KABUL — On a recent Friday night in Ghulam Faryad’s grocery store, half a dozen customers gathered for a weekly dose of comic relief from the tribulations of daily life in the Afghan capital.
Watching a flat-screen TV above the counter, they smirked as two inept policemen made fun of a man who was trying to report that his uncle had been robbed and killed. A few minutes later, they roared as a member of Parliament, obviously drunk, beat someone who complained about his son smoking hashish.
“They are showing the truth,” Faryad pronounced, as everyone in the store nodded appreciatively. “They raise awareness.”
“Shabake Khanda,” or “Laughter Network,” the wildly successful Afghan version of “Saturday Night Live,” is watched by millions once a week, with reruns airing twice more during the week. No one — not powerful politicians, corrupt bureaucrats, even President Ashraf Ghani — is spared its skewering.
In fact, the regular impersonation of Ghani by comic actor Mohammad Ibrahim Abed — who casually mocks the president’s peevishness and political tin ear — is so popular that even palace aides call the show to complain if a Friday passes with no Alec Baldwin-like roast of their boss.
In a bow to nonpartisanship, “Laughter Network” also makes fun of Abdullah Abdullah, the government’s chief executive officer, whose relationship with Ghani has been strained since they agreed to share power after flawed elections in 2014. Actors Seyar Matin and Nabi Roshan alternate playing Abdullah.
One episode in January, after a string of deadly terrorist attacks in Kabul left more than 100 people dead, portrayed both leaders as clueless to the public’s distress and far more worried about their dependents living safely abroad.
In the sketch, Abdullah asked Ghani, wearing a turban and fake beard, if he was sad because of the bombings. “No, my son is sick and I am really worried,” Ghani replied. Then the president asked a teary Abdullah if he was weeping for the Kabul victims. The chief executive said no, it was because his son in New Delhi had caught his heel in a train door.
With few sacred cows, “Laughter Network’s” producers at the private TOLO television channel say its political satire gives struggling Afghans an outlet for frustration and brings the powerful down a peg. It is among the most widely watched shows in the country, tackling topics from air pollution to crime and corruption.
“I am proud of what I am doing,” said Roshan, 34. “When I play someone’s role to convey a message, I feel like I am in the front line of a war, like a soldier.”
Last month, when the “Laughter Network” crew’s van stopped on a street, a man rushed up and kissed Abed’s forehead. The man, Rohullah Mansouri, said he loved the show so much that he had missed only one episode — the night his wife gave birth.
Still, in Afghanistan’s conservative Muslim culture, there are red lines that cannot be crossed. Religious satire is strictly off-limits, and the editors bleep out potentially offensive language after the show is recorded live.
There is also pressure from politicians to censor critical segments, and the cast uses made-up names for prominent figures they imitate. Last spring, after a devastating bomb in the capital triggered mass protests, the show’s producers agreed to mute their criticism of the government, at least temporarily.
“It is not like Western countries, where we can speak freely,” said Roshan.
After one episode mocking a powerful figure, exiled vice president Abdur Rashid Dostom, supporters of the ex-warlord mobbed the street outside the TOLO studio. Not until Dostom sent orders from Turkey did the demonstrators disperse. Matin also said he had been threatened by gunmen twice for impersonating strongmen.
Dealing with issues of sex, domestic violence and male-female relations is also extremely sensitive. There are no female comedians in the cast, and it is not acceptable in Afghan culture for a female actress to portray a lover or prostitute. So the show’s producers improvise.
In one segment recorded last month, about a member of Parliament who spent the legislative winter recess with a prostitute in Dubai, Matin had to play the woman’s part. Rather than risk offending people, he said, “it is important to make them laugh.”
During the taping session, producer Rafi Tabee stood behind a camera, issuing instructions to cast members.
“Put on a sexy outfit,” he ordered Matin. The actor dutifully walked toward an open suitcase packed with costumes, and donned a skirt and wig.