Comedy takes a backseat

January 17, 2021

A dearth of sensible comedies has left viewers yearning for comic relief

In recent years, there have been fewer memorable sitcoms produced for the Pakistani viewer than ever. Except for a few notable hits such as the Barat series or the long-running Bulbulay, there has been little effort to make funny shows for a prime-time audience.

A dearth of sensible comedies has left viewers yearning for comic relief. The lackluster sitcoms running on local TV channels often make one question the ability of writers to produce exciting content for the television audiences. Not to downplay the creative effort that goes into coming up with gripping storylines, but it seems that tragic, family dramas are an easier write. Comedy is a genre requiring laborious efforts to perfect and hence the ever-decreasing number of reasonably funny shows on the telly.

In recent years, the idea of making sitcoms for transmission during Ramazan has become a trend. But one could argue that except for Suno Chanda, there has not been a single attention-grabbing show on any of the several private entertainment channels. And even though Suno Chanda had some funny moments, the characters, particularly the main leads, could be irritating, to say the least. It is odd to see that the comic element in today’s shows comes from a degrading portrayal of certain regional characters. A loud Punjabi-speaking character and a Pashto speaker dismembering Urdu phrases are commonplace comedic stereotypes in the stories of today.

There is no lack of good actors – some have exceptional comedic timing; the issue is that our scripts have not evolved with the sensibilities of the modern-day viewer. There are dramas currently on air with a bit of a comic factor, such as Prem-Gali, but these are not sitcoms centred around comedy.

With unlimited access to OTT platforms, today’s viewer is exposed to better content and has many more options to have their funny bone tickled. Not everyone in this country has access to Netflix or Amazon Prime, but most have a phone and a YouTube account. Even if the masses do not get to watch something as warm and witty as Schitt’s Creek, as absurd and fundamentally funny as A Good Place, or as classic as F.R.I.E.N.D.S, they can still experience content produced by local and international creators of the past and present on YouTube.

So what makes a good sitcom? Other than a fun premise and a captivating plotline, what truly makes a sitcom memorable are endearing characters that live on in the viewers’ memory. In the past, series like Aangan Tehra, Ta’leem-i-Balighan, and Fifty-fifty set a standard for good comedy. It is possible that 20-somethings are not even familiar with the names of these classics, but they can access them anytime they want with a click on YouTube.

Not only is there more to watch, the very definition of intelligent, entertaining comedy is changing too

Though Momo and Mehmood Sahab may linger in the memory of those watching Bulbulay, they are no Moira Rose of Schitt’s Creek or Akbar of Aangan Tehra: two characters, decades apart, a man and a woman, both performers, thrust into unconventional circumstances, similar yet starkly different, but equally delightful to watch.

A recent success when it comes to local content has been Ek Jhooti Love Story, commissioned by the streaming service Zee5 from across the border. It was written by Umaira Ahmed and directed by Mehreen Jabbar. It may not be a sitcom, but a simple, family-oriented storyline, relatable characters and an exceptionally lovable and hilarious portrayal of a mother burdened with the thought of having four unattached children, by the wonderful Beo Raana, make for a remarkable watch. The fact that most of the local audience does not get to watch the work of Pakistani creators on streaming services remains a major disadvantage in the digital media age.

Other than sitcoms, there are several web series available for local viewership, from creators such as SeePrime and Nashpati, ranging from horror-comedies to satirical sketches that somewhat compensate for the lack of good comedies on TV.

However, what the TV producers and writers need to understand is that over half of the country’s population looks to local channels for all kinds of entertainment. Dramas based on social issues are important and tearjerkers are good for ratings, but comedies are necessary to balance out the content overall. Diversity is what the TV creators must focus on to engage the interest of the regular and seasonal viewer alike.

In the last decade, with the advent of newer and more prolific OTT platforms, the competition has grown tenfold. The audience is slowly opening up to fresher, more modern content that perhaps, was once impossible. And not only is there more to watch, the very definition of intelligent, entertaining comedy is changing too. Unfortunately, local TV creators are sometimes unable to understand that slapstick humour, fat-shaming, colour-shaming, using mental illness and sexual orientations as fodder for distasteful jokes is no longer acceptable.

A sitcom is not made to preach. It is created so that a viewer can have a good laugh. Just like with any other form of entertainment, creators need to be responsible in their depictions and make the process of watching a show enjoyable. A good TV comedy has the potential to attract a wide audience and is certainly a profitable deal considering that most of the local viewership is still TV-based.

The writer is a The News on Sunday assistant editor

Comedy takes a backseat