop up more.”
“Stand up comedians need sponsors. Brands like Coke and Nescafe sponsor musicians all the time. They need to look at other artists too.”
Anaya Sheikh is a trans comedian, a feminist and a part of Auratnaak, Pakistan’s all women comedy troupe. She believes ‘to be funny is not easy.’
“Its very hard to attract audiences and even then, we have to keep monitoring them because one can never know when someone might make a scandal of your performances.”
She refers to comedy as a risky profession with too much censorship.
“Platforms are very limited and not encouraging at all. Al Hamra is a significant platform but there’s too much censorship there. We always hear words like ‘unethical’ and ‘indecent’ being associated with our shows. But comedy can never be decent. It’s not funny then.”
Hazik Ali belongs to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Comedy, an improv and stand up comedy troupe in Pakistan. In response to a question relating to censorship, he sardonically says that Pakistan is a ‘free country where you can say whatever you want and there will be no Fatwas, no black Vigos and no social justice warrior woke Twitter storm.’
“I got into trouble once for a bad joke, big trouble, and for a while, I was very careful about what I said on stage. But then I realized that there will always be someone who will get angry, will mind what you say, and complain. So as long as you are telling a good joke, go for it… and then lock your doors at night before you got to sleep”.
As opposed to other cities in Pakistan, Ali believes Karachi is significantly ‘more progressive’ while Lahore and Islamabad are catching up. In its essence, comedy is about ‘smartly written jokes.’
“You live, you learn, you write and tell better jokes, make people laugh, and then do it all over again.”
Pakistan’s comedy scene is growing but state patronage only seems to diminish with every new actor. Comedy clubs that are allowed to exist only do so because they’re shrouded in obscurity, but if they were to be commercialized, censorship would take over. Stand up comedy, as an art form, is galvanized by unchecked freedom so if these artists were perhaps not as fearful of ‘black Vigos and fatwas’, comedy in Pakistan could gear towards emancipation.