Yasir Hussain's terrible Hum Awards joke is proof desi comedians need a reality check

Yasir Hussain's terrible Hum Awards joke is proof desi comedians need a reality check

The comic says he's sorry for making the joke, but this isn't the first time jokes at award shows have been offensive
Updated 01 May, 2017

The 5th annual Hum Awards held in Lahore this Saturday featured lots of high points — unfortunately, it also featured its share of lows.

And one of those low points came when comedian Yasir Hussain cracked a joke about child molestation.

After Ahsan Khan accepted the award for Best Actor In A Negative Role for his performance as villain in child sexual abuse drama Udaari, Hussain remarked: "Itna khoobsurat child molester, kaash mein bhi bacha hota" (what a beautiful child molester, if only I was also a child).

The reaction to his quip was swift as attendees and commentators took to social media to express their outrage. Some directed their outrage at the comedian himself, others were angrier still at the star-studded audience, from which the joke elicited a few laughs.

And some, like activist Jibran Nasir, pointed out the irony of making light of child abuse in the context of Udaari, which aims to shed light on the evil that is child abuse.

Yasir Hussain has since apologised for the comment, which he insists was unscripted. But the joke being unscripted perhaps only makes matters worse -- after all, isn't it in our unguarded, spontaneous moments that we reveal who we really are, and if that's the case has Yasir Hussain revealed himself to be a deviant who thinks sexual abuse is kind of funny?

I hope not, because Hussain -- along with other prominent names in the industry like Ahmed Ali Butt -- is often responsible for the humour that is beamed into households across Pakistan via award shows and films.

But even here precedent doesn't leave much room for hopefulness.

I was present at the Hum Awards on Saturday and Hussain's child molestation joke was just one of many cringe-worthy moments -- like the show's opening sequence where Hussain mimicked a Pathan fruitseller.

As Hussain made his way through the audience in the guise of this fruitseller he cracked a variety of off-colour jokes that hinged on the assumption that Pathan men like, well, men. It felt an awful lot like ethnic stereotyping with just a dash of homophobia and I wondered - just how long are desi humourists going to exploit Pakistan's mostly problematic interactions with race, sexuality and gender for laughs?

And I suppose I should add disability to the list because last year's Lux Style Awards were marred by dwarf jokes courtesy Ahmed Ali Butt.

These supremely unfunny jokes are the norm at award shows, on morning shows and on the street, and this isn't really surprising given that in Pakistan far worse has passed for humour even in the National Assembly, where politicians routinely make lewd remarks or belittle people with no consequence.

In this undemocratic landscape comedians tend to forget that successful humour really comes from holding up a mirror to the powerful, not from taking cheap shots at the disenfranchised.

Thankfully, as it happened in this case, keen-eyed observers on social media now won't let bad humour slide. As it happened in this most recent case of awful award show jokes, people demanded an apology from Hussain, and for their trouble, received it.

Yasir (not pictured) says his remark was meant as a compliment to Ahsan Khan (centre), who is seen here accepting the Best Actor In A Negative Role award at the Hum Awards
Yasir (not pictured) says his remark was meant as a compliment to Ahsan Khan (centre), who is seen here accepting the Best Actor In A Negative Role award at the Hum Awards

Still, when I spoke to Hussain to get his side of the story, I wasn't fully convinced he realised why his apology was necessary. "First of all, no one's talking about the first part of my segment which got a lot of laughs, why is the positive aspect of my performance being put aside?" asked Hussain. "Secondly, when you improvise, things come out of your mouth that may not be appropriate. What I said, I said in praise of Ahsan Khan, it had nothing to do with child molestation. I certainly didn't mean to encourage child molestation. But if this hurt people, then I have said sorry for it... After this the matter should be finished off, don't you think?"

"Honestly, after this incident I'm thinking of forgoing hosting shows altogether," he continued.

Read on: I don’t seem to be good enough for awards, says Yasir Hussain

I'm willing to accept that Yasir Hussain didn't intend to make light of child sexual abuse. He is a talented performer and even the best of us make mistakes.

But at the very minimum this incident needs to serve as a lesson that sometimes, an unequivocal apology is the best response to valid criticism, and that if a comedian makes an honest mistake they should set their entitlement aside to admit to it, not just... give up.

And at most?

At most we need to drastically change our ways. The creative community that incubates and supports comedic talent needs to be better at vetting scripts and demanding higher standards from comedians. The entertainment industry exists in its own bubble with little criticism and few conflicting opinions filtering through to its biggest stars, which makes it easier for bad ideas to go unnoticed. Including diverse perspectives and fresh talent is a good antidote to this, one that this year's Lux Style Awards benefited from.

Television networks and sponsors must draw the line at cheap shots and racist or classist humour.

An audience has responsibilities too, and as spectators we need to stop laughing at jokes that appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Whether it's dispatched at an award show or a political rally, humour is a terribly powerful tool. It ought to be used thoughtfully.