Bombs and burqas may be no joke, but stand-up comics in Pakistan defy death threats to poke fun at Taliban militants with an irreverent humor popular among an increasingly frustrated middle class.
With national newspapers and television screens daily swamped by stories and images of suicide bombings and assassinations, the country’s young breed of funny men are attempting to turn the nation’s collective sadness into satire.
Saad Haroon and Sami Shah, both 33, have cultivated thousands of fans online, abroad and at home in Karachi ─ the southern financial hub consumed by gangland warfare that has killed more than 1,000 people this year.
Attacks in Pakistan attributed to Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militants have left a grim toll of more than 4,700 dead over the past four years.
“You hear all over the news there’s terrorism in Pakistan,” Haroon says in his stand-up act “Terrorists”.
I don’t believe it for a second, because I watch American movies and I know where terrorists meet. Terrorists always meet in a place called ─ ‘the bathroom’...”
“Have you ever seen a Pakistani public bathroom? No self-respecting terrorist would ever go inside!” he quips.
Educated in Hong Kong and the United States, Haroon, the son of a textile industrialist quit the family business after the al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks 10 years ago to found an improvisational comedy troupe.
“I thought this is the lowest point, we need comedy.”
But the attacks and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan triggered a free fall of violence in nuclear-armed Pakistan, spotlighting the Islamist threat that still emanates from its tribal badlands.
One of the worst attacks was the bombing of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade in Karachi in October 2007 that killed around 140 people, two months before she was assassinated in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
Shah was working as a television news producer at the time, but the experience of seeing the destruction caused by those with such a nihilistic agenda strangely switched him on to comedy.
“I was covered in blood. I was just very angry after that. I was livid ... and the very next week I did the stand up show. Ridiculous after 140 died, but it was the only way I knew how to process my anger,” he said.
US university-educated Shah, whose main job is as creative director for an advertising agency in Karachi, admits however that the ongoing onslaught of violence is engendering widespread resignation that is hard to poke fun at.
“I do think it’s not healthy for a country to give up this way. I can’t find funny in desperation. Never make fun of the people below you.”
And other taboos remain on the stand-up circuit.
“You can’t make a joke about the army. You’ll never make a joke about the MQM,” said Haroon, referring to the largest political party in Karachi, accused of having violent elements caught up in the city’s brutal street killings.
The military is revered and feared in equal measure across Pakistan ─ held up as the only functioning national institution that binds the nation together, but with an intelligence arm often accused of collusion with militant groups.
Religion can be joked about only lightly, as Haroon showed with his most popular production yet ─ a music video cover of Roy Orbison’s song “Pretty Woman” entitled “Burka Woman”.
Haroon decided that it was okay to make fun of the all-enveloping black Muslim veil, despite a welter of controversy when France banned the wearing of the burqa in public.
“My love for you it grows, every time I see your toes. Nail polish, Rrrrrrr,” goes one line. “With your kajal (kohl) eyes, my mystery prize,” it continues, sexualizing the garment meant to cover women’s bodies from view.
“For me it was just an interesting way to talk about it,” said Haroon, who admits the song caused offence within his own family. “And that’s ok, because at least we’re talking about it,” he added.
In a country where many writers struggle to make ends meet, Haroon took a risk in turning to comedy, but has cultivated enough of a following at home, in Dubai and the United States to make it a full-time occupation.
It’s even more of a risk in light of the death threats the comedians receive, but both brush them off as mostly online rants by the bored.
“If they’re taking the time to write you don’t have to do anything. It’s the ones who don’t write that you have to worry about,” said Shah.
Causing offence lends itself to obvious criticism.
But in a country where conspiracy theories run in the blood, some argue that comedians like Haroon and Shah reinforce the bloody status quo.
“Such comedies, in my opinion, are a disguised campaign to block change which cannot grow in a climate of confusion and willful escape from fundamentals of the state,” wrote B.A. Malik of Islamabad in the daily Dawn newspaper earlier this month.
“Laughter in a house of fire is insanity. Any arguments to the contrary?”
Haroon has. He defends the comedian’s role as an essential bulwark against the relentless tide of violence weighing on the national psyche.
“When it gets really depressing, if there are more people who go home at the end of the day laughing and being happy and sleep better, that is literally the end goal for me. Just be happy,” he said.