January issue 2013

By | Startrek | Published 11 years ago

While the whole of Karachi is confined to their houses, mourning the lack of CNG and the shenanigans of unruly politicans during the week, Danish Ali and I drive down deserted streets, looking for a restaurant that is open so that we can sit down and chat. Finally we come across one, a Dunkin Donuts that is open and Danish — quite the gentleman — buys me coffee and we joke about the current halaat of the country. “The CNG issue is really heating up these days — I must cover it on my show soon,” he says decidedly. He is referring to his comedy show The Real Show with Danish Ali, which just wrapped up its first season on Aaj TV and is about to go into production for the next season. With this show and several others in the works, his Internet videos, as well as his stand-up and improvisational comedy performances — he recently returned from a comedy tour of the US — Danish is juggling a lot of comedy at the moment. And he is loving every minute of it.

In his performances, TV show and videos, Danish puts a quirky spin on the most mundane things, making them laugh-out-loud funny. Take, for example, the segment in his stand-up act about Karachi buses that has audiences rolling with laughter: “Before the civil rights movement in America, blacks were forced to sit at the back of the bus. In Pakistan, the seats at the back of the bus are the best seats.” He has poked fun at everyone, from Meera and Veena Malik, to cricketers and politicians in his Internet videos. On his television show, Danish has commented on the Olympics, the US elections and the “car that runs on water,” among other things.

Danish has always enjoyed comedy. “Growing up, I loved watching Friends and other comedy shows. Eventually I started doing Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy impersonations for my friends, just for the heck of it and I enjoyed it a lot. Then it was only a matter of time before I started churning out my own jokes.” Talking about his early performances with passion and an enthusiasm that is contagious, Danish recalls the first time he knew that he wanted to be funny for a living. “Every comedian remembers their first big joke,” he explains. “I can recall this one time when I was in Islamabad; we were amateur comedians doing improv in front of an audience of around 50 people. They were all young kids, and I did a Commander Safeguard joke, and at the first gush of laughter that followed, I knew then — it sounds kind of filmi — but I could see myself doing this for the next ten years.”

“I think Pakistanis as a society are very humorous. We make fun of everything and everyone. I mean, things are bad, things blow up, but we’re still able to laugh.”

Since Danish is a doctor by qualification, I ask him whether his family supported his decision to
follow the somewhat unconventional career path of being a comedian. “They were kind of expecting it, because it wasn’t an overnight thing. Obviously, they were like, ‘But we paid so much money [for medical school],’” he laughs. “However, as long as it’s sustainable, they are extremely supportive. Of course, I always come across aunties and uncles who say, ‘Beta, it’s not a stable career,” but it’s been stable for seven years. You can’t say that about many other professions.”

He has certainly done well for himself, despite the aunties’ and uncles’ concerns. Collaborating with fellow comedian and mentor Saad Haroon, Danish wrote for and hosted the first English language comedy show on television, The Real News. He met Saad when he joined his improvisational comedy troupe, Blackfish — the first of such troupes in Pakistan. Danish is profuse in his praise for his mentor. “When I met Saad, it was love at first sight. We worked together for six years and it was great. Working with him was like boot camp. He was a very generous teacher, and I was a sponge. I learnt a lot from him.” Regarding their decision to part ways professionally a couple of years ago, Danish denies any hint of drama. “There was no ‘divorce.’ He just happened to move to the US.” He jokes about how close the two still are. “We both had to get married in order to avoid any awkward questions about our friendship,” he deadpans.

Now that he is juggling stand-up, improv and a television show, he admits he enjoys doing a mix of all three, and wouldn’t want to do just one of them. “They are all very different. For stand-up, you spend at least at least a year writing your act and then it takes years to perfect it. You have to work day and night at it and it can be very gruelling. You’d think med school was tough, but wait till you try and do stand-up comedy for a living,” he explains. By comparison, a TV show is much more structured, so it’s less stressful. Improvisational comedy isn’t as easy as it might seem, Danish argues. “It’s not scripted, so you don’t know how a show’s going to go any single night, but there’s a science behind it. You don’t just get up on stage and say whatever you want. There are rules to follow.” He is also a big believer in trying his material on focus groups. “My stand-up routine has been tried and tested on around 300 people. I don’t want to go up on stage with a bad joke.” However, he says by now he has his stand-up routine down pat. “I’ve been perfecting it for seven years, so now when I do a show, I’m like, ‘Yeah bring it on.’” In fact, he craves performing before big crowds, like the ones at political jalsas. “I wish I could call up these politicians and ask them to hand over the microphone to me for an hour. I would have their crowds laughing in no time,” he insists.

This assertion has less to do with hubris and more to do with a genuine love for his craft, as well as for all the people involved in the field of comedy. Danish talks about the comedians he is inspired by with reverence. “I’ve seen Anwar Maqsood, Moin Akhtar and Bushra Ansari perform live, and they were just so amazing. They are the masters of comedy.” He says they might be even better than their western counterparts, and for Danish, who deeply admires American comedy legends such as Jerry Lewis, that is really saying something. Talking about his comedy tour of the US, he is awestruck when he describes how he got a chance to perform on the same platform as the comedy greats. “Jerry Lewis, when he was young, performed on the same stage that I did. It was such a big honour for me,” he gushes.

When I ask whether Americans have a different sense of humour than Pakistanis, his answer is an emphatic yes. Americans, according to Danish, are very politically correct, probably because they are so culturally diverse. “This made it really hard for me to make fun of myself, because they were hesitant to laugh at me. I literally had to fight with the audience and say, ‘Hans lo, hans lo,’” he laughs. But, Danish maintains, they aren’t fundamentally different from Pakistanis. “I think the average citizen anywhere in the world is the same — he worries about his children, bills have to be paid.”

Talking about how the social media has provided a platform for aspiring comedians, Danish says, “Social media is the next big thing. It is going to overtake television.” Mainstream media corporations and advertising agencies have started acknowledging its importance. “Someone who is big on social media, who has thousands of views for his or her videos, can get a bit of immunity from the television ratings system, which is very unreliable to begin with,” he says. Television ratings matter less for people who have a big online presence. Danish’s video where he interviewed Meera has 1.5 million views and his other videos have had hits in the hundred-thousands. He emphasises the importance of fighting against the censorship of social media. “We’re very savage when it comes to fighting the censoring of TV content, but there’s no setup right now to fight Internet censorship.”

I ask him what role humour plays in a society as plagued by misery as ours. He turns contemplative, and then says, “I think Pakistanis as a society are very humorous. We make fun of everything and everyone. I mean, things are bad, things blow up, but we’re still able to laugh.” Probably that is why he remains hopeful about the future. “It takes positivity to change things,” he says. Then he adds, laughing, “Not to mention intelligence. Pakistanis have a lot of jazba, it’s all ‘Dil Dil Pakistan,’ but nobody thinks. The song should be ‘Dimagh Dimagh Pakistan.’”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.