The quality and nature of humour and comedy is a yardstick to determine the sensibility and maturity of a nation. A nation’s wit is reflected in its literature, media, films, and performing arts. Sadly, the quality and subtlety of humour in our society have undergone a steep degeneration.

Instead of laughing on our failings, we now entertain ourselves by ridiculing one another. This is amply visible in infotainment and entertainment television shows which have mainstreamed the derogatory humour practised in commercial theatres. The comedians poke fun at the host, guests, fellow artistes and even the audience watching the programme in studios. Almost all late-night television shows create humour from body shaming. This is a manifestation of our societal attitude towards vulnerable segments and physically or mentally challenged members of the society. According to some experts of social sciences, such kind of “comedy” in is proportional to the degree of cynicism, negativism and despondency faced by the nation. The void created by the disappearance of classy humour is being filled in by everything under the sky that shocks and mocks.

The decline of the film industry in the 1980s brought to closure the humour of iconic comedians like Munawar Zareef, Rafi Khawar (Nanha), and Lehri. Nanha kept good comedy alive in Alif Noon. The educated presenters like Dildar Pervaiz Bhatti and Khalid Abbas Dar entertained with their witticism. The decline of filmi humour gave a big opening to stand-up comedians like Moin Akhtar and Umer Shareef. Pakistan Television that remained ahead of films in quality content produced high-value comedy shows. Athar Shah Khan (Intizar Farmaye), Farooq Qaiser (Kalian) and Shoaib Mansoor (Fifty-Fifty) introduced popular humour of a superb standard.

Side by side, a juggat-oriented comedy was being performed in Punjabi stage theatres in Lahore. While Lahore theatre produced eminent comedians like Amanullah, Iftikhar Thakur and Sohail Ahmed, the humour was mostly created from body shaming and suggestive remarks. Situational comedy in television raised its head in the form of sitcoms including Khawaja and Son by Ata-ul-Haq Qasmi and much later Bulbulay by Nabeel. Sona Chandi by Munnu Bhai and longest-running Guest House by Qaiser Farooq were other comedy series that became golden hits.

The arrival of private television channels brought stage entertainers to TV talk shows that were mostly politics-oriented. A beginning was made by Dr Younis Butt in his political satire Hum Sab Umeed Se Hain. The next popular program was Hasb-e-Haal launched by Aftab Iqbal. But political satire in Khabarnaak replicated in several private news channels inducted sharp-witted jesters from stage theatres who brought along humour at the expense of each others’ self-respect. Parodies of politicians held sway on mini screen. While there is no harm in doing comedy related to politics, we tend to overdo it and in a frivolous way.

Nevertheless, the curated content on linear television is still sought after by viewers. One wonders why the great humour writers like Shoaib Mansoor, Farooq Qaiser, Dr Younis Butt and Anwar Maqsood are not creating shows for television. Anwar Maqsood, after giving us titillating shows like Studio Dhai and Loose Talk is in the backdrop. Afzal Khan who endeared himself to million households as John Rambo is off the scene. The viewers yearn for witty programmes like Brunch with Bushra or Umer Shareef Show.

Shafaat Ali, who rose to prominence with mimicry, has been dwarfed into a matter-of-fact host of a morning show. The potential of rapper-turned-actor Ahmad Ali Butt and Barkat-Uzmi duo is not being realised. Majid Jahangir, the superstar of classic comedy Fifty-Fifty, is in financial distress. Bulbulay fame Hina Dilpazeer is again back to her Momo role. Though she and Iftikhar Thakur acted in a few sitcoms, poor scripts didn’t let both make their mark. Thakur, however, proved his skills in short-duration appearances in Mazaaq Raat.

Unlike famous Turkish television soaps, we have not been able to create for comic relief immortal characters in our serious dramas, as we did in the person of Athar Shah Khan (Jaidi), Behroz Sabzwari (Qabacha), Jamshed Ansari (Hasnat Bhai) or Irfan Khoosat (Direct Havaldar).

The need is to bring good content creators and senior and emerging actors on one platform. The new talent can be discovered with a reality stand-up comedy show as was initiated in our neighbourhood under the title Laughter Challenge.

Our people direly need a healing touch from the media entertainment industry. One wonders if our teary television soaps have provided the real catharsis and whether humour on stage or television has been therapeutic. Serious dramas have made viewers socially aware but at the cost of adding more despair and fatalism. But if these plays are nudging the nation towards solutions, then along with an antibiotic, potent supplement of humour is also required.

The viewers need uplifting humour instead of the one that provides only cynical satisfaction. The content will have to be relevant to the circumstances of younger generations and presented in short skits in view their attention threshold. The mainstream electronic media will have to make a concerted effort for a spectacular comeback in comedy as otherwise their space will be totally lost to foreign content on OTT and young Youtubers. The most popular Youtube channels providing humour and entertainment in Pakistan deal with pranks and “roasting”, as compared to the top seven YouTube channels in India that present comedy skits of social humour.

Writing a humorous script and performing it are two difficult feats. We have discovered promising comedians, but they need opportunities on stage and television along with good scripts for all age groups. In the outrageous world of internet and social media, the need to revive mature comedy and humour that are not offensive, aggressive and off-colour is rising every passing day.

The first-ever Festival of Humor and Laughter (FHL) in the country is scheduled in Karachi from 14 to 16 February 2020. The event that is said to provide a chance to laugh loud on ourselves will hopefully reset tone for positive, healthy humorous content on stage, television and modern media.