Entertainment

Pakistani stand-up comedians make light of troubles

The crowd exploded into laughter as Pakistani comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh threw them his final punchline, gripping the microphone as he roasted the dating app Tinder and traditional South Asian family matchmaking.

“I don’t want an app to find me random girls to sleep with!” he cried. “I want my mother to find me random girls to sleep with!”

Shaikh, 26, has just returned from New York and is trying to reinvigorate live comedy in Pakistan, an Islamic nation.

It’s a difficult, sometimes dangerous quest. Aside from the usual financial struggles and small audiences, Pakistani comedians face harsh blasphemy laws and a barrage of death threats if their jokes offend the wrong person.

One of Shaikh’s close friends, Sabeen Mahmud, a rights activist and the founder of The Second Floor venue he played this week, was gunned down in April. A man arrested for her murder has said she was targeted for championing liberal, secular values.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid,” said Shaikh with a wry smile. “I’m not going to censor myself … the least I can do is joke about it. That’s the only power I have.”

Shaikh and his improvisation troupe, the Bhands or the Entertainers, use comedy to make the audience laugh – and then think – about society in their nuclear-armed nation of 190 million, plagued by crime, militancy and corruption.

“I’m not telling them what to think, but how,” he said after Sunday’s show. “My job is to pose questions … we don’t have a tradition of critical thinking.”

BOMBING IN PAKISTAN

Shah used to write weekly columns in Pakistan and was deluged with hate mail after mocking suicide bombers “who put the error in terrorism”. But it wasn’t just threats that drove him abroad. He needed bigger audiences.

“In Pakistan, the audiences for comedy are very small. You can bomb once, but if you bomb twice, it’s tough,” he said. “Out here (in Australia) I’m doing four or five shows a week. There (Pakistan), I’d do a corporate event every month. You need to perform more regularly to be good.”

Saad Haroon, a popular comedian now working in New York, says Pakistani artists are going online to get around the scarcity of venues and small audiences.

“There’s lots of development on social media. It’s clandestine, guerrilla comedy,” he said.

Yet even Internet distribution has problems.

Comedian Ali Gul Pir posted his first song about the corrupt children of wealthy landlords on YouTube in 2012 after radio and television rejected the racy lyrics. It got a million views in three days.

Three months later, the government banned YouTube, after a provocative film sparked deadly riots.

Pir hit back with an expletive-laden song about the ban.

“Open the ban, thief,” he sang as hapless policemen chased down a person in a YouTube costume. “These are our rights.”

The video was wildly popular. The ban is still in place.

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