Published in The Independent on 24 November 2010

Stand-up comedian Naveed Mahbub

The owner of Bangladesh’s first stand-up comedy club is working hard to find the funny side of Dhaka’s mind-numbing traffic jams and relentless power outages.  As the club’s front-man comedian, this is his duty – and he claims it is easy.  Yet if we rewind the clock to the 1990s, when Naveed Mahbub didn’t know such a job title existed and was yet to speak formally in public, his easy-going confidence and outright success becomes all the more impressive.  Naveed talks to Dhaka Live about how Hollywood transformed him from engineer to stand-up comedian, and how much further he wants to take it.

When Naveed immigrated to the USA after graduating from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in the 1990s, his friends in Dhaka lost a person they described as “the life of the party” for almost 20 years.  But whilst others may have stepped up to the role in his absence, Naveed grew intent on turning his humour into his trade.  His initial interest in stand-up comedy was sparked when a friend in California invited him along to a show – thereafter, Naveed and his wife began to regularly attend them.  One evening, Naveed began chatting with a comedian, who encouraged him to enrol in a course at The Comedy Store in Hollywood.  Naveed did so, thereby following in the footsteps of a glittering alumni which includes Eddie Murphy, David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Carrey.  Naveed began performing in cafes and bars a few months later.

“The first few shows were absolutely terrifying and I wasn’t that funny,” he admits.  Yet Naveed persisted, and soon enough received precious recognition by winning best male comedian in The Original Las Vegas Comedy Festival in 2007.  He began trotting a regular path on the notoriously competitive U.S. stand-up circuit.

Naveed’s Comedy Club in Baridhara

Naveed returned to Dhaka in 2009 and by March the following year, Naveed’s Comedy Club in Baridhara was opened.  Its interior was designed by his wife, Zara, and resembles a typical American comedy club with its brick-patterned walls, tight rows of seating and most importantly, a raised platform stage.  Shows in Bangla take place twice a week, and once a month in English.  The club has also hosted comedy nights in Dhanmondi, and Naveed hopes to perform at the Shilpakala Academy in the near future.  Naveed believes that the demographic make-up of his audience is irrelevant, so long as he delivers relevant material intelligently.  He has, however, observed some cultural differences, “Generally, Bangladeshi audiences are more sensitive about laughing at ourselves.  We tend to ask questions before laughing.  Some might protest by saying, ‘But this isn’t true’ – and I say, ‘Well no, it’s comedy.’”  Naveed explained that for the last 40 years, comedy in Bangladesh has mostly been of the slapstick variety, and that it will take some time for the public to develop an appetite for the “cerebral humour” that defines stand-up comedy.  Yet Naveed remains upbeat about its potential in Bangladesh.  “Things are changing rapidly – who doesn’t want to laugh?”

Although most would tremble at the mere suggestion of appearing live on stage with the sole mission of making others laugh, Naveed swears that, “Stand-up comedy isn’t rocket science.”  But nor is it about simply telling jokes that begin with something along the lines of, “There were two men walking down the street…”  Naveed describes his “brand of humour” as “observational.”  He tells his own stories, refining them with comic exaggeration.  Nevertheless, there is no such thing as a guaranteed laugh.  “Even with the same venue, with the same crowd and the same material, you don’t know how people will react,” he said.  Stand-up comedians are notoriously vulnerable to attacks from hecklers, but Naveed humbly believes that he has been “fortunate” with his audiences so far.  “I’ve only been heckled three times in my career – each time in Bangladesh,” he said with a sporting grin.  Naveed has adopted a generous attitude towards those who deliberately try to unsettle performers.  “Most of the time, people don’t want to misbehave – it’s the comedian that prompts them.   We comedians think that because we’re up on stage with a microphone, we have the power.  Well yes, we do, but we have a responsibility not to say something very offensive.  Offensiveness causes people to heckle and to be offensive in return.”  Naveed said that as a comedian, he could destroy his career in an instant if he were to lose his cool on stage.  So rather than do that, he tries to stifle any disruptions by responding with humour.  “Or, in the worst case, I just move on.”

Naveed Mahbub

Whilst Naveed expresses a sincere desire not to cause offence, his shows are intended to provoke thought as well as to entertain, and he doesn’t shy away from thorny subjects such as politics and religion.  “Yes, I am pushing the envelope,” he said, before adding, “But in a slow, incremental way.”  Naveed believes that humour is a powerful medium for addressing issues that may otherwise be ignored.  “I discuss religion and politics a lot more in my Bangla shows, because that’s where I need to push the boundaries.”  Naveed hasn’t encountered any form of backlash during the last nine months, although another comedian was threatened following a performance.  Naveed is keen to address the social ill of eve-teasing [sexual harassment] through humour, though he said, “I haven’t thought of anything funny yet, because it’s hard to make something funny when there are very clear victims.”

Naveed’s no-nonsense pragmatism is evident when he turns to a topic he believes everyone in his shows can relate to – power outages.  “It’s an issue that we can resolve,” he said.  “It’s just bad planning because we care less about the future than we do about ourselves.  That’s why this problem has been lingering on for 40 years – and if we don’t say anything, it will continue to.”  During a show, Naveed joked that if Bangladesh was viewed from outer space, it would resemble a strobe light in a disco, because its lights constantly flicker on and off.  As he recalled the joke he grinned, then fell silent before adding, “There is so much that needs to be said.”

To visit Naveed’s Comedy Club Facebook page, click here