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Thursday, February 3, 2011
Seriously funny
By Leila M. Barry

Comedy is a serious business for Saad Haroon, one of the few comedians to perform in English in Pakistan. It may be an unconventional job, but he is committed, focused and very ambitious about his chosen vocation.

“I love doing comedy and making people laugh, but I take it very seriously,” says Haroon.

Haroon, who was brought up in Hong Kong and moved to Pakistan with his family when still not yet in his teens, confesses to a love for television and “big grand dreams” of telling stories through film, ever since his adolescence. Comedy, television production and writing, he says are all offshoots of the idea of storytelling.

Realising his dream, however, was not easy. As Haroon explains it, his family belongs to a conservative business community (Delhi-Punjabi Saudagran) and from a young age it was inculcated in him that business was what he was expected go into. He did, however, while at the University of Massachusetts flirt with his dream of making films by taking exciting film courses interspersed with ‘dull’ textile courses. He also won a scriptwriting competition while there, a distinction he sees as a defining moment in his life, enhancing as it did his confidence in his abilities. It also made the film and television itch stronger.

“It was a great feeling,” he says.

Mild mannered and easygoing, Haroon is not one to rock the boat unnecessarily and after graduating, he joined the family business with the genuine intention of putting those textile courses to good use. However he soon realised that “something was missing”.

Apart from being uninspired by his role as a businessman, Haroon recalls how in the post-9/11 days he, along with the majority of the young urban, upwardly mobile Pakistanis, felt a growing sense of disenchantment. He knew he was depressed and decided to do something about it. After much deliberation he decided on improvisational (improv) comedy.

“It took me a long time to decide what I wanted to do. The stuff going on in TV at that point did not interest me. I wanted to do something that was fun and that would also give me instant gratification – it seemed obvious therefore that it would come from something theatre-based.”

And so Blackfish, Pakistan’s first English-language improv comedy troupe came into being. Started by Haroon and a friend, Blackfish was an instant hit, and for several years Haroon led what he refers to as a ‘Batman lifestyle’; businessman by day and comedian
by night.

“For years, nobody I worked with knew that I did comedy in the evenings. And my friends (with whom he performed) were completely unfamiliar with the factory floor aspect of my life.”

The unexpected success of Blackfish gave Haroon the assurance that comedy could actually earn him enough to survive.

“It was a grand thought that I could actually survive on comedy.”

Encouraged by the knowledge that not only was there a market for comedy, but that there was actually a living to be made by doing what he enjoyed most, Haroon packed in his boring factory life and ventured into the big world of showbiz as a solo standup comedian.

Along with scripting his show and touring to perform it, he produced a comedy show on TV called Real News which was aired on Play. Recently, he has trained a second improv troupe called Shark, which has been another hit, especially among younger audiences.

On stage Haroon is energetic, cheeky and sometimes obnoxious, but one-on-one he is unassuming, modest and grounded; there is also a quiet sense of ambition and resolve to succeed about him. He acknowledges his success among Pakistani fans of English comedy, but has no wish to be a big fish in a small pond. He dreams of going international and to an extent he has achieved this by participating in international festivals and performing abroad.

Although he admits the competition is fierce, he feels it forces him to do better and to widen his horizons.

Haroon’s brand of humour – mostly political and social satire – is witty and subtle. It draws its content from Pakistani culture, society and news – which at the moment is a hot commodity, and “has potential to be gold”, especially internationally, given that we (as Pakistanis and as Muslims) are at the centre of most of the controversial issues in the world. He recently returned to Karachi after a series of successful shows in North America.
It is an established fact that Saad Haroon is funny and entertaining; the enthusiasm and energy he brings to his performances make it pretty clear that he loves what he does.

However, what many people do not know is that this comedian is also an astute businessman – and in this regard one could well say that ‘you can take the boy out of the business but you can’t take the business out of the boy’.

Haroon thinks that a genetic predisposition towards business may be what is driving him to turn comedy into a viable business. Although he is compelled to spend more time than he would like on the business aspect of the venture, he is philosophical about it.

“I guess I am fortunate in that I got the aesthetics right and that I grew up in a business community where I was taught how to be an entrepreneur and how to take risks. I am lucky to be the Delhiwala comedian (the only one) who knows how to do business.”

Like all entrepreneurs trained to think big, Haroon has plans for the future. Currently he is working on his next project, a documentary series he produced “with the help of a lot of people” and which he hopes will become a TV show. It will consist of a recording of his last comedy tour as well as interviews with international comedians whom Haroon met while touring and who like him cater to niche audiences.

“The idea was to discover the sources from where they draw their content; standup comedy is a recent phenomenon and comedians such as Shazia Mirza, Axis of Evil (Middle Eastern comedy troupe) and Allah Made Me Funny (Indian troupe) have only come up in the last decade.”

In the final stages of production, Haroon describes the documentary as the big brother of last year’s TV show, Saad Haroon: Very Live, where he toured Pakistan interviewing local comedians. As a build up to this yet-to-be-named show, Haroon recently released a single on YouTube called Burqa Woman (a spoof on Pretty Woman). His plans also include organising a comedy festival in Pakistan in the near future.

Clearly Haroon can claim to be a part of the small percentage of people who actually pursue their dreams, and his achievement is all the more admirable for his having also managed to keep his head on his shoulders and his feet firmly on the ground.

First published in the January-February 2011 issue of Aurora. 02/03/11 >> go there
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