Stand-up comedy in Pakistan: One comic's story, Part 2

By | February 2, 2009 at 12:12 pm | One comment | Features

Sami ShahEditor’s note: On Jan. 22 we ran the first part of Pakistani comedian Sami Shah’s first person account of trying to break through as a stand-up in his home city of Karachi. To catch up, you can read that first part here. This is the second and final entry from Sami.

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His lungs were burning.

That’s the only thing I remember about the night Benazir Bhutto came to Karachi.

Let’s rewind a bit:

In 2006 I had enough of advertising. It is soul-crushing, depressing and hope-shattering. And that’s before you get to work. Ha! Get it! Ha!

That’s why I left advertising. The mediocrity inherent in advertising was seeping into my comedy. I had been performing regularly, but other than the odd corporate-gig, which involved conference rooms full of stone-faced businessmen fiddling with their BlackBerry’s, I wasn’t making anywhere near enough money to do it full time.

Around then, I got a call from Dawn News. It was going to be Pakistan’s first and only English-language 24 hour news channel. I joined them and become a news producer. I learned to use a camera, to create news reports, and to scowl like a journalist. All handy skills.

I continued to do comedy during this time, but it remained observational material, focused more on society’s foibles than on, say, politics. Then 2007 hit Pakistan like a ton of bricks made out of explosive shit. Trust me, that analogy is apt. President-General Pervaiz Musharraf went from charming appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, to suspending the Chief Justice. Boy was that a bad PR move.

Black-suited lawyers flooded the streets in protest, like an army of Agent Smith’s. Then a bunch of uppity extremists with sticks, burkhas and heavy ammunition turned their Red Mosque into a fort. After a week of gun-fighting in Islamabad, Musharraf was hurt and cornered. And like the Ghosts of Ramadan-Past, Benazir Bhutto and all the other exiled leaders came roaring back.

Benazir herself was the biggest story, with a gigantic procession numbering in the thousands cheering her arrival on Oct. 18, 2007 as she made her way through Karachi. Then a bomb went off. Then a second one. Benazir escaped that attack on her life unhurt. More than 130 civilians weren’t as lucky. (ed. Two months later, Benazir was assassinated.)

And me with a camera standing in the middle of it all.

The camera perched on my shoulder recorded a lot of things. I stood in blood and flesh and saw the dead and dying. But I don’t remember any of it. All I remember is a fire in the center of a man’s chest. When I got home that night I had enough blood on me that my wife thought I was hurt.

So what’s this got to do with comedy then?

The next day I decided my mind couldn’t process what I had seen the day before. It was impossible. I, and everyone around me, were in advanced stages of trauma. So, I wrote comedy.

It’s how I deal with the world around me. It’s how I break things down and re-build them into a shape and construct I can live in. The next week I held a new comedy show. I dedicated it to Karachi and I performed better than I ever have before.  I thanked the audience who turned out and never once raised a voice of protest about the appropriateness of doing comedy after a tragedy. And I got out of news.

And got into Second Life.

Don’t ask.

Okay fine, ask. Second Life is an on-line virtual world with residents from all around the world. There, you can do anything. And often, with anyone.

Think of the Matrix, but Neo is wearing ripped up jeans, has cat ears, a robotic tail and flies around in a Steampunk blimp. Oh and he owns several detachable penises. That’s Second Life.

I set up an account and logged in because it looked interesting. Once I stopped hanging around sex clubs and watching animated orgasms with rainbow colored cum, I discovered a burgeoning comedy scene in-world. A real world comic from Canada, Lyle Bateman, had just set up a stand-up club and I started performing their a couple times a week. See below:

Shut up back there. No laughing.

Think about it. In Pakistan I can’t do regular shows. I had started listening to the brilliant podcast Never Not Funny and listening to Jimmy Pardo and his friends describing a life of multiple performances a night, day after day, was something I envied. They sharpened their skills through repetition. I was lucky to do two shows a month. Now in Second Life, with just a microphone, I could perform for people from around the world. Several times a week.

And it’s a steep learning curve. You have to hold people’s attention with the power of your voice alone. There is no crowd work, no physicality. Just audio.

The downside though was because of time differences with audiences logging in from America and Europe, I had to perform at seven in the morning most times. Picture it. A skinny Pakistani standing at his desk with a microphone in hand, dressed in just pajamas and groggily making observational witticisms. Isn’t the future wonderful?

So a few months of this continued and I started wondering about the disposable nature of comedy. Credit to Jimmy Pardo and crew again. His discussions about crowd-work got me thinking about disposable comedy. A stand-up comedian hopes each bit he writes will have a long shelf life. What if I tried the opposite. Comedy that had a short expiration date.

Thus News Weakly was born. It started with me talking about the global news events. Short 10-minute weekly sets in Second Life, mocking the headlines. That turned into a stand-up show in real life. To make it more interesting I added a visual component with a slide-show that complimented or even served as the punch lines for many jokes.

Then I pitched it to Dawn News and they indulged me. You can see a clip below about the George W. Bush Iraqi shoe throwing incident.

I just wrapped up episode 13 of News Weakly. Marketing pitches it as “Punch lines with Headlines.” I write, host, produce, direct and edit the show myself. It airs every Monday in Pakistan and struggles to stay away from being a rip-off of The Daily Show and Colbert Report. I think it’s working so far.

Some final notes:

I’ve never performed anywhere but Pakistan. Most shows are paid for out of my own pocket, and that barely leaves me with enough money at the end of the month to make car payments, much less travel to America. Still, I have dreams of becoming a writer for The Daily Show and performing in the clubs I read about online. One day. Some day.

I’m not the only comedian in Pakistan. Not by a long shot. Pakistan has had a long relationship with comedy. Our tastes run towards the dark, but we embrace it hungrily. Pakistani television has always had sketch comedy in some format available, and the most popular shows on television remain an Urdu news spoof show that relies on sketches and impressions (not mine sadly, but then I am trying to be more de-construct-the-news-ish with my show).

And that’s just television. In India, the most successful stand-up comedian is a Pakistani. He performs in Urdu which is almost identical to Hindi and he was performing to packed crowds until the recent Mumbai terrorism. He returned home because the death threats in the aftermath of the attack were growing louder than the laughter.

There is an improv troupe (I used to be a performer until I got stretched too thin work-wise), two other English language comics and a host of comedy plays performed every year. Even my wife has started performing recently, becoming the first female comic in Pakistan. So yes, there is comedy in the Muslim World, no matter what Albert Brooks says.

And me? In between it all though. Between News Weakly episodes, Second Life performances and everything else that has happened so far, I still try finding the time to perform on stage in front of real people as often as I can. My material has evolved, from observational to political to personal.

Mostly though, it remains shameless.

For more info on Sami, check out his blog at samishah.wordpress.com.

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Punchline Magazine

  • Aisha

    Kudos to you man! I’m a Pakistani-American and i’ve been to Pakistan about 3 times, but i remember only two and I’m happy to hear your making people laugh there. Pakistanis love to have a good time, so your lucky to be the entertainer! =)