January issue 2016
Stand Up, Speak Out
Shehzad Ghias is on a one-man mission to bring stand-up comedy to Pakistan. A recently returned Fulbright scholar, with a Masters in theatre from Brooklyn College, Ghias’ training in theatre and exposure to the New York stand-up comedy scene equipped him with all the skills he needs for such a venture. But it hasn’t been smooth-sailing all the way.
“Initially, when I started out in theatre in 2009, there wasn’t much of a theatre scene at home. I started Cogito Productions and in between law school, workshops at Lahore Grammar School and The Knowledge Factory, I managed to hone my passion. I lost more money than I made, but I kept at it.”
The effort paid off. Putting up plays on social issues gave Ghias the edge he needed to get into theatre school. “The schools I applied to told me that they did not accept people in a Masters programme who did not have a Bachelors in theatre or English, but they took me in because of my self-start projects.”
Since coming back from New York, Ghias has pitched ideas to networks, but met with a lot of hindrances. “There is no room for a Daily Show in Pakistan,” he says. “The channels I gave my work to would add a laugh track and that destroyed the punchline of my jokes. They say you can make fun of Mubasher Lucman singing ‘Summer Wine’ but not dissect what he said and call him out on it.”
Undeterred, Ghias forged on. He took to the internet and started a weekly show Hafta News, where he has his own satirical take on all things Pakistani. This has allowed him the creative control he is reluctant to relinquish. And the measure of his success? His viewership is close to the 93,000 mark.
“When I write content, I start with observations and work them into jokes. I am very careful about not making them sound as if they are coming from a special place of privilege. It is about making connections, and not perpetuating stereotypes. This is something I saw during my time at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB), where as the only Pakistani in the room, I was asked by the writers engaged in writing jokes about Muslims, whether what they were saying was correct or not.”
The UCB is one of the biggest theatre improv troupes in the US. Founded by comedienne Amy Poehler and some other big names, UCB improv courses sell out within seconds of going live online. For Ghias to have access and input in these writing sessions is an honour for Pakistan and improv theatre.
Next up for Ghias is a stand-up comedy tour in collaboration with Nando’s called Clucks and Cackles. We can’t wait for his next joke!
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2016 issue.