Stand-up comedy in Pakistan: One comic's story

By | January 22, 2009 at 8:33 am | 3 comments | Features | Tags: ,

Sami ShahEditor’s note: In July of last year, one of our bloggers, Daniel Perlman posted an item about Pakistani comedian Sami Shah. We had seen a piece on Sami in Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, wrote around the article and linked up to the original. Then Sami got in touch with us, asking if we could interview him for Punchline Magazine. After poking around the Internet for a few weeks (and asking him to confirm), we decided that Sami was the real thing: he was born, raised and now performs stand-up comedy in Pakistan. And with that confirmation, we asked Sami to compose a multi-part essay, wherein he would relay what it’s like to be a DIY comedian in one of the last countries most Americans would connect to the comedy industry. We think what Sami has to say serves not only helps bridge the gap between two seemingly different cultures as a whole but also speaks to a lot of the universal struggles burgeoning comedians face. This is part one of Sami’s story.

YOU HAVE TO BE SHAMELESS

It’s the most important lesson I’ve learned since I started doing this comedy thing. Having a capacity for shame means shielding ones naughty bits. It means maintaining self-respect and dignity. It means not begging the editor of Punchline Magazine for coverage. It means not telling jokes about being molested as a child. And worst of all, it means not getting up onstage in Karachi, Pakistan with nothing but the jokes you composed alone in a room over six months. Shame, it seems, leads to the Dark Side.

I chose, for reasons I will never understand, to be shameless.

In the summer of 2004, two years after I graduated college and began working in advertising in Karachi, I sat down at my desk and wrote my first proper comedy routine.

It went like this:

G.T….. Have you heard of this? Short for “Get Together”.
Everyone in Karachi says this now. ‘Hey, G.T. at my place tomorrow.’
I don’t know what to wear. Is it a party or a G.T.?
Are we now so busy that we have to abbreviate “Get Together” so that we can free up that extra half-second of time for…what…scratching ourselves? This linguistic laziness is bound to get out of hand. Soon we will be abbreviating everything. You meet someone at work and it won’t be ‘Hey, how you doing’ and ‘Fine thanks, yourself?’ It’ll be ‘HHYD’. ‘FTY!’
And then the de-evolution will continue until we are communicating like cave people. Go up to a girl and ((snort and thump chest)).

It’s not observation on a Seinfeldian level I know, but it was my first joke and I am proud of it, warts and all. While, in retrospect, I realize it isn’t the comedic genius I thought it was, it did give me enough confidence to write some more. Six months of writing and editing and writing and editing and I had, what felt like, a full hour’s worth of material. Stand-up Comedy Material.

The only problem was I was still in Karachi.

Pakistan, it shouldn’t surprise you to know, has no comedy clubs. No small open-mic venues. It’s true, that some friends of mine recently started an open-mic night at a restaurant here–  but something like that is a rarity.

So where can an aspiring stand-up comic do a show? How do I test material? How do I find out if I’m funny?

The answer I came up with bordered on lunacy then, and in retrospect it went beyond lunacy, galloping off into the realm of stark raving insanity.

I booked an auditorium, designed a poster, packed it with 350 people who actually bought tickets I sold outside malls and in shops. I paid for the whole thing, lights, sound, printing, all of it out of my pocket. And then I walked onstage and did my first ever stand-up comedy show. 350 people. One hour. Live.

Luckily, it went well.

There is a lot you figure out about your comedy without a safety net. You learn everything you need to about delivery within the first 10 minutes. You learn, in Pakistan, the audiences will give you a 30 second grace period. Don’t blow it. And you learn that sometimes trusting your instincts works. Being shameless here, let me boast for a second about the standing ovation I got that night:

I got a standing ovation that night.

I was a Stand-up Comedian.

Now, I’m going to stop the forward momentum of this piece for a few seconds here, to answer what are, no doubt, a few questions you have for me.

Yes, I am a Pakistani. I was born here, raised here. My father is a Pakistani and my mother is a Pakistani. Neither bothered to get me a foreign citizenship or a dual passport when I was born and don’t think for a second that I don’t complain about it.

I perform in English because the damned British colonized us up until 62 years ago. When they left, English, the language, stayed. It is a damnably resilient language, and a large part of the urban population still speaks it. My mother was, and is, an English teacher. I studied English Literature in College. I communicate it Minglish, which inventively combines English and Urdu (the language of Karachi). And when I write and think, sadly I do both in English. Look, blame the bastard Brits okay.

My material was largely observational. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly original. I had access to very little stand-up. I had downloaded audio files of Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Hicks and George Carlin—the big names. But those are comics advanced in their content. I didn’t know what a “hack” comic was. So, for example, when I wrote a bit about airport security, I thought I was covering new ground.

Did I do anything taboo in my act? Did I get into trouble? Yes. I had a religious joke. Mildly so, but it turns out that when people hear religion in the context of humor, they don’t bother listening to what is being said. Instead they just rush to offence.

One girl came up to me after the show and stated “There is nothing funny about religion.” I kept the response polite. Admire my self-control please. A television personality was in the audience and took it upon himself to provide an unsolicited review of the show to his viewers the next day. In it he said I had “blasphemed.” Now, in Pakistan, that is a crime punishable by death. Luckily his viewership was either non-existent or lethargic. Either way, after a few days, I started to leave the house again.

So there you have it. My first show. The audience liked it. My stand-up comedy career was on its way. There was only one major problem though. After I did an encore performance the next week, I had run out of audience in Karachi.

Seven hundred people was the maximum you could find back then who would be interested in a stand-up comic. So I took the show to Lahore and Islamabad.

Now, just for some quick context, this was 2004. The height of the Musharraf era. Our Dictator-President wasn’t hated by the public then. Pakistan was going through an economic boom. Television channels had started sprouting up. Our image was reforming. In my day job I was actually working on a Pakistan Tourism campaign for God’s sake! I wasn’t interested in politics then and neither was my comedy. And, to be honest, neither was my audience.

I performed in colleges in every major city, had a video of my performance passed around throw college intranets like a bootleg movie and was starting to get written about in the local press.

Then I ran out of audiences completely. Six months, a dozen shows, and people were starting to complain about my needing new material.

In all, in the five years I have been doing stand-up now, I’ve performed enough new material to fill four hours. There are no agents here, no publicists. Every new hour of material was tried out for the first time in an auditorium full of people I packed the same way I did the first one–  out of my own pocket and with word-of-mouth. Now I know that either makes me prolific or a hack and I worry that it makes me a bit of both but I have little choice. When your audience is so small, you have to keep them coming back.

And they are needy little bastards.

For more info, check out Sami Shah’s website at samishah.wordpress.com.

Check out some photos below from Sami’s hometown, Karachi, Pakistan.


Tariq Road

Sami says: "Tariq Road is one of the most active shopping areas in the city. A congested road overcrowded with local shops and tailors and enough paisely patterns to make you dizzy."

Karachi shopping

Sami says: "Creatively titled "THE FORUM", this is one of the many places you get designer wear and all that. A far cry from the mud huts and camels most people think Pakistan is made up of."

Karachi swords

Sami says: "The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah said our three principles are UNITY, FAITH AND DISCIPLINE. Inscribed on these marble swords, I like to think he was being facetious."

Sami Shah

Sami Shah performs in Karachi, Pakistan

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