I was at a corporate event, and as you expect such events to be boring, so being a Punjabi and a Lahori — as the tradition goes — I was cheering myself up with the thought of food. It was then that I saw Danish Ali, the standup comedian from Karachi, walk into the hall. I was excited to see him there and the thought of food completely skipped my mind for a moment. Now that’s saying something.
It was evident that he was going to perform at the venue. I found him quite entertaining on television and in his videos posted on Facebook, so I went up to him and introduced myself.
We found a quiet corner at a coffee shop and while Danish placed his order, I was mentally processing the art of standup comedy where a sole person has the responsibility to hold a crowd together, engaged and entertained. Danish was dressed in a black suit and a red shirt and I found him to be very cordial, but restless. He kept mentioning his new video that he needed to go back and edit, and was happy to tell me its title: Target Lover.
How is it to be a standup comedian in Pakistan?
It’s great because there aren’t many people who are doing it. First, I’d like to salute all the parents who have told their kids to become doctors or engineers; you know the archaic line that “my kid must become a doctor or an engineer.” Thank you very much! Because of that I do not have any competition, it’s an open field. It’s great being a comedian in Pakistan!
What kind of response do you get from the audience?
It depends on where you perform. Knock on wood, I have never had a bad experience. Corporate shows have a tough crowd with round tables spread out and some guests with their backs to you. Comedy is a shared experience, you have to be packed in and sitting together for it to be fun. I am 31 but my mind is still that of a 20 year old, so I enjoy college crowds. I love hecklers. While others of my tribe don’t, I like to interact.
How does it play on your mind when you go in with a preconceived notion that the audience might not like you or they might not understand your jokes?
I have never had that notion, people are there to enjoy the show, to have a good time and I make sure of it. It’s my job to make them laugh.
There is a verbal part of your performance and then there are physical expressions involved. Do the expressions have to be as loud as the verbal part? How do you balance them?
This is a battle that is going on in every comedian’s head, you are always trying to figure it out. No one has the final say about it, it’s comedy. You go with whatever works for you. More than me thinking that this will work or not, I try my stuff on a test audience. By the time I’m on stage, I know what’s working. When you are on stage is not the right time to try out new stuff. People who come to my ticketed shows are confident of what they are going to get, and I am confident of my material because I have tried it on hundreds of test audiences beforehand.
Do you like to keep the physical expressions loud in order to reach out to the audience?
This is a very scientific discussion about comedy. If it’s a crowd of thousands then you can get away with a lot more physical comedy. If it’s 50 people, out of which maybe 20 are tuned out, then you need to slow down the pace, talk to them very slowly, make sure they are listening. If anyone is on the phone then go after them carefully, you don’t want to be so loud. Also, if the average age is 60-plus then you don’t want to do physical comedy, just use your words and gauge them slowly. If I go into a show where everyone is in their 20s, and there are a thousand of them, its like when Pakistan’s cricket team goes to Sharjah and Afridi comes out to bat — known temperatures and similar conditions as your homeground. That’s how I feel when I see a young crowd. I know I’m going to rock the show.
What do you think about dry comedy?
By dry comedy I understand a lot of sarcasm, a lot of double-meaning jokes which work in Pakistan because there is a bit of censorship. So, it’s always funnier when you can’t say something but you are saying it in a roundabout way. It’s the most fun for a comedian.
You studied medicine and became a doctor, but you did not pursue it. Why?
Yes, I graduated, got my degree and got my provisional license but then I felt it was too easy; anyone could do it. I wanted to do something different so I became a comedian.
What contributed to your personality the most. How was it to transform into a comedian?
I think the contributing factor was stupidity. You see, there’s a fine line between boldness and stupidity. I think somewhere along those lines I decided to be a comedian. It made no sense at all. If you put it on paper, medicine versus standup comedy, what is more stable or what’s better for me? But at the same time it’s cool to wake up every morning and know that I do what I love as a career. I was lucky enough to have this opportunity, I would have been mad not to take it.
Take us through the process of creating jokes and comedy material?
The act you see is after years of testing and tuning, it’s a lot of work. You have to sit down, it’s like any 9 to 5 job. You have to be very disciplined. Even when we do television, it’s a weekly show but we are writing 12 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t be done with the script in an hour or so.
Tell us about the post-show audience. What kind of response do you get?
Lahore always has the most attractive audience, hands down. I love coming to Lahore. Response-wise they are pretty good everywhere. Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi audiences are more or less the same except maybe Karachi’s audience is a bit savvy, they are a little bit more irritated because the situation isn’t that well there. So they are like ‘Come on! Come on! Get on with it’. But that’s also fun because I am also from Karachi and I face the same situation. In Lahore, you have all this GDP, well-fed, nice clothes, flat stomachs, well-paved roads as opposed to Karachi where tummies are bulging out, etc. So Lahoris are a bit happier when they come to the show.
At this point, Danish starts to wave his cell phone in the air. “Hawa bhi nahin lagti mere cell phone ko Karachi mein.”
Do you feel there is a limit to what you can say on stage in Pakistan?
Oh, yes. Totally! In Pakistan you have to take in the Pakistani sensibility. I don’t talk about taboo topics, I don’t discuss religion and I don’t discuss politics in my act. At the end of the day, people are there to get entertained and it’s my job to make sure that they laugh. I can’t do it if I rub them the wrong way. Sure, you can push the boundaries a little, for example, if you have a leftist agenda, but maybe a show is not the place to do that. You are not going to convince someone of something so let them have a good time. I don’t like shock humour or scandal comedy.
Do you feel you are constrained?
No, not at all. It’s fun, if you can’t talk about politics or a politician, you could talk about them in a roundabout way. It’s more fun for the audience. Luckily, most of my material is very non-political. My thoughts are random, for example, what’s happening to me sitting in a bus in Karachi or when I am eating a tikka or what if Batman was in Pakistan.
I saw one of your videos about Valentine’s Day. How often do you use love in your comedy?
I talk about couples all the time. I even introduce girls and boys to each other during my shows. I love to do that although I haven’t been successful. I have been married for six years, so I live vicariously through single people. Even in my real life I like playing the “rishtay wali aunty” as I have helped my friends get married. With my audience, I love talking about courtship. It’s kind of cute and innocent. I am a family-oriented comedian so in that capacity if I can be a little cheeky, it’s fun for me.
Suddenly he asks me, “Are you single? If you ever come to my show there are girls there. We must hook you up.” Finally, a beacon of hope!
Were you ever surprised by being called to an event or a city?
Once I went to a corporate event and 200 Chinese businessmen were there. I love China, Pakistan loves China, we are pro-China, I am pro-China. But they did not speak either English or Urdu. What was I supposed to do? But even then it was fun.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Mostly, it’s from people who annoy me. I’m at an airport standing in a queue, and if the person behind me sneezes! Please maintain some distance. It’s a violation of the Hudood Ordinance.
How would you describe yourself as a comedian?
Cute and romantic. After his reply, we couldn’t say anything further but laugh out loud.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 24th, 2014