The first time I saw Hassaan bin Shaheen perform in 2014, he was part of an improv troupe called The Platoon which he also helped start.
Back then, doing long-form improv comedy where the troupe acted out a larger narrative and didn't necessarily focus on delivering a high number of funny punch-lines was unheard of. Talented as they were then, the troupe required more finesse. Due to a lack of awareness in Pakistan about various forms of comedy, they knew it could take them years to establish themselves.
That didn't seem to bother Shaheen though.
There was one other thing about The Platoon — more than half of the troupe consisted of women. This was at a time when other comedy groups were complaining that despite wanting to feature female performers, they were unsuccessful in finding enough women who were willing to audition and join their troupe.
Shaheen, though, was extremely proud of the The Platoon line-up and would often claim that people who said women weren't funny were just being sexist.
"Women are told that their stories don't matter or they are not interesting enough. That is absolute garbage and doesn't really make any sense," he says.
In that way, you could see that Shaheen had a knack for initiating discussions that were well before their time. The focus on the lack of female comedians and eventually, the need for troupes to be more inclusive, didn't start until very recently when Amazon Prime signed over 14 stand-up comedians in India and the entire line-up didn't include even a single female comedian.
It also highlighted the fact that were were no mainstream comedy troupes in India with a significant number of female performers, if any. However in Pakistan, all-women troupes like The Auratnaak (which had quite a few performers from The Platoon) and The Khawatoons had already started generating buzz and the former, even a loyal following.
If you quiz Shaheen about it, he would tell you that The Platoon was lucky to have the incredibly talented female comedians join the troupe. However, having attended the first show of The Auratnaak and the recently held Smile Till Sehri, one would be hard-pressed to miss how quite a few individual performers from the all-women troupe would credit Shaheen for mentoring and encouraging them to pursue comedy.
Talking to Shaheen, you realize that mentoring was something he was keen to take up on anyway. "I used to think being funny was something that you were born with but in all honesty, it's something that anybody can learn - like any other skill," he says. "When I personally went for training in London, I realized that my funny potential got unleashed because I was lucky enough to find teachers who enabled me to do my thing better."
He's all praise for fellow comedians such as Shehzad Ghias, who first coined the idea of him becoming a performer and Akbar Chaudhry with whom he performed improv for the firs time as part of LOL Waalay. He also credits Faris Khalid for being an inspirational influence and a mentor.
"Looking at my first year, I was lucky enough to have these guys helping me out. Then I went to England, where I trained for an entire year. I was doing law in the morning, teaching debating in the afternoon and all the money that I was making from teaching, I was putting into comedy workshops," he says.
Shaheen is now looking into conducting his own workshops and actively focuses on training aspiring comedians.
"When you're training adults, it takes a lot of time to warm them up, to let them know that it's okay to make a fool out of themselves. Younger people, on the other hand, are more uninhibited. They are themselves."
The younger group of people that Shaheen is currently mentoring is called the Improv Army. It consists of 17-19 year olds who used to be Shaheen's students at Cedar College and expressed an interest in continuing with improv after graduating.
"They used to joke amongst themselves that since we're not doing so good in school, we'll become Hassaan's Improv Army," recalls Shaheen on a lighter note. "I told them I'm not here to build a cult. Aap us ka naam change kar ke Improv Army karlain." (Please just use "Improv Army" as the troupe's name.)
Speaking of how he goes about training them, he says he uses the standard improv exercises. "The exercises that we do with the Improv Army are something that I have picked up from my own training. What we focus on is doing instantaneous characters or getting into a mode where the high energy of the improvisers can be taken to a full conclusion with the character they're portraying. I teach them to be fast and unapologetically themselves on stage."
You can tell Shaheen genuinely believes in building a community where budding comedians can find encouragement and training. For people aspiring to be comedians, he advises that they just show up to comedy shows and get in touch with the comedians performing particularly Akbar Chaudhry, himself, Kashif Shehzad, Faheem Azam and Shehzad Ghias, as well as comedy workshops.
"It's always interesting to have a new person come in and everybody is incredibly receptive," he says. "The thing is, everybody has a voice, everybody has a story to tell and everybody should be telling their own story. Comedy is an avenue that allows you to do that."
While a lot of things can be said about the comedy scene in Pakistan and how its managed to get a conversation going about diversity and even originality, many performers feel that it can be more structured.
Shaheen thinks the uncertainty of comedy industry is definitely a challenge but he also sees it as an opportunity.
"I like to be known as somebody who likes teaching and is giving back to the community. Comedy is not just being on stage, it's a lifestyle. I personally find comedy a great way of living life. People will be like, "yeh kis kisam ki baat hai?" but it makes sense to me," he asserts.
"We are the Improv Army and our ethos is not holding back."