NEW YORK // With an observational comedy routine that gently pokes fun at his countrymen, the Saudi comic Fahad Albutairi is earning a reputation as something of a Jerry Seinfeld on the desert kingdom's rapidly growing stand-up circuit. Next month, the 24-year-old will demonstrate the emergence of comedy talent from the Gulf by wearing his trademark thick-rimmed black spectacles and cracking gags on the stage of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
Albutairi acknowledges his similarity to Seinfeld: genially making jokes about Saudi family life, macho scuba divers and the way his countrymen go shopping for groceries by parking their cars outside stores and honking the horn. "A lot of my act relates to Jerry Seinfeld - the only thing is I'm Arab and he's American Jewish," he said. He has been surprised by the meteoric rise of stand-up performances in his homeland and in some other Gulf countries. "The scene in Saudi Arabia is one of the most vital in the region and has grown the most rapidly because there is a lot of purchasing power in Saudi and no entertainment outlets other than this - we don't have movie theatres or public concerts."
Albutairi's shirt-and-tie-wearing comedy persona self-consciously "plays on the nerd look", and finds its way into his punchlines: "The nightlife in Bahrain is awesome. You guys here in Bahrain should take it as a compliment. Then again, you shouldn't; this is coming from a guy who comes from a country where a nightlife requires an Xbox headset!" He describes a snowballing of stand-up nights in private venues from Jeddah to Khobar over the past two years. Despite the country's conservative reputation, the biggest crowds, sometimes up to 2,000, have been turning out for single-sex comedy events in the capital, Riyadh.
Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-Italian-American comic and organiser of the New York festival, describes himself as a "comedy missionary" for bringing the stand-up tradition, which is rooted in vaudeville and British music halls, to the Arab world. A troupe featuring Obeidallah and other American comics of Middle Eastern ancestry, called the Axis of Evil, toured the Arab world in 2007 and is widely seen as whetting the regional appetite for stand-up comedy acts.
"There's no history of stand-up comedy in the Middle East until we started doing these shows over there," said Obeidallah, who is also behind the annual Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, which will entertain Jordanians for the third time in December. "It's been thrilling to watch comedy over the last two years really develop organically there among the Arabs in the Arab world, as opposed to this western thing, where we come over exporting something to the Middle East."
Next month's festival in the Tribeca district of New York City will also see comics from Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt heading across the Atlantic to join 50 Arab-American comics for five nights of stand-up, sketch shows and other forms of comic humour beginning on May 5. Comics point out that the Arab world does not lack a comedy tradition. Albutairi highlights 1970s plays such as Madrassat al Mushaghebeen (The School of Criminals), in which a teacher struggles to control her unruly charges; and Bye Bye London, a comical take on Gulf men in western cities.
But observational stand-up humour is something new, they say. According to Obeidallah, stand-up comedy is taking off in the region because it allows Arabs to "hold up a mirror to their society", crack jokes about the idiosyncrasies of life inside smothering Arab families and make jibes about neighbouring countries. Arabs have long mocked their Jordanian brethren for residing in the kingdom of boredom; while the European-influenced Lebanese are known for "the two Ps" in Obeidallah's routine: "partying and plastic surgery". The Arab world is ripe for self-reflective humour, with gags about mobile telephones ringing through cinema screenings and keep-fit enthusiasts running on treadmills while puffing on cigarettes.
But comics also point to the red lines around "politics, religion and explicit sexual content" that can land them in trouble. Albutairi described a technique of "innuendo and hints" that enables cautious Arab comics to touch on topical taboos. Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American and a co-founder of the New York festival, said all Arab comics are "pushing the censorship envelope", but highlighted a patchwork of restrictions across the region - with no holds barred in the Palestinian territories.
"It's a total misconception that Arabs don't have a sense of humour," she said. "I've never seen people make so much fun as when you're stuck under curfew in the middle of an intifada. These people laugh. Trust me, they would go crazy if they didn't." Albutairi, a geophysicist for an oil company by day, plans to cut loose with some controversial content in New York, hoping to join the festival alumni who scored bit parts in Adam Sandler's 2008 movie, You Don't Mess with the Zohan.
"A lot of these guys were taken from the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival," he said. "I'm hoping there are a couple of scouts in the crowd and I can get some offers and actually make it to Hollywood, which has always been a dream of mine." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org