Pakistan's embattled comedians spin troubles into punchlines

Thu Aug 20, 2015 5:31pm EDT
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By Katharine Houreld

KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) - The crowd exploded into laughter as Pakistani comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh threw them his final punchline, gripping the microphone as he roasted the dating app Tindr and traditional South Asian family matchmaking.

"I don't want an app to find me random girls to sleep with!" he cried. "I want my mother to find me random girls to sleep with!"

Shaikh, 26, has just returned from New York and is trying to reinvigorate live comedy in Pakistan, an Islamic nation.

It's a difficult, sometimes dangerous quest. Aside from the usual financial struggles and small audiences, Pakistani comedians face harsh blasphemy laws and a barrage of death threats if their jokes offend the wrong person.

One of Shaikh's close friends, Sabeen Mahmud, a rights activist and the founder of The Second Floor venue he played this week, was gunned down in April. A man arrested for her murder has said she was targeted for championing liberal, secular values.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't afraid," said Shaikh with a wry smile. "I'm not going to censor myself ... the least I can do is joke about it. That's the only power I have."

Shaikh and his improvisation troupe, the Bhands or the Entertainers, use comedy to make the audience laugh - and then think - about society in their nuclear-armed nation of 190 million, plagued by crime, militancy and corruption.

"I'm not telling them what to think, but how," he said after Sunday's show. "My job is to pose questions ... we don't have a tradition of critical thinking."   Continued...

Stand-up comedian Shehzad Ghias Shaikh (R) along with his troupe performs during a show at The Second Floor (T2F) a community space for open dialogue, in Karachi, Pakistan, August 16, 2015. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro