(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.”
Pakistani satirists like Luavut Zahid also want to make their audience curious – and angry.
A year ago, she and two others launched Pakistan’s answer to The Onion, The Khabaristan Times. Writers cracks dark jokes about violence and lampoon those they hold responsible. Hackers have attacked the site repeatedly.
“We’re not just trying to make people laugh, we’re trying to make a point, although sometimes it can be really dark,” Zahid said. “Satire is a way of looking at the world and screaming ‘What is wrong with you?'”
A recent article on violence against women was headlined “Shameless man won’t kill anyone if sister decides to go on date.”
While corruption, politicians, crime and culture are all regular fixtures on the comedy circuit and satirical shows like the televised Banana News Network, some subjects remain taboo. Few punchlines mock the powerful military or religion.
Pakistani law stipulates blasphemers be put to death. No one’s been executed so far, but those accused are often lynched or imprisoned on flimsy evidence.
Blasphemy accusations against Christians are so common that The Khabaristan Times reported “Newborn Pakistani Christians to be vaccinated with mild blasphemy accusations.”
A senator, professors and popular journalists were all recently accused of blasphemy. Popular liberal journalist Raza Rumi, who defended minorities and denounced the law, was shot last year.
“Religion is just a no-go area these days … There are just too many nutjob vigilantes,” said Pakistani comedian Sami Shah, who now plays sell-out shows across Australia after moving there three years ago.
Shah used to write weekly columns in Pakistan and was deluged with hate mail after mocking suicide bombers “who put the error in terrorism.” But it wasn’t just threats that drove him abroad. He needed bigger audiences.
“In Pakistan, the audiences for comedy are very small. You can bomb once, but if you bomb twice, it’s tough,” he said. “Out here (in Australia) I’m doing four or five shows a week. There (Pakistan), I’d do a corporate event every month. You need to perform more regularly to be good.”
Saad Haroon, a popular comedian now working in New York, says Pakistani artists are going online to get around the scarcity of venues and small audiences.
“There’s lots of development on social media. It’s clandestine, guerrilla comedy,” he said.
Yet even Internet distribution has problems.
Comedian Ali Gul Pir posted his first song about the corrupt children of wealthy landlords on YouTube in 2012 after radio and television rejected the racy lyrics. It got a million views in three days.
Three months later, the government banned YouTube, after a provocative film about Prophet Muhammad sparked deadly riots.
Pir hit back with an expletive-laden song about the ban, mocking Islamic school students who rioted as sexually frustrated and politicians who implemented the ban as corrupt hypocrites.
“Open the ban, thief,” he sang as hapless policemen chased down a person in a YouTube costume. “These are our rights.”
The video was wildly popular. The ban is still in place.