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Stand-up in Saudi Arabia : Middle East's newest hub of funny people
By Afifa Jabeen Quraishi
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 24 - 12 - 2009

Comedy is beginning to be taken seriously in the Kingdom as its people's receptiveness to stand-up is seeing an unprecedented upturn.
This genre of live entertainment that until very recently was “new” in the Middle East is thriving, and with what joie de vivre!
Lebanese stand-up comedian Rami Salamé, 30, who has performed in several cities of Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon and Bahrain, likes to call the year 2009 as the “Year of Stand-up Comedy” for the Kingdom. “The year-old local comedy industry has had world-class comedians coming here, which shows the potential of this place as an ideal market for stand-up comedians. In this regard, we are the most active country in the Gulf,” he said.
An old US art form, stand-up is finding its feet among the Kingdom's hodgepodge of entertainment-seekers. Perhaps it is this diversity in the audience demographics that makes doing comedy here a bit of a hard thing. But that, it seems, is not the case.
Describing his audience as “receptive, polite and more than ideal”, Salamé says, “They give us more time, laughing at what is funny and not laughing at what is not. They don't boo or heckle. They do not hurt the feelings or pride of the person on stage.”
“However,” he added, “the worst case scenario is when the jokes fell flat and yet the audience doesn't boo us off.”
Salamé was selected in auditions held by Smile Productions in Riyadh, a leading comedy promotion and production company in the Middle East that was originally set up to produce theatrical entertainment for the expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, early this year along with twelve other amateur comedians representing the expat and Saudi society.
“We wait for people to organize shows for us. However, in the absence of a regular place to perform we don't have the opportunity to frequently try and test our material, and so there is a great deal of pressure on us as people spend big money to watch the shows,” said Salamé.
His views are mirrored by Peter Howarth-Lees, founder and owner of Smile Productions. “The best stand-up comedians in the business will test and practice their material every week. Even the biggest names will perform regularly in comedy clubs often for no fee. It's the only way a comedian can improve and grow. Here such clubs don't exist yet and so we are planning to provide a similar proving ground for aspiring comedians to perform regularly,” he said.
Salamé claims to know what jokes work with local audiences. “Here, the audience is very visual and open to creative situations as opposed to, for example, a British audience that likes wordplay, satire, etc. Here they enjoy mimicry and act outs, where we play characters – a part of the Arabic comedy tradition coming from the likes of Tash Ma Tash, which involves different sketches,” Salamé said, adding that wordplay, a specialized form of comedy involving cultural references, may not work on its own and that a combination of both – wordplay and act outs – may be ideal for the Saudi Arabian audience.
For the Facebook/Youtube generation
Fahad Albutairi, 24, who prides himself on being the first-ever Saudi stand-up comedian, debuting last year with international comedians Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani in Bahrain as part of their Axis of Evil Comedy tour, attributes the spiraling openness to stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia to various factors. “The percentage of the population here that has been exposed to live stand-up from around the world is increasing due to the advent of video-streaming websites, such as, YouTube. Stand-up comedy's introduction in the Middle East by international comedians in 2007 has sparked a movement of sorts in the Kingdom,” Albutairi said.
Howarth-Lees adds: “The majority of the Saudi population is below the age of 30. This ‘Facebook' generation is better educated, has traveled more, and is more globally aware. Moreover, English is now widely spoken and there is more interaction with non-Saudis than in the past,” he said.
Albutairi said typically, those in attendance at the shows are between the ages of 20 and 30, along with few older individuals as well. Most audiences tend to be a fifty-fifty blend of expats and Saudis.
And as with any performance situation, red lines do exist. “Performers usually steer away as far as they can from the three taboos: religion, politics and explicit sexual content,” said Albutairi.
Smashing stereotypes
Contradicting the general portrayal of Arabs as deadpans, especially in the Western media, Albutairi says Saudis “have a very rich sense of humor.”
Perhaps it is this desire of using comedy as a means to change stereotypes and educating the public that seems to be the driving force behind the organizers of comedy shows in Saudi Arabia.
“Well-written and crafted stand-up comedy can force people in a non-threatening way to re-examine the false stereotypes or assumptions they hold about the Saudis,” said Howarth-Lees.
“However,” Albutairi said, “Since most stand-up is performed in English, the language barrier sometimes causes a problem for performers.”
When asked what makes the audience tick, he said generally they enjoy self-criticizing subjects the most, “especially those feeding off the tension between different audience demographics.”
“A lot of my jokes make fun of Saudi society; it's more of constructively-reflective jokes than blatant ridicule. I think part of the reason I was able to get away with it so many times is because I am Saudi myself!” Albutairi admitted.
International comedians vs. local talent
So far the tendency has been to “bring in comedians from abroad for performances here. But they also need to hear what we are saying,” Salamé said.
Disagreeing with him, Albutairi says: “Most of the shows here are purely local talent. Only a few of these events get international comedians, and even when they do so, they usually share the stage with the local performers. This is what makes the stand-up comedy scene here different from its counterparts in the region.”
However, in spite of their increasing popularity, comedy shows, with an audience number ranging between 500-1,000, usually take place in non-public, private venues. Word of the show is spread through Facebook, e-mails, etc. and through a database of comedy fans the organizers can contact directly.
“As with all changes happening in the Kingdom, public entertainment events like these will come about when the general society is ready and not before. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah is introducing many modern reforms but they are gradual, reflecting the wishes of the society... We are only some time away from stand-up comedy becoming mainstream,” said Howarth-Lees, adding that their main focus now is to provide more opportunities for young Saudi performers.
He looks forward to organizing several workshops and more frequent shows for local talent to practice and perform. “A ten city tour is in the cards for 2010 with comedians from within and outside the region performing in English and Arabic,” he added.
Performing in Arabic
Salamé envisions the ‘next phase' of stand-up in the Middle East in which comedians would deliver in Arabic. “In perhaps not more than three years, pure Arabic stand-up comedy would take over the current form in which jokes are delivered in English with Arabic punch lines,” he said. And that is why, Salamé said, he is considering learning the Arabic genre. “However, a variety of dialects of the Arabic language that are influenced by regional cultures make it difficult for one to perform in it,” he added.
For his jokes, Salamé looks to the society which is a ‘rich place for topics', including those about interpersonal relationships and those between a parent-child, man-woman, as well as about living in Saudi Arabia as an expatriate.
Cost of comedy
As most good things in life, all the fun and entertainment doesn't come cheap. A ticket to a comedy show could cost well over 250 Saudi riyals.
“The costs reflect the financial risks involved in flying out international performers from New York, Los Angeles, London, etc. They demand high fees so add to this the cost of travel, hotels, venues and productions costs. Sponsors are difficult to secure since we don't yet have public events that are attractive to potential sponsors so all costs need to be covered by ticket sales,” explained Howarth-Lees, adding that though they are not looking for an ‘elite' audience, the shows are not for everyone either. “However, if we could hire a large public venue then ticket prices would fall to reflect the great volume.”
For Howarth-Lees, the shows are more than just fun. “After 15 shows, I know that one of the most rewarding aspects for me has been to see Saudis and non-Saudis sitting in the same audience and chatting and laughing with each other,” he said.
Do you have it in you?
Albutairi has a word for all those who wish to try their hand at stand-up. “I say go for it! You won't know if you're good or not until you actually try it out. Be confident in your sense of humor, be yourself and always make sure to never steal anyone else's jokes; it's unethical and will only reflect badly on you,” he said.
“When on-stage,” he continued, “one should always leave some room for improvisation; practicing this will help you deal with tough crowds. One should also make sure to have a logical flow of ideas throughout a performance. Remembering your idea transitions is more important than memorizing your jokes and routines,” Albutairi added.
Comedy Central in Middle East: Hopes
Comedy aficionados in the region have welcomed the coming of the Comedy Central Studios Arabia (Comedy Central being America's premium comedy programming TV channel and company) to the Middle East (UAE) to deliver content for the Arabic television market, as announced last month.
“I hope that bringing Comedy Central over here will help feed the need for more outlets for local talents and help some of them go international,” said Albutairi.
He also hopes to see more original TV comedy shows being produced, written, acted and directed by the local youths, and more “officially” sponsored stand


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