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Smashing stereotypes and barriers with laughter
By Amber Shahid
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 06 - 04 - 2010

Think of comedy in the Arab world and the thought of the ever-controversial and yet equally comical “Tash Ma Tash” comes to mind. Now comedy lovers don't have to wait for Ramadan or stay glued to television sets in their thirst for comedy but can simply attend the many spontaneous stand-up comedy evenings held in major cities in the Kingdom and throughout the Gulf.
The credit goes to Peter Howarth-Lees, founder of Smile Production, who took on an initiative to make people in the Kingdom laugh, hence crushing the western stereotype that people from this region don't laugh. In pursuit of this quest, Smile Production conducted an “Open Auditions for Stand-Up Comedians” last year in the Kingdom, selecting contestants from all over the Middle-East regardless of nationality. 12 talents were found out of which eleven were in the Kingdom.
Auditions have also been organized this year. An applicant can send a video of their act to [email protected] before April 8. The shortlisted contestants will be judged by renowned international comedians and winners will get a chance to perform with best comedians in the world, Howarth-Lees told Saudi Gazette.
“We conducted open auditions last year and we are conducting this year too. We received 12 videos in just two three days. There is tremendous enthusiasm in people to perform. Stand-up comedy is finding its roots in the Kingdom and many international comedians are coming to perform too,” he said.
Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-American stand-up comedian recently shot a 72-minute long documentary film “Just Like Us” in four countries including in the Kingdom, which will be showcased at the 8th Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) in New York. Ahmed claims his movie will uproot all widely-held misconceptions that Arabs have no sense of humor.
Ahmed attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and at the age of 19, he moved to Hollywood to pursue a career as an actor and stand-up comedian. Ahmed appeared in some films and television shows like “Iron Man,” “You Don't Mess With The Zohan,” Vince Vaughn's “Wild West Comedy Show,” “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” “Swingers,” “Tracey Takes On,” “Roseanne,” “JAG,” “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn” on Comedy Central, and MTV's “PUNK'D.”
“Just Like Us” is Ahmed's first directorial work and production. Saudi Gazette recently communicated with Ahmed via email while he was on a trip to Riyadh for a comedy show. He is excited that his movie has been selected for an international film festival along with 80 other movies. The cast of the movie includes a multinational star cast including himself, Tom Papa, Ted Alexandro, Sherif Azab, Whitney Cummings, Tommy Davidson, Omid Djalili, Erik Griffin, Maz Jobrani, Sebastian Maniscalco, Eman Morgan, Maria Shehata and Angelo Tsarouchas.
TFF was founded in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Robert De Niro and Craig Hatkoff as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. It presents variety of movies from documentaries to narrative feature films also family-friendly and short movies which have made it among the most prominent film festivals.
Talking about his expectations about the movie Ahmed wrote: “I really don't know yet but we are hopeful that it is well received. My expectations are high and my future plans are to sell and distribute this film and start another one right away.”
He wrote that his movie is presented by Cross Cultural Entertainment and Cross Cultural Productions which illustrate their goal of reintroducing social issues of the world to build cultural bridges to promote greater tolerance, understanding and acceptance. The film documents four Middle Eastern countries: Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt and Saudi Arabia with sold-out crowds totaling over 20,000 people.
Ahmed opined that stand-up comedy has an ability to provide relief. It encourages the youth to pull down barriers and serves as a platform for cross cultural dialogues. The current Internet age has given the new Arab generation a chance to come across stand-up comedy while older generations have always been unaware of it and have therefore never found a chance to appreciate this creative art. It shows us, he added, that laughter is a mutual language of the world.
Howarth-Lees mirrored this opinion: “Comedy has effects beyond the politics. We (Saudi comedians) recently performed in Yemen which was equally enjoyed by people like any other place in the world. We gave them good, simple comedy (and) in return they gave us great laughter and love without giving the border tension and political rift a thought, and here our goals are met. We work for spreading love and smiles and breaking barriers of hatred and if it helps, in it our goals are accomplished. Our comedy is all about this.”
Ahmed complimented Smile productions' efforts for promoting good stand-up comedy. “Smile Productions has been a great influence for stand-up comedy in the Kingdom,” he stated.

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