Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—“In Saudi Arabia, the more money you have, the deeper your voice is. But in Kuwait, the more money you have, the higher your voice is.”
Welcome to the emerging phenomenon of Saudi Arabian stand-up comedy. This comic style, now a regular staple of the comedy world in the US and UK, is fairly new to the Arab world, but is quickly gaining popularity, especially among the young.
With a regular roster of stand-up comedians now doing the rounds at comedy clubs all over the Arab world—most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and Lebanon—and an annual dedicated event, the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, it is fair to say that the phenomenon has very much arrived.
But this should not necessarily be cause for surprise. Many Arab countries are famous for their unique sense of humor, and jokes are often used to deal with difficult political situations or events. Explaining the emergence of the trend, Dr. Hezab Al-Rayyes, a professor of media studies at the King Saud University in Riyadh, told Asharq Al-Awsat that stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia, for example, was very much unsurprising, since it had its roots in the ancient culture of the Arabian peninsula, when professional raconteurs entertained the public with stories and jokes, catering to the—very much traditional—Arab love of puns and wordplay.
In Saudi Arabia, stand-up comedians now feature in almost all entertainment shows and are drawing large audiences of fans who are not only coming see their favorite comedians, but also engaging with them online through social media.
One of these comedians is Ibrahim Khairallah. Now one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous stand-up acts, Khairallah got his start on YouTube, where he wrote sketches in English for a troupe of foreign comedians. Eventually, he auditioned for and appeared on the Arabs Got Talent contest in 2011, which brought him to the attention of a region-wide audience watched by millions. He now co-writes, along with Fahad Al-Butairi—another of the Kingdom’s most famous stand-up comedians—the La Yekthar Show (Put a Lid on It Show), which has garnered millions of views on YouTube.
Khairallah’s repertoire varies from jokes about the differences between Saudi Arabians and Kuwaitis, to making fun of the many different Arabic dialects, while taking in social commentary such as on the issue of women driving, and even hilarious skits about trying to buy music from a shop selling only CDs of readings from the Qur’an.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, he echoed Dr. Rayyes’s view that the phenomenon of stand-up comics in the Arab world in general and in the Kingdom in particular was very much a natural development: “I perform stand-up comedy in Arabic because the Arabs are the people of jokes, the people of laugher. So why shouldn’t we have stand-up comedy?”
According to Dr. Rayyes, stand-up comedy in Saudi Arabia has bloomed among the under-30 crowd over the past five years as a result of the poor dramas and comedies on television. With the emergence of video-sharing websites and social media, however, the phenomenon has caught fire among younger audiences, who can now bypass censors and out-of-touch television executives, producing the content they know their peers will enjoy.
Having started his own career through YouTube, Khairallah does not believe the “online effect” is in any way exaggerated. Doing stand-up doesn’t just depend on producing clever and funny content, he says, it also needs personal charisma and charm from the comedian. Khairallah affirms that online social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as YouTube, have been instrumental in this regard, and generally in the rise of stand-up comedy in both Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world.