KARACHI: Bombs and burqas may not be a joke, but stand-up comics in Pakistan defy death threats to poke fun at Taliban militants with an irreverent humour which is popular among an increasingly frustrated middle class.
With national newspapers and television screens daily swamped by stories and images of suicide bombings and assassinations, the young breed of funny men are attempting to turn people’s collective sadness into satire.
Saad Haroon and Sami Shah, both 33, have cultivated thousands of fans online, abroad and at home. “You hear all over the news that there is terrorism in Pakistan,” Haroon says in his stand-up act...
“I don’t believe it for a second, because I watch American movies and I know where terrorists meet. They always meet in a place called - ‘the bathroom’...”
“Have you ever seen a Pakistani public bathroom? No self-respecting terrorist would ever go inside!” he quips.
Haroon was educated in Hong Kong and the United States, and is the son of a textile industrialist. He quit the family business after 9/11, 10 years ago, to form an improvisational comedy troupe.
“I thought this is the lowest point, we need comedy,” he said.
Shah was working as a television news producer when the motorcade of Benazir Bhutto’s was attacked in Karachi in October 2007. Around 140 people died, two months before she was assassinated in Rawalpindi.
The experience of seeing the destruction by such a nihilistic agenda strangely switched him on to comedy. “I was covered in blood. I was just very angry after that. I was livid... and the very next week I did the stand-up show. Ridiculous, after 140 people died, but it was the only way I knew how to process my anger,” he said.
Shah, who is a creative director for an advertising agency in Karachi, admits however, that the ongoing onslaught of violence is spreading widespread resignation that is hard to poke fun at.
“I do think it’s not healthy for a country to give up this way. I can’t find funny in desperation. Never make fun of the people below you.”
And other taboos remain on the stand-up circuit.
“You can’t make a joke about the army. You’ll never make a joke about the Muttahida Qaumi Movement,” said Haroon. Religion can be joked about only lightly, as Haroon showed with his most popular production yet - a music video cover of Roy Orbison’s song “Pretty Woman” entitled “Burka Woman.”
Haroon decided that it was okay to make fun of the all-enveloping veil, despite a welter of controversy when France banned the wearing of the burqa in public.
“My love for you it grows, every time I see your toes. Nail polish, Rrrrrrr,” goes one line. “With your kajal (kohl) eyes, my mystery prize,” it continues, sexualising the garment meant to cover women’s bodies from view.
“For me it was just an interesting way to talk about it,” he said, who admits that the song caused offence within his own family. “And that’s OK, because at least we’re talking about it,” he added.
In a country where many writers struggle to make ends meet, Haroon took a risk in turning to comedy, but has cultivated enough of a following at home, in Dubai and the United States to make it a full-time occupation.
It’s even more of a risk in the light of the death threats comedians receive, but both brush them off as most are online rants by the bored.
“If they’re taking the time to write you don’t have to do anything. It’s the ones who don’t write that you have to worry about,” said Shah.
Causing offence lends itself to obvious criticism. But in a country where conspiracy theories run in the blood, some argue that comedians like Haroon and Shah reinforce the bloody status quo.
“Such comedies, in my opinion, are a disguised campaign to block change which cannot grow in a climate of confusion and wilful escape from fundamentals of the state,” wrote BA Malik of Islamabad in the daily newspaper earlier this month.
“Laughter in a house of fire is insanity. Any arguments to the contrary?”
Haroon has... He defends the comedian’s role as an essential bulwark against the relentless tide of violence weighing on the national psyche.
“When it gets really depressing, if there are more people who go home at the end of the day laughing and being happy and sleep better, that is literally the end goal for me. Just be happy,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2011.
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