A writer, actor and director, Shehzad Ghias Shaikh is making a name for himself as a standup comic and improve artist.
Originally a student of law at LUMS, it was his studies and his involvement in dramatics that got him interested in social issues and how he could raise his voice against social ills. Currently on tour across Pakistan, he’s the founder of Cogito – an entertainment production company – and “Room for Improvement”.
“I was studying subjects like social justice,” he said, explaining how that was among the things that influenced his writing. “The comedy came later.”
His first standup comedy show was at The Second Floor in Karachi, in July 2011. His second was at the Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC) in August.
“It was packed,” he said. He admitted that not everyone always gets comedy, particularly satire, but he’s always also had plenty of supporters.
“People have been really nice, they’ve supported what I’ve done and that’s kept me going.”
His Pakistani comic career was put on hold for a while though when he left for the States to pursue his Masters degree. As he was working towards his Masters in Theatre, he did stand up and improve in New York, performing at the Broadway comedy club and Greenwich Village. He wrote blog posts for Pakistani publications, but something was still missing.
“I wanted to maintain my connection with Pakistan, and while I originally wrote blog posts, I ended up transitioning to my web show.”
Hafta News was the result. The first season had six episodes, all in English. The second, which was launched only recently, is mostly in Urdu.
“I’m trying to connect to the people in Pakistan, make this more relevant to them somehow, and that meant that I had to try switching to Urdu.”
Talking about his creative process, he explained that he was actually inspired by a lot of well known shows like The Colbert Report, The Daily Show and Last week Tonight.
“I worship Jon Stewart,” he chuckled. “I’ve read all their (the aforementioned comedians’) books, I’m a huge fan of their shows and I’ve actually done some shows with their writers in the States.”
“What happens is, there are always these open mic nights at Comedy Clubs and Bars etc. So you can always ask to perform there. They’ll pick you and put you up with like, say, 10 to 13 other comedians and as each performs, the rest will be in the back in the green room, waiting our turn.”
It was there that Shehzad met and talked to these writers, veterans in the art of comic and satire.
“I’d try to pick their brains. One of the first things I asked was always ‘How do you start the process?’ And – this was surprising – instead of picking the most prominent social issues or political events, they always said the same thing: The first question is always ‘Is it funny?’”
So their first priority isn’t the social issue, it’s “finding the funny”. And talking to them definitely helped with the process. As Shehzad pointed out; one can get in to a lot of trouble in Pakistan for poking fun at, or shining a light on prominent people or situations. It hit him that this way of “finding the funny” could help him tackle social issues without ruffling feathers.
Or, at least, without ruffling too many feathers.
“People don’t understand satire in Pakistan,” Shehzad agreed when I asked if he’d ever heard back from people he’d talked or written about. “And they take things out of context. So instead of looking at the entire 10 minute episode, they’ll just pick one line and say “Oh, Shehzad Ghias said this.”’
The problem with that – as Shehzad pointed out before – is that people lose the context in which the joke or statement was made. And it is so easy to download and edit a video that getting the flak for something people misinterpreted is pretty common.
“That’s problematic,” he agrees. “A lot of times people don’t read till the end, or even watch the video till the end, so they don’t get it.”
“A lot of times I’ll get messages like: ‘oh, hey, you made fun of Abida Parveen’. And I’ll be like, umm, no I didn’t.”
He admitted that now he has to write or tell people in advance “Hey, this is satire” which he pointed out did defeat the purpose, but “you never know who is watching.”
In another example, he said he’d used a verse originally written by Allama Iqbal to illustrate a particular issue. “I got people commenting and messaging me and saying ‘You insulted the Allama’” he laughed, “and I was like ‘no, no. I didn’t’”
It hasn’t all been bad though. “Jibran Nasir got back to me after he saw the stuff I’d done on him, and he was nice about it. He thought it was funny, which is good.”
What about other people though? Like, say, Hamza Ali Abbasi? The actor’s “Karachi rant” gained him infamy, which Shehzad had been quick to pick up on.
“I’d been meaning to do a piece on local body elections,” he admitted, “and then the Karachi rant happened, so I used that to cover the local body elections too.
“Sometimes this happens. I do plan and think about what I want to do for a particular episode, but then a something will happen, like the Karachi rant, or Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim speech. So I’ll incorporate that somehow. You can have like a planned chart, but how it turns out depends on what’s happening around the world and you can’t really predict that.”
In the case of Donald Trump, Hamza said he had been thinking about how to tackle Islamophobia in the west when the American presidential hopeful talked about banning Muslims from the states. It was comedy gold. And as Shehzad explained, it was too good to pass up on.
“I’m doing a standup comedy tour these days. I’m trying to do a lot of more web based work though my forte is more stand up. But that’s something I’m working on.”
When asked if he’d ever follow in the footsteps of his idols and transition to Television shows, Shehzad admitted that he had dabbled.
“I keep doing stuff, I write for Burka Avengers. I’ve done some stuff for News 1. I’ve done some sketch shows – I did one for Aaj. It ran about three months. But,” he laughed “that didn’t do so well.”
While Shehzad admits the show didn’t do that well, he accepted that, creative fallout aside, his own inexperience did have a hand in that as well. But would Pakistan see him in our own version of a satire show in the future?
“I’ll see,” he said. “It seems like the logical step.”