It's 8 p.m. and young comic Danish Ali’s show is underway at a cultural center in Karachi, Pakistan.
He suggests it’s about time this country got its own superhero. And he imagines what the movie trailer for a Pakistani Batman might sound like.
“In the city of Karachi,” he said dramatically. “Where darkness has spread through the land. A dark knight shall come forth to shine light... Alfred, start up the generator!”
The Urdu punch line, and much of Ali’s work, refers to the tribulations of everyday life in urban Pakistan — power outages, cell phone problems and poverty. It’s a pain, to be sure, but it’s also great fodder for comedy.
“You just have to open the window and there’s humor everywhere,” Ali said.
Ali’s show was actually meant to happen two weeks earlier, but had to be postponed because of political violence.
“We’re sitting in an empty hall because my show got postponed because there was a riot in the city. Which other comedian has to deal with that on a daily basis?” he asked. “The last time the show got postponed was because of an unfortunate bomb blast. Tomorrow there will be another rally, another riot, corrupt politicians, scandals, one politician will say something absurd to the other politician, it’ll end up on YouTube for weeks. All these people give us a lot of humor.”
While Pakistan has a rich tradition of comedy — in theater and on television — Western style standup is new. There are only three comedians who regularly do stand-up shows in Pakistan, but a devoted following has sprouted.
Sami Shah Sami Shah was the first of the three to put on a solo show. He said getting stage time is more difficult for standup comics in Pakistan than in other places.
“You don’t have nightclubs where you hone five minutes,” Shah said. “That’s what happens abroad. You write five minutes, you master it then write another five minutes. I booked an auditorium, sold 300 tickets myself and then did one hour of standup. And if that first hour had gone bad I never would have done it again, but it went well so I’ve been doing it since.”
One of the things that sets these stand-up comedians apart from other comedians in Pakistan is that they mostly use English, rather than Urdu or other local languages. On the one hand, English gives them access to a niche audience, but at the same time it can restrict the audience.
The language choice is a reflection of the three comics' backgrounds. All are relatively well-off and at some point have lived in the West. Shah is an advertising professional by day; Ali just graduated from med school; and the third stand-up comedian, Saad Haroon used to work in his family’s textile business.
A favorite topic for Pakistani comics is politics, whether making fun of local politicians, or commenting on international affairs. This is Sami Shah’s take on Pakistan’s uneasy relationship with the United States.
“Our relationship with America is so weird,” his routine goes. “Every few years, America comes back to us like an old ex-girlfriend who’s desperate and needy and says, ‘Oh baby, come back, I miss you. It’s always been you, those other guys meant nothing.’ And we always say, ‘Oh baby, I’m so happy, I’ve missed you too. I’ve kept all your old things, they’re still here.’ And then America betrays us again, it cheats on us again and we’re crying in the corner, cutting up pictures.”
This joke gets a huge laugh from the audience.
But Shah said doing stand-up comedy in Pakistan is not always a laughing matter. The boundaries aren’t as wide as they are in other places.
“Religion is a no-go now. In the environment we live in you just don’t go there, because even though the audience is fairly liberal-minded, you don’t want to risk the one lunatic who's going to come and shoot you,” Shah said. “I mean, I’ve been threatened before. In the middle of one show someone just came up and said ‘you should stop now.’ So I did — I took his advice that time.”
Comedians have to take a calculated risk in deciding which topics to cover and which to leave behind, Haroon said.
“There’s self censorship involved because you can get yourself in trouble doing things you shouldn’t do,” Haroon said. “Obviously as a comedian our job is to keep pushing the boundaries as much as we can without toppling over. It’s more important to do comedy than to say something. If your idea is to make a point then you’ll be gone ... and then there’ll be no comedy.”
All three of the comics are eager to increase their audience not only within Pakistan, but also to get some stage time internationally.
“I’m trying to understand why people become suicide bombers. I can’t understand the virgins thing. I do not understand it. Like why 72? Why 72? Why not 71?” Shah said in his act.
As Shah explained, sometimes jokes about subjects familiar to Pakistanis don’t make sense to outsiders.
“We have a lot of the same cultural touch points because we also watch CNN and American movies and British comedies, the same as Western audiences," Shah said. "I have this bit about suicide bombing. And every comedian in the world has a suicide bombing bit, but mine had a detail, that I didn’t realize, only Pakistanis would know, which is that when the suicide bomber blows himself up, his head is always found."
Every Pakistani knows that, he said.
“Like, will you look the way you did the moment you died?” Shah asked an audience at his show. “Because most suicide bombers you’re just a head at that point. Or will you look the way you do when you’re alive? Because I don’t want to meet virgins looking like this, without a head.”
Shah said Pakistani comics are different because of those different details. They're slightly more bizarre and perhaps more morbid than other cultures, he said.
“I did that bit for BBC recently,” Shah reflected, “and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s such a random detail, that’s so Pakistani, that detail.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, I guess so.'"
Morbid, perhaps, but Pakistani humor is growing ever more sophisticated, and popular.