Big Laughs on the Small Screen

By Sonya Rehman

Comedy is no longer just about slipping on banana peels, its also about social and political commentary under the banner of intelligent humour.

A slapstick series by the name of Fifty Fifty (which comprised of short acts) gave Pakistani entertainment-starved audiences something to laugh about in the ’80s. There was just nothing like it. The show was novel and one-of-a-kind – one that could be related to irrespective of gender, class or even age group for that matter. Following Fifty Fifty’s apex of success, the road for broadcast comedy was paved further as additional slapstick shows/serials (both on radio and television), and stand-up comedians cropped up towards the onset of the ’90s.

But one stage comic in particular, Umar Sharif, through his stand-up routines made a definite mark as one of the most terrific comedian/stage artistes the country had ever seen. Bordering on the naughty (and at times vulgar) his jokes were uproariously comical and seemed to have panache for impersonations. Quick-witted and interactive with the audience, there has never been a dull moment with Sharif (quite like the Chris Rock of Pakistan) on stage.

Moin Akhtar too, through his acting prowess (as a comedian) set the benchmark even higher. From theatre, television serials and more recently a program known as Loose Talk (started in 2005 till the present) – which features Anwar Maqsood as the host and Akhtar imitating different individuals to the T.

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The show is riotously engaging – where Maqsood’s delivery is subtle (albeit comic as an amused host), Akhtar adds the slapstick touch via his over the top impersonations that hit very close to home.

But broadcast comedy serials/shows aside and the fact that stand-up acts (for the masses) are common (since they’re delivered in Urdu or Punjabi); a stand-up routine in English on the other hand, is a relatively new concept that caters to a very ‘exclusive’ audience. In particular, a small troupe calling themselves Black Fish were possibly the initiators of stand-up acts (with their routines delivered in English) in the country. Led by Saad Haroon, the troupe’s popularity ascended due to its originality and witty routines. “After three years of doing Black Fish I wanted to branch out,” Saad had said which eventually led to the creation of a ‘Saturday Night Live’ inspired show (for a local channel) by the name of The Real News. The show – which consists of Saad Haroon, Danish Ali and Mikael Lotia – is tongue-in-cheek ‘slapstick satire’ that pokes fun at social norms and the administration. “We have to be careful with content. God knows how many jokes we’ve scrapped,” Saad had stressed. “Our focus is on making people laugh. You can’t define ‘funny’; everyone has their own approach to it. What’s important is how you get it across,” Danish (who began doing improv in Islamabad with his friends) emphasized.

A journalist by profession, Sami Shah (now an ex-Black Fish member and a full-time stand-up comedian) finds himself to be more of a “stage person” since the “immediacy of stage” appeals to him greatly. “With Black Fish we had corporate sponsors but the trouble with that is that it brands you and the sponsors expect certain types of jokes,” Sami had said and later adding, “Since it was something I wasn’t comfortable with I decided to self-finance my shows.” Although Sami’s audience (just as that of The Real News) is extremely niche, his idiosyncratically witty sense of humour has resulted in due appreciation since he went solo starting December 2006.

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Comedy today isn’t what it used to be. What works now is social and political commentary interspersed with ‘intelligent’ humour. Comedians slipping on banana peels or just acting plain retarded will fail to get any laughs or attention for that matter. Isn’t it interesting though that as music develops (both compositionally and lyrically), as art progresses (in terms of medium, brushstrokes and subjects) and that overall, artistic expression continuously undergoes a certain metamorphosis (with regard to a country’s political, economical and social standing), so does the deliverance of comedy? Comedy must not be undermined. It is the next best thing after music in terms of ‘change’.

For what better way can change be brought about via a few laughs?

Instep, The News

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