Who knew the home to Mecca was also a new mecca for comedy in the Middle East? Much like many of its neighbors, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not necessarily known for its tolerance. Oil? Sure. Princes? Yeah, we got those. YouTube sensations? Not so mu..wait no, no we have them, we just don’t know where they are at the moment.
Don’t worry, the government didn’t make them disappear, they make themselves invisible. That is the big compromise for aspiring Saudi Arabian stand-ups: they have to host their shows in top secret locations. Just recently, the New York Timesran an article on the burgeoning comedy scene that remains openly shrouded in the secrecy. The article began with “You know you are attending a Saudi Arabian comedy night when the sprawling performance tent is pitched 50 miles out into the desert to avoid the morals police and, astonishingly, the ushers are women, even if they remain shrouded by the standard-issue black garment.”
I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that comedy in Saudi Arabia does not enjoy the same kind of freedoms it does in the Western world, but I’m also hesitant to assume that just because a country is in the Middle East it must be oppressive. After all, Saudi Arabia did not experience the same volume of protest as many of its regional peers. But an Islamist absolute monarchy currently rules the Kingdom and many of the mandates are predictably conservative. According to a BBC report on these secret shows, public entertainment is still banned in Saudi Arabia and genders cannot mix in public. “Public entertaining” and “mixing” seem open to interpretation, but are threatening enough to compel comedy organizers to schedule their programming exclusively on football pitches, golf courses, far off beaches, deserts, etc. far away from the watchful eye of the secret police. It’s not all bad for the organizers, though. Tickets to one of these events can go for $70 a pop!
And yet, the young whippersnappers and their YouTubes have managed to bring the Saudi Arabian brand of comedy out of hiding and onto a more public platform. We are talking views in the millions. The same NYTimes article indicates that some of the comedians behind the most popular YouTube shows actually rejected television because it can’t beat the freedom they get with the Internet. Not to mention the opportunity to develop a distinctly 100% Saudi brand of humor.
It used to be that comedy in Saudi Arabia was predominantly performed in English. Sure, at least comedy shows were allowed at all, but the import method did not exactly encourage a budding local scene. That said, the Axis of Evil comedy tour launched in 2005 by a group of Middle-Eastern Americans gave up-and-coming local comedians the chance to open for the show — opening up a new exposure valve in places like Saudi Arabia. And, sometime around 2008, Showtime Arabia asked comedians to perform in their native tongue as part of an initiative to launch stand-up comedy in Arabic. Comedian Wonho Chung explains (at 3:19 if you’re feeling antsy):
Now before watching the video, you might have thought to yourself “Wonho Chung? I thought we were talking about Saudi Arabia?” Well his is a unique story. Born in Saudi Arabia to a South Korean father and a Vietnamese mother, Wonho speaks fluent Arabic and in addition to being a stand-up comedian, has a lovely singing voice. It’s cheating a bit to call him a Saudi Arabian comedian as he grew up in Jordan, but he seemed at least tangentially relevant to include (and not just because his stand-up comes with English subtitles). His big break came as part of the Axis of Evil because the show’s producers wanted to complete the circle with a “Korean” component. Since they couldn’t find a North Korean, given that he speaks fluent Arabic he was literally the next best thing.
In regards to Arabic stand-up comedy you can back off the edge of your seats, because Showtime Arabia went on to launch the show Friday Night Live: The New World Order. Airing from Dubai, the show is not entirely in Arabic, but it seems to be an encouraging step. Here’s a clip of Wonho Chung showing his language some love.
Now back to those whippersnappers. Fahad Albutairi made his stand-up comedy debut opening for the Axis of Evil in 2008, making him the first Saudi Arabian to professionally perform comedy. Since then, he has performed at the Ammam Stand-Up Comedy Festival in Jordan and the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival in 2010. He also looks like someone you might pass locking up his fixed-gear bike on Bedford Ave in Brooklyn.
In a slightly older clip, and also in English, Albutairi discusses the difference between the humor of his father’s generation and his own generation’s sense of humor using a Michael Scott-approved punch line.
That clip has over 200,000 views on YouTube and I’d like to think it’s not just because “That’s What She Said” is in the title. I believe in you, Internet.
But Fahad Albutairi experienced the greatest creative autonomy and subsequent success with his wildly popular web series La Yekthar Show, or “Zip It.” Created along with fellow Saudi comedian Ibraheem Alkhairallah, La Yekthar is currently one of the most popular Saudi channels — not just comedy, but all Saudi channels. The show touches on contemporary issues in Saudi society, but remains relatively politically neutral. If anything, the show seems more interested in the off-beat than the skewer.
Clocking in at a sparse 3:44, here’s episode one of La Yekhtar Show (sorry, no subtitles).
The other Internet sensation coming out of Saudi Arabia is a show called On the Fly hosted by Omar Hussein. Here’s the most viewed episode, first uploaded in February of this year.
In views and subscriptions, this show trumps La Yekhtar Show, but seems a bit more straightforward. We have our opening monologue, our anchor at the desk, our wacky correspondents. And according to Google translate of their channel homepage — the mission of the show is to “somewhat laugh at ourselves.” The “ourselves” being the Saudi Arabian people.
The defiance of shows like On the Fly and La Yekhtar lies not in their outrageous political views, but rather their insistence on creating “for us, by us” content. When it comes to the role of comedy in society, Saudi Arabia seems to fall in a kind of middle ground among its neighbors. This may be a gross over-generalization on my part, but it almost seems Saudi Arabians are willing to comply with or at least accept some of restrictions and censorship. Perhaps this is a form of self-preservation: we will not openly expose and berate a corrupt leader if this allows the comedy scene to flourish.
After all, it was citizens who objected to content on a Saudi Arabian satirical television show. When Tash Ma Tash (“No Big Deal”) introduced a female character who decides to take four husbands, it was the imams who were up in arms. Apparently, King Abdullah is trying to bring certain attitudes into the 21st century, but the conservative voice is not having it.
Even though Tash Ma Tash airs only once a year during the holiday of Ramadan, there is typically uproar from old-school Saudi Arabians. At least, for now.
With the younger generation tuning into YouTube more and more to watch shows like On the Fly and La Yekhtar perhaps attitudes can change enough to bring comedy nights out of the desert and onto a proper stage.
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