Stand-up comedy is a tough nut to crack; it all comes down to basic instinct and timing. Although Pakistan has produced renowned comedians over the years, social media has transformed the dynamics of comedy. Danish Ali is a TV artist-turned-social media comedian, and standup artist, who understands the demands of this genre.
With over millions of hits per week, he has already made a mark on the local scene and is now eyeing global success. Images on Sunday recently spoke to him about the technicality of comedy.
The journey begins
“About 12 friends hunched over a small laptop, watching a downloaded low-resolution video of Eddie Murphy’s standup comedy Delirious. I remember thinking how great it was and it just felt good. I started watching a lot of standup comedy and within the next year I was performing my own jokes. I lived in Islamabad then and I’d go around putting up flyers from my amateur standup comedy and improv show that I held together with friends like Natasha Ejaz and Osman Khalid Butt. Later, I moved to Karachi for med school and met Saad Haroon. We ended up starting Pakistan’s first English language comedy TV show The Real News which ran for three seasons and was featured on Al-Jazeera as well. I began touring Pakistan and Dubai as a standup comic.”
“I think there is no substitute for hard work. If you work at your craft and work at it more than anyone else, you’re going to be great at it. Inspiration comes to me from the right Pakistanis around me. Role models, servicemen, volunteer workers, doctors, soldiers, entrepreneurs, leaders, IT professionals, non-profit workers etc. Pakistan has a treasure trove of outstanding human beings that I look at and go ‘wow’; I want to be as good as that. If you’re talking specifically about comedy, just open your window. We have comedy in the air. Everything is funny in Pakistan and I love it!”
Comedy is the remedy
“I love being a doctor but I love being a comedian more. I also saw my whole life in front of me after graduating, everything seemed so laid out. I’d give my USMLE, get licensed, get a residency in the US somewhere as an internist or then give my PLAB for the UK and have grey hair by the time I’m 40 and so on. I wasn’t feeling challenged anymore. I had already graduated from medical school while still being a television actor, comedian, TV producer etc. I wanted more.
“These feelings coupled with Pakistan’s worsening perception abroad sealed the deal for me. I’d like to know at the end of my career that I managed to help Pakistan’s image abroad, that people around the world can look at someone like me (a brown, Muslim guy) and go: wow he must be really funny and a nice guy. There is too much hate in the world already. I think there need to be more comedians that look like me, spreading joy.”
The ultimate challenge
“There are no re-shoots. No editing. You’re funny or you’re not. It’s an incredible amount of work to be able to be a successful standup comedian and I take it very seriously. You can’t drop the ball for a second. It’s like telling your brain to go on turbo mode every time you perform because you’re not just thinking for yourself but your thinking for the sometimes 3,000 other brains in the audience, and what they are thinking at the same time. Not just relate to them but show them things they haven’t thought of, show them a world they haven’t seen. If you do all these things right, you can get everyone at the room to laugh hysterically. You’ve done your job, till the next show. It’s a terrible science and the world’s best party all at the same time.”
“My video But Why has roughly 2.5 million views and climbing, and I love it. Digital media in general is something I am in love with. I now reach five million video views every week. It is humbling and a pleasure to get so many people laughing and if I can lighten their day just a little, that would be great.
“I also have no idea what TV is anymore. It’s digital all the way for me. I think the difference is in the numbers and the hard facts. A successful video of mine can get up to six million views or more. All documented and broken down by completion rate, gender, location etc. It’s the future. And, the future is based on merit. A video only goes viral if there is a lot of hard work behind it and if people like it enough to spread it voluntarily online. Which is why I am absolutely in love with anyone who likes my videos.
“Presently, I’m working on a lot of sponsored projects and I love working with brands so expect a lot more of that, as well as a comedy movie down the road. Expect a lot of online videos!”
“I’m closing in on a million subscribers on Facebook and in a good week I get over five million views a week. That’s 20 million views in a month. And, my weekly view count doubles every few months as I grow. At the same time, it is a far cry from internationally acclaimed artists with video views in the billions, not millions.
“Take Diplo for an instance that performed in Islamabad. His music video Lean On has over one billion views. So, while I’m ecstatic at my success and I know a lot of people are watching my videos on their phones, I’m hungry for global success and global numbers. That’s when I’ll start being able to really help Pakistan and portray us as the kindhearted, warm and friendly people we are.”
“Performing for various cities in the United States was a delight. It also makes me the first comedian to be sponsored by The United States Department of State. The project was about breaking down stereotypes. If by performing abroad I help change perceptions for the better and if people realise Pakistanis are awesome, I’ve done my job.
“We’re now working on a massive college tour, a lot of online videos and a movie. Speaking of which I got to go film my next video now, see you guys later online.”
Originally published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 24th, 2016