“Ever wondered what you could do in light of ongoing terrorism, the Haqqani network, the Taliban, the al Qaeda? Tried shooting off a punch line, or throwing a joke at them?”
So began this piece in the Express Tribune today praising This Is Standup Comedy, a four-part web series in which local comics Saad Haroon and Danish Ali ostensibly “try and explore the effect terrorism has had on Pakistani society”. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that as the series loaded I was already thinking but haven’t we got any psychologists for that?
Half the point of good comedy is that it isn’t earnest, well-meaning or motivated by the desire to please people or explain the world. It is about subversion. A good comic will not say the right things. He or she will say the wrong things. And if, in the process of saying the wrong thing, they punch a hole in my own Line Of Bullshit Control, well then ladies and gentlemen we have a winner. Or rather, a loser. Because that’s what genuinely funny people or POVs tend to be, losers aka misfits, underdogs, freaks, misanthropes, outsiders.
Take the delightful David Baddiel-written film starring Iranian funnyman Omid Djalili, The Infidel:
Take Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and Nina Wadia’s experiences of growing up in multicultural Britain in Goodness Gracious Me:
Take Fifty Fifty, which proved that censorship doesn’t have to be a bar to the pithiest of social commentary:
Take Chris Cooper, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s Four Lions, which showed us the difference between making fun of jihadis and making a funny about jihadis:
Now take This Is Standup Comedy, which consists largely of Saad Haroon and a host of other people pretending stand up comedy didn’t exist before English-speaking Muslims in a post-9/11 world discovered it, lamenting how hard it is to a) be misunderstood b) get a visa, and go outside and jump up and down on it.
You should do this not just because it’s good for your hams and glutes, but also because both Haroon and Sami Shah* – the genuinely wacky Danish Ali, despite his top billing, sadly only has four lines – are both talented, experienced comics and really should have known better than to try to pass of intellectual laziness as an ethical stance.
[*Update: We have received clarification from Sami Shah that he was not involved in the creation of the series and was merely interviewed for it. We apologize if a misleading impression was given by the above lines.]
The series does not explore the effect terrorism has had on Pakistani society as much as it explores the unfortunate results of comics being unable to transcend their own social/religious/ethnic/sexual identities. The answer to why this is so might lie in this line from the ET review:
"Haroon and Ali are well known among the hip crowd for being Pakistan’s première English language stand-up comics."
This is pretty much the comedic equivalent of jumping into a river with a concrete block around your ankles, which, as anyone else who has tried it at home can tell you, is really not funny.
When it happens – as This Is Standup Comedy inadvertently showcases - what you are left with is not the tight writing or detached dissection of universal human traits the four examples above feature but different versions of punch lines that can be summarized thus:
Terrorists are stupid.
People who think I’m a terrorist are stupid.
Why don’t you like me?
Live shows or series inhabiting this position don’t do themselves any favors. First, the comics seem to feel that being brown, from a conservative background and funny is in itself a novelty so they don’t work very hard and the material just isn’t good enough, especially when you compare it to thematically similar work that has already been done in both English and vernacular languages. This goes back to that notion of the wider world, and specifically discrimination, not existing before 9/11. Local comics looking to get mileage out of Islamophobia as a lived experience should look to the Jews. Not to convert (you’d have to be a real motherfucker to do that) but to contemplate what Jewish comics learned years ago; the trick is not to make fun of the goyim being anti-Semitic but to make fun of the Jew experiencing anti-Semitism instead. For example, Sami Shah's throwaway line about just wanting to 'understand the Taliban' could have led into a riff on hipsters at Espresso discussing ideology over a latte, but instead we are left again with the hackneyed profiling joke.
Second, I don’t really believe a stand up show on the day after a bomb blast is fighting the Taliban any more than I believe a fashion show an hour after a bomb blast is fighting the Taliban or my naanwala sticking bread in a tandoor the morning after a bomb blast is fighting the Taliban. Sometimes trying to make a living is just that, trying to make a living. The only difference between a certain kind of Pakistani in the creative sphere and my naanwala is that he doesn’t make a song and dance (and documentary) about it.
And now for something completely different…