When Akbar Chaudhry began to dabble with live theatrical performances, everyone around him was pursuing mechanical engineering. He was, after all, enrolled in an engineering college. Then, Chaudhry didn’t think that the stereotype about engineers being serious was unfair. In fact, he liked to think that he and his friend Kumail were the only funny people at NUST.
“At the risk of offending people who might think they were funny,” he adds with due pauses for comedic timing.
However unfunny his life as an engineering undergrad, his stepping into the world of theatre in 2007 had already set the stage for a world of performances to come and the looming possibility of a nine-to-five job couldn’t stop that.
The beginning of LOL Waalay
In March 2012, Pakistan’s improv-comedy scene saw a chance of revival with the initiation of LOL Waalay at MAD School with Chaudhry and Kumail at its helms.
It’s pertinent to add that a number of performers and troupes had already been doing comedy in Pakistan. Saad Haroon’s Blackfish is popularly considered to be the first improv-comedy troupe in the country and then there was Danish Ali, Sami Shah and Junaid Akram amongst others who had made a name for themselves as standup comedians.
However, improv-comedy wasn’t the same thing as the latter.
“It’s important for people to understand that the improv performances we do are not scripted,” says Chaudhry, explaining the difference between stand-up and improv. “For someone who thinks that they are, they are not going to find our shows really good.”
Zubair Tariq, another member of LOL Waalay and a Szabist graduate explains, “People who believe that our shows are scripted are likely to think, ‘Oh anyone can do this’ or question ‘What’s so special about this’?”
The Platoon smashes through comedy's glass ceiling
Improv-comedy, as the name suggests, happens ‘in the moment’. Hours of rehearsals go in the making of a show to practice and perfect techniques but when the performances do happen, they are rarely scripted and rely heavily on audience suggestions. A host acts as a bridge between the performers and the audiences to moderate the entire performance and gives cues for the audiences to respond to.
It is now 2015 and LOL Waalay is no longer the only troupe currently doing improv-comedy in Pakistan. The Platoon, a 16-member troupe led by Hassaan bin Shaheen, a lawyer by profession, has emerged as a strong entrant — not least because it constitutes of a majority of female performers in a field where female comedians are unheard of.
“People have this general misconception that women performers aren’t funny. For me that’s not true at all and people who hold the misconception are sexist [expletive],” says Shaheen, explaining that seven of the 16 members of The Platoon are women.
“Women bring their own direction to our troupe that is different from men and that is just fantastic,” he adds.
50 shades of comic relief
For audiences, however, the main difference between the two troupes lie in the format each of them choose to perform in.
The Platoon who pursues the long-form format of doing improv-comedy believes its shows are closer to a theatrical performance in nature and narrative style rather than being similar to a comedy show.
“We are trying to challenge the notion that improv is synonymous with comedy,” explains Shaheen, who claims to have done at least 43 courses related to improvisational performances both in Pakistan and abroad while academically pursuing law.
“Improv is reacting honestly to what’s happening on stage and what’s happening to you in the moment. Humour is a by-product, never the binding force behind it.”
Chaudhry meanwhile asserts that his troupe specialises in short-form improvisation, which has to do with short scenarios and games that are primarily aimed at making people laugh and retaining their attention through a quick succession of scenes.
“In our performances, you would always find an assortment of 12 games and scenes. Other things can change but what we do will always remain short-form improv-comedy.”
A lack of venues to perform in, the precarious security situation and a general lack of marketability for the events has meant that the troupes have had to convert one skeptic at a time to get to a position where all the shows that they do now are practically full-house.
The Bhands pack a satirical punch
Recently, the arrival of a third troupe called The Bhand led by Shehzad Ghias Sheikh which had its first performance at MAD School has pulled an interesting spin on an otherwise clearly demarcated improv-scene.
In a piece written by Ghias himself, it is explained how The Bhand is one of the oldest folk theatre forms in Pakistan and in combining it with improv, it attempts to create humour by the subversion of hierarchical positions.
“So when a servant makes fun of a house’s owner, it’s funny but it’s also an inversion of a scenario which is considered the norm,” says Ghias, explaining how he has positioned his troupe to channel social satire and not just create humour for the sake of humour.
Featuring both short- and long form improvisation in their performances, the 6-member troupe so far have two shows to their credit but the avid response they have received from the audiences mean that a long string of performances are sure to follow.
Improv: What's in it for the comedians?
So what is it about improv that seems to have captivated a seemingly new but a dedicated crop of performers?
Syed Osama, a member of the LOL Waalay chalks it down to happiness. “Everyone has something which makes him or her really happy. For some people, it’s about the girls, for others it’s about the drugs. For me, it’s improv-comedy,” he says.
“In fact, I wish that even in Jannat (heavens), there’s an improv show every Friday,” he quips.
Ayesha Tariq of The Platoon claims that having improv in her life has made her more confident as a person. “Parts of me are very shy and introverted. Sometimes even speaking would earlier be a problem. I had this voice in my mind that kept questioning, “What would people think?” It keeps getting quieter by the day now. I like that.”
Syed Muhammad Kumail of the LOL Waalay meanwhile says, “I can never accept a life where you go for a nine-to-five job and come home only to have food or use Facebook. I live for the performance.”
While one can argue that there more comedy skeptics than comedians in Pakistan, that has not deterred the performers from bringing their A-game and striving to legitimise the improv-comedy scene as one the stable art forms in the country.
This wasn’t always the case, however, and a lack of venues to perform in, the precarious security situation and a general lack of marketability for the events has meant that the troupes have had to convert one skeptic at a time to get to a position where all the shows that they do now are practically full-house.
Earlier this year while attending a LOL Waalay show at Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC), I could hear my friend who was watching them perform for the first time, laugh hysterically at one of the jokes only to quickly add, “I can’t believe I laughed at that. I think it’s their spontaneous responses that took me by surprise.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 4th, 2015