Karachi’s comedy scene – Can you handle it?

Published: September 28, 2014

While one should be grateful that there are more shows happening, the comedy scene remains characterised by part-time performers holding ad hoc events. PHOTO: FILE/ LOL WAALAY OFFICIAL FACEBOOK PAGE

If you’ve lived in Karachi, you’re sure to have heard the complaint about there being a lack of entertainment options in the city.

Eating out represents the obvious choice for entertainment but there is always the “and now what do we do?” question that hangs in the air after the meal. It’s too early to go home and unfortunately the debate about ‘what next’ rarely moves beyond dessert options.

The thought of why there aren’t more regular entertainment options in our city has been annoying me for a while now. If one looks at the thriving theatre industry or the packed cinema halls over the weekend, there is certainly a lot of demand but then why aren’t other performers seeking to fill this void?

Back in February, Saad Haroon did a fantastic comedy tour of the country. While I was sitting in the audience, I remember thinking that all he needed was a microphone to put on a fantastic, sold-out show. Inspired by Saad and convinced that laughter was exactly what us, frustrated Karachites, needed, a few amateur lovers of comedy, and I, decided to try to host at least one comedy show a month.

The initial thought was terrifying as stand up comedy involves a solo performance, which means rejection cannot get more personal. But back then, the prospect of quick fame – and even the juvenile thought of getting some female fans – was a better motivator than fear. To date, we’ve been persevering on little more than passion, but after two well received shows (and one very disappointing one), we were pleasantly surprised when another group hosted a show.

With yet another comedy show at the end of the month, the thought has crossed my mind whether this is proof of an emerging, albeit nascent, Karachi comedy scene. So I thought I’d speak to other performers about the obstacles preventing this fledgling, live comedy scene from taking flight.

Art of public speaking

One significant challenge is getting hold of performers who aren’t daunted by public speaking. New performers panic at the thought of not being found funny and so those with a knack for noticing the comical in the commonplace prefer to stay in the background, writing articles or playing with Photoshop.

Akbar Chaudhry, a key figure behind the LOL Waalay troupe who has been doing comedy full time since February 2014, adds that a career in the arts is still looked down upon. At the moment, the majority of performers are theatre actors who are between projects and students with free time. But the ability to attract a steady stream of talent that is willing to persevere remains a challenge.

In this light, both Akbar and Junaid Akram, who is part of the Dubai stand up scene and prolific on social media, point to the limited scope for comedians to test jokes in an understanding environment like an open mic night. Both stress that paid shows are not the right platform to experiment. With there being only two venues in Karachi that organise such events on an ad hoc basis, the frustration of waiting for such an opportunity, coupled with the fear of failure, means that many have given up stand up prematurely.

The next challenge is content. Junaid adds that performers need to be able to address family friendly topics. While he believes stand up can be a refreshing and entertaining way to discuss social issues, taboo topics such as religion and sex can ruin the atmosphere. Both he and Akbar agree that more mentoring is required to help amateurs understand audience tastes. This is a significant problem as there are only a handful of professionals pursuing comedy fulltime. Unfortunately, this means that very important skills about holding a crowd’s attention remain undeveloped.

Attracting audience

Another major challenge is of attracting an audience. A humorous show like Aangan Terrha managed to run packed houses for over 100 shows not only because its content was accessible to everyone, but because it had a star name: Anwar Maqsood. Salman Shamim, who organised his first stand up show in June 2011, is aware of how hard it can be to attract a decent crowd.

Salman, who is behind a number of viral YouTube videos, hosted a show on the fourth day of Eid which wasn’t well-attended. Commenting on the challenges of organising such an event, he mentioned that it’s important for shows to be on the weekend and for marketing to be a priority. While Facebook represents a great and cost effective means to market events, he adds that one needs well-connected contacts and outdoor marketing to bring in the crowds.

This is clearly a major issue as I’m often told that people had no idea a show was happening.

Financial viability

The need to invest in marketing and advertising bring us to the next concern: financial viability. Without a star headlining the show, it becomes risky to book a large venue. Worse still, it means the ticket price needs to be concessionary.

There are thankfully a few venues that require ticket sales to be shared 50/50 with performers. This is great as it means organisers cannot lose money. However, larger venues require booking fees that can be as high as Rs40,000 per show. While Akbar concedes that venue booking costs are an obstacle, he believes that if a sponsor covers the booking fee, the show can make financial sense.

There is unfortunately another challenge that pertains to monetary matters. Since a number of performers are often needed to put up regular shows, when the amount is divided there is often just a small four figure sum left to be shared. Again, this puts the onus on the performer to stay committed to improving in the hope of greater financial rewards later.

Finally, there is another problem that many are unwilling to talk about. We’re fortunate in Pakistan as there are no government licenses required to stage shows, as it is in Dubai. But even though everyone accepts there is a huge need for entertainment, I’ve found comedians to be reluctant to take a chance on a big show.

For more established performers, there is the concern of performing alongside amateurs and hence being associated with a poor show. In addition, there is unfortunately a short-sightedness among performers, myself included, as without a set calendar of shows, there is a greater incentive to take small earnings from a show instead of investing in booking a larger venue or on marketing.

While one should be grateful that there are more shows happening, the scene remains characterised by part-time performers holding ad hoc events. Until the major issues highlighted above are addressed, it’s likely that the live comedy scene will remain in second gear.

Unless someone takes the step of investing in a star-supported show to get people talking and sponsors interested, Karachi’s entertainment scene is likely to be characterised by irregular small scale shows.

Muhammad Altamash

Muhammad Altamash

An entrepreneur with a graduate degree from the London School of Economics, Altamash is also an ex-journalist who is currently looking to improve the way entertainment industry developments are covered. He tweets @MisterMashy (twitter.com/MisterMashy)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.