One would assume that being one of the most renowned, celebrated, and controversial names in the world of stand-up comedy in Pakistan, Shehzad Ghias Shaikh would exude an air of arrogance, or would emphasize on distance and formalities. However, his candid demeanor and unbridled friendliness have been a pleasant surprise for all those who have the joy of being in his warm presence and welcoming company.
Many people know Shehzad as a Karachi-based stand-up comedian, who studied Law, and then went on to pursue his Masters in Theatre and Comedy from New York. He h
as nearly ten years of experience to his name, and is considered to be one of the catalysts essential to the process of propelling forward the comedy scene in Pakistan.
Yet, as a lot of the existing dissent begins to occur in the digital sphere, one notices the harsh criticism presented by many towards this budding form of art and creative expression, as well as the artists involved.
Therefore, when asked about how people undermine the growth of the comedy scene in Pakistan, as Shehzad sits in a well-lit, quaint cafe in Zamzama, there is a profound sadness in the reply that follows.
“It doesn’t matter what we do,” Shehzad exclaims with a wistful sigh. “And it doesn’t just pertain to comedy. We don’t like things that exist in Pakistan. We just don’t like what’s our own.”
Shehzad cracks a few jokes before speaking with a deep solemness. To a keen observer, the joke that comes out as a reflex seems to be the time it takes for Shehzad to process what he has to say. After all, a man like him, who has been the recipient of extensive backlash, both online and in real life, is bound to tread carefully, even when seemingly at ease. Despite the criticism and the insistence on the apparent void that exists where stand-up comedy should be, many comedians confirm Shehzad’s narrative of him having contributed successfully to the art form.
Over the course of the past year alone, Shehzad successfully hosted a roast, an anti-Valentine’s Day show, and a series of ‘dirty comedy’ nights, all of which need to be dissected individually.
The roast, which was the first of its kind, borrowed from Comedy Central’s idea to invite a panel of comedians to, well, roast Shehzad himself. For those in attendance, this was a brutal affair. However, Shehzad claims it was therapeutic for those involved, albeit bordering on being harsh.
Witnessing this onslaught of curated, yet vicious comments, one wonders whether the spirit of healthy collaboration exists within the stand-up comedy community. Shehzad’s peers seemed to be a great place to start to find out what it’s like to collaborate with him, but also generally, within the stand-up comedy framework.
While talking about collaborations, stand-up comedian Akbar Chaudhry, who began his career at the same time as Shehzad, weighed in with his opinion.
“Collaborating is a lot of fun for multiple reasons. For example, my group, ‘LOL Walay,’ and other boys - we’re all friends. Just the experience of getting up on stage with your friends - best friends, oftentimes - and doing what you love doing, is a lot of fun. There’s nothing comparable to that.”
Moreover, Akbar goes on to explain that whenever there’s any collaboration, things become easier. More comedians within a show usually translates to a more packed audience as well.
Akbar also talks about the fact that he and Shehzad have collaborated extensively over the years, with each other and other comedians. He even mentions how these collaborations have taken the shape of cross-city tours.
“To me, Shehzad is a friend, but it’s also the fact that we pretty much started out at the same time. Other than friendship, we share that bond as well. We are in the same boat. That’s also something special.”
Muhammad Moiz, a public health worker by day and stand-up comedian by night - best known for his antics on social media as Shumaila Bhatti and his drag avatar, Phudina Chatni - also shares his perspective on collaborating within the stand-up comedy world.
“I find collaborating very difficult and a lot of fun as well,” Moiz states. “It depends on whether your aesthetics match with the other individual.”
“Karachi is a very busy city. There are traffic problems. It is massive. There is no public transportation. Therefore, the problems that we face while collaborating are essentially just logistical. Just taking out the time to sit together, meet, and work on your material is hard.”
Talking about collaborating with Shehzad, Moiz states that his experience has been limited, but pleasant.
“We haven’t collaborated much, but I look forward to more collaborations in the future. But what I think is something that limits us both is the structure of stand-up. There is, of course, a desire to make it more than that. We want to add theatrical elements to it to break the mold - the way I try to with my drag performances. Hopefully, we’re going to get there.”
However, not everyone seems to be as pleased with the stand-up comedy community. Waqar Siddiqui, a stand-up comedian, shares how the industry can, at times, be extremely toxic due to the politics at play.
“The collaborations are happening,” Waqar explains. “They’re not hugely successful, but the effort to do more events persists. However, I don’t see how collaborations can help, considering no individual has that great a following.”
Waqar also mentions that he’s collaborated with Shehzad on about three to four shows, and hasn’t exactly had the best time doing so.
“He likes to be called one of the pioneers,” Waqar states with a hint of condescension, “and he might be one of the first, but what is the impact he’s created, after him being around for seven to eight years? Below-the-belt comedy?”
The “below-the-belt comedy” that Waqar Siddiqui is referring to is the popular series of dirty comedy shows that Shehzad and his peers have been a part of. The format of the show is simple: nothing is off limits. A typical dirty comedy show hosted by Shehzad Ghias Shaikh has the audience in fits as he has various people in attendance yell profanities or sex noises, while airing everyone’s dirty lingerie for laughs. It’s an invigorating experience for the audience. Notably, this very audience is always remarkably diverse as well.
Uzma Khuhro, a student, and one of Shehzad’s fans, who has attended these dirty comedy shows with both her mother and aunt, talks about what being in the audience is like.
“Convincing my mother to let me go was awkward,” Uzma begins, “but her wanting to come along made things more difficult, because of the nature of the jokes. She was really cool about it, though.”
“My mom even called up her sister and talked about how everyone was making crass jokes. Her sister, in turn, said she’s coming along the next time. She, too, had a great time.”
However, the differentiation between these dirty comedy shows and clean comedy is truly worth exploring. For instance, Moiz does not believe that ‘clean comedy’ is something he’d do.
“Clean comedy is not my style,” Moiz states. “You have to be unabashed with comedy. Besides, our common language is loaded with sexual words. You can’t ignore that. A ‘clean show’ is policing yourself and your language and that’s something I can’t do and don’t want to do.”
Waqar, on the other hand, acknowledges the existence of the ‘dirty comedy’ target audience, labeling it a niche, but considers it to be too easy a way to attract audiences.
He believes that this “below-the-belt” style of comedy is acceptable, because, according to him, who doesn’t want to unwind with some dirty jokes when they’re away from their families?
Akbar believes that dirty comedy is easier to write, though it isn’t just limited to cursing or using vulgar language.
“They’re proper jokes,” Akbar explains, “but there is the usage of crass language. It’s definitely easier. Clean comedy is harder to write and market. People will come to a dirty comedy show, but getting the same response for a clean show is hard.”
“Dirty comedy spoilt people,” Shehzad states jokingly. “People don’t come to clean shows anymore. I don’t feel challenged. I’m not having fun. I’m doing it for the money, but it’s not gratifying anymore.”
However, Shehzad remembers why dirty comedy began in the first place, and it can be traced back to it being both liberating and pertinent.
“At that time,” Shehzad explains, “clean comedy was limiting. Dirty comedy also gave us a license to talk about socio political issues, or taboo topics. For instance, I couldn’t talk about homophobia while doing clean comedy.”
To illustrate just how limiting clean comedy can get, Shehzad recalls a time when he was going to perform at a university, where he was banned from referring to the brand ‘Always,’ because it was considered an indecent word.
However, with the advent of dirty comedy, sexual health related topics can be discussed. Homophobia is tackled during these shows. Moreover, drag performances like those of Moiz’s alter ego, Phudina Chatni, have been made possible due to the space created for dirty comedy in Pakistan, alongside Moiz’s own valor.
Yet, if dirty comedy truly is the easier art form, what, then, is the future of comedy? How does one proceed to create content that allows audiences to flock to these venues, without compromising on the expectations set by those who have bought tickets for the show?
Moiz suggests that there should be an inclusion of theatrical elements within the comedy pieces. Shehzad, during the course of the conversation, brings up the same point.
“I stumbled into stand-up comedy,” Shehzad explains, “and now it’s my bread and butter, but I realized I’m a theatre person. I want to go back to theatre. I want to include theatrics in my performances. I used to do that, I don’t know why I stopped.”
“Stand-up comedy is also like theatre,” he continues. “It’s just the life it has to offer. For instance, we were all at SZABIST’s ZAB Media Festival recently on a panel. It was just us talking. However, there was such great energy in the room. You can’t recreate that.”
“My absolute favorite when it comes to this are those ‘you-had-to-be-there’ moments. You’re a part of something live. For me, it’s like a drug.”
When it comes to keeping things fresh within each performance, Shehzad ensures that his shows break through the monotony by switching up the format. For instance, his anti-Valentine’s Day show doubled as a mixer, where he played matchmaker as a joke for all the single people in the audience.
Similarly, the way he includes the audience within each show changes from time to time. His questions are provocative, and the answers almost always end up being hilarious, or are turned into jokes. He even invites audience members to do a spontaneous question/answer session with the rest of the onlookers.
Is it always easy to have people open up like this, or be in such a vulnerable position? Not necessarily. At every show, there will be that one individual who gets offended by what Shehzad has to say. Some will try to heckle him. The worst, according to Shehzad, are those who turn it into some kind of a competition and try too hard.
However, a tough crowd isn’t the only challenge within the world of stand-up comedy. Shehzad, when asked if he’s ever been exploited while producing or conducting shows, shares a heartbreaking response.
“I feel that you will always be exploited. Your labor will always be exploited. If you don’t bring more value to the table than you’re taking away, why would someone put money in you?”
“The problem is that no one looks at the vision. I see it as being instrumental. People I’ve collaborated with, they’ll jump at the first opportunity, too. Even with venues, you do one good show and they don’t see that you’ve worked for ten years to get where you
are. They see that it’s their venue, they’re the kings and they’ll triple the prices or will ask for a 50% cut of what you make.”
“I have 100,000 followers,” Shehzad says, clearly exasperated. “I’ve done this for ten years. If a hundred people come to my show, it’s this ten-year commitment. It’s hard to find collaborators. It’s hard to find people who see your vision and are in it for the long run.”
Shehzad also adds to this the fact that despite being one of the first names in the stand-up comedy industry in the early 2010’s, he is no longer a part of the community. He explains how he’s taken a backseat due to two cases, where he took a stand at a time when no one else did.
“I do my own thing, and I do it with those I can collaborate with. I’m not even in the community WhatsApp group anymore, despite playing a large role in creating a stand-up comedy community in the city.”
As an objective observer who is appreciative of the art of stand-up comedy, one might get disheartened hearing about this discord between the community. However, the future may not be as bleak, with the guiding principles provided by some of the most iconic names in the industry.
“Write your first five minutes,” Akbar advises. “Write this based on your own experiences and stories. Go to open mics, perform, record yourself, go back home and improve on the material till you have your five minutes that you can perform in front of any audience. Don’t get into it for the money.”
Moiz reiterates what Akbar has to say, by emphasizing on how one should become a stand-up comedian only if one wants to pursue comedy, for the pursuit of fame is a “petty goal.”
Shehzad begins his advice jokingly, with what can only be considered a disclaimer for all those who wish to hop aboard the stand-up comedy train.
“Don’t do it,” he states. “Why do you want to do it? Don't do this to yourself. Sure, you may hate your parents, but you need to find another way to torture them.”
“Honestly,” he continues, switching to a more encouraging tone, “just do it. Get in front of an audience. You can't teach stand-up comedy. You can pass on the skill of writing a joke, but you won’t know what it’s like till you’re in front of an audience.”
“Of course you will bomb. Go and bomb. Do terrible shows. That’s the only way to learn. Growth is inevitable. Find your audience. Also, never steal someone else’s material. It’s a cardinal sin. Bomb with your own material so that it gets better.”
With that advice, Shehzad bids future stand-up comedians well. The advice shared by this handful of renowned comedians is essential to navigate around and within the world of stand-up comedy in Pakistan. It serves as a significant guiding principle - one that, perhaps many can benefit from, by following footsteps up the very same ladder of success.