Saudi Arabia's comedy scene is booming - and some of the nation's leading laughter merchants are on their way to the capital for a show at du Arena next weekend.
It’s a funny business, as Saudi Arabian comedians get ready to visit the capital
Saudi Arabia is hardly known for its sense of humour or ability to laugh at itself. Nor might Jeddah strike you as a likely home for a successful comedy club.
But despite the odds, there is a new generation of young comics making a name for themselves on the region’s comedy circuit – and, for a lucky few, farther afield.
“I don’t talk about religion, sex or politics, it’s very possible to have a comedy show without these things,” says Adel Radwan, a full-time practising dentist and part-time stand-up comedian. “These are the easy ways to make people laugh.”
Radwan, 26, from Jeddah, would prefer to have people laugh about the fact he is “short and fat” than use the shock tactics associated with so many other comedians.
As well as regularly performing at the Jeddah Comedy Club, which has been operating since 2012, Radwan also plays Chef Abdullah in a YouTube series Takki, a drama that explores the experiences of being young and Saudi. It has had more than 31 million views.
“In the beginning when I told my family about acting and comedy, of course it was hard,” he says. “I was studying dentistry back then and they were against it. But then they loved it.”
On April 26, Radwan and five other comics from the GCC will perform in Abu Dhabi at an Arabic Comedy Night at du Forum, Yas Island. The headline acts are Bader Saleh and Yaser Bakr, both from Jeddah. Saleh and Radwan both came to Dubai last year to perform in the first Dubai International Comedy Carnival, organised by Dubomedy Arts, an organisation run by an Emirati.
For Radwan, the explanation for the growing wealth of home-grown comic talent in GCC countries, and particularly Saudi Arabia, is simple. “The most obvious reason here in Saudi Arabia is we lack entertainment. [It is] not like other GCC countries or Arab countries, they have a lot of entertainment, movie theatres, theatres.
“We don’t have the culture of stage performances, so once these guys started performing, people fell in love with it.”
The Arabic Comedy Night, performed in Arabic, demonstrates how the GCC comedy scene has reached new heights.
Lama’an, who is hosting the event, is another example of how things are changing. She is unmarried and female and was born and raised in Saudi Arabia – hardly the average Middle Eastern comedian.
She had her first taste of life on the stage at a talent show at the Institute of Public Administration, where she was studying two years ago. “I was the only girl in it, and I placed first against five guys. I loved being on stage and making people laugh.
“At the beginning, I thought people might be against me, being in a conservative society. My family struggled in the beginning but now everything is OK.”
Lama’an, who does not like to use her family name, also steers clear of anything that might be deemed too controversial. Her favourite comic, America’s Louis C K, is known for his dark observational humour about his life as a single parent. But as with Radwan, sex and religion are no-go areas. “It’s enough that I’m a girl from Saudi Arabia, a conservative place. I don’t even want to make jokes about these things.”
Lama’an, who works as a client manager at a digital marketing firm in Riyadh and is chaperoned by a family member when she leaves her home country, has already achieved two of her dreams by performing in the US at a show headlined by Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias.
“He came to Saudi to perform and I had a VIP pass and met him. He said he’d heard about me. After that he followed me on Twitter.
“When I went to the States I told him I had two dreams, I wanted to perform with him and I wanted to perform in the States. When I got to the show, someone found me and told me I had 15 minutes to prepare and I was going to do five minutes. I wrote my material on a napkin. I made the audience laugh, so it was OK in the end.”
• Visit www.ticketmaster.ae for more information on the event at du Forum next Saturday.
Mitya Underwood is a senior features writer for The National.