If the Taliban produced a soap opera, Pakistani comedy writer Younis Butt pondered one day, what would it be like?
The love triangles would be impossible to understand, he thought, because all the women would be hidden behind burkas and no one would know which character was engaged in a heated tiff with another.
An Islamic variety show would be equally absurd, he decided. With singing and dancing frowned upon, women covered from head-to-toe could only sit in a spotlight with their backs turned to the camera.
For the creator of Pakistan’s most popular satirical television show, the prospect was too tempting and the spoof Taliban ‘T Channel’ episode was born, airing in June this year and becoming a major hit.
Segments are punctuated with Kalashnikov fire, as manic-eyed actors sporting black turbans hand out household tips on weapons maintenance.
‘There is so much tension and fear, everybody is giving bad news, but comedians give the same news, but with hope,’ Butt told AFP from his office in the eastern city of Lahore.
‘This show elevates people and they laugh, and when people laugh they have more courage to fight these problems,’ said Butt, surrounded by television sets tuned in to Pakistan news shows and the US Comedy Network.
‘We should fight terrorism with humour.’
The Pakistani Taliban have a similar ideology to their namesakes over the border in Afghanistan, who decreed music, dancing and television un-Islamic and effectively banned women from public life during their six years in government.
Attacks in Pakistan have escalated this year as the military has pressed major offensives against Taliban strongholds, with more than 530 people killed in suicide attacks since early October.
The insurgency has left people in the northwest and other big cities in a state of anxiety, bewilderment and fear, said Butt, who was a practising psychiatrist before turning his hand to humour.
Coupled with inflation, poverty, unemployment and political scandals, Pakistanis need an outlet to escape the daily grind.
‘A scattered mind struggles to enjoy such shows, although I will say we people need it more than others,’ said shopkeeper Shahid Khan in the northwest capital Peshawar, where bomb blasts have killed 270 people since October 1.
But bank worker Saghir Ahmad said his thoughts were elsewhere: ‘Ask me about bomb blasts, suicide attacks and my security – only women and young people have time to enjoy these shows.’
Another personality trying to use humour to defuse the tension is Fasi Zaka, a radio DJ with a phone-in show which he says tolerates ‘no sacred cows.’
Topics on The Fasi Zaka Show on Radio One FM91 range from interfaith marriages and politics to more absurd discussions such as the speed of grizzly bears, Zaka said.
‘The idea behind the programme is quite anarchic and there are serious elements within it but they are never planned, they arise whenever a caller demonstrates prejudice, bigotry or ignorance,’ he told AFP.
‘That seems to resonate more than constant preaching.’
He sees his show as ‘an antidote to despondency’ in troubling times.
‘It’s a route to normalcy when all they see is inhumanity daily… with satire it educates the population in a palatable format that makes them see through the emotion and spin-ridden narrative of Pakistan,’ Zaka added.
On Butt’s show – the title of which roughly translates as We Are All Pregnant With Hope – political figures come in for the most ribbing, with a whole cast of lookalikes ranging from former military ruler Pervez Musharraf to a Pakistani version of US President Barack Obama.
Butt said his show aims to poke gentle fun and shuns cruel lampooning, although it did incur the wrath of Musharraf, who banned it for three months after declaring a state of emergency in late 2007.
So far, the Taliban have made no specific threats against the show – which first went on air on private Geo TV seven years ago – although some television channels have received warnings from the militants.
‘America is not happy with me, the Taliban is not happy with me, everybody is not happy – that is why I am happy,’ Butt says with a grin.