Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

'Comedians of the World' hopes to unite the world through laughter

We meet the three comedians representing the region in the new Netflix show

Rawsan Hallak from Jordan. Courtesy Netflix
Rawsan Hallak from Jordan. Courtesy Netflix

Netflix has succeeded in taking a number of TV shows global. There was a time when the only foreign imports audiences around the world could expect to see were the products of the huge American TV networks, such as NBC’s Friends or HBO’s Game of Thrones. But the worldwide reach of the streaming platform has led to huge international breakout hits in many languages, such as Turkish historical drama The Magnificent Century, Spanish series Money Heist and German thriller Dark.

With Comedians of the World, Netflix hopes to repeat the trick, but with international stand-up comedy. The show brings together 47 comedians from 13 countries or regions, performing in eight languages, conveniently subtitled for the non-polyglots among us. Alongside the American and British comedians we’d expect to see, we will now be able to check out comics from Mexico, France, and, yes, the Middle East. Four will be strutting their stuff on the stage, representing Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Palestine, and they look set to confound western expectations of the region.

From Jordan, Rawsan Hallak will perhaps come as the biggest surprise to audiences with limited knowledge of the Arab world. Surely that world would never produce a female stand-up? This is the staid stereotype, but Hallak, whose material frequently focuses on issues affecting women, is a regular fixture on the fledgling Jordanian stand-up circit. “Female comedians are scarce here, but I think that’s partly because of Western society and its perception of what is taboo in ours, and partly because we don’t have the confidence to put ourselves out there and share our thoughts and opinions,” she says. “But Netflix were very receptive, they accepted my themes and the realities of life I address in my show.”

'We’re focused on keeping people entertained'

Ibraheem Alkhairallah will perhaps be almost as much of a surprise to audiences in the West. When most comedy fans are asked to name a haven for the genre globally, they may say New York or London. Saudi Arabia, however, probably wouldn’t be the first location to trip off the tongue, as it’s a scene that needs developing: “You’d be surprised how bad the comedy scene is in the Middle East,” Alkhairallah admits. “There are probably only about six comedy clubs in whole of the Middle East, and Saudi has two.”

The comic worked in banking for many years, and treated comedy as his hobby. Now he has found himself on Netflix’s radar, though, he’s pleased to have the opportunity to show the world a different side of his home country. “We have lots of comedians and now we have a chance to show the world that we have a sense of humour. I think a lot of people, especially in the United States, think of Saudi Arabian like: ‘Oh they just drive camels over there, they don’t even have cars,’ then when they come and see the technology they know it’s different. Now they’re going to see our comedy too, and I’m happy to be part of this experience.”

Alkhairallah admits that it was tough breaking through as a comedian in the Kingdom. “When I started out, we didn’t have comedy clubs, we had big shows,” he says. “But it’s hard, as a young comic, to perform in front of 3,000 people, so you had to do your own comedy club. I’d do mine in my majlis, just grab my friends and say: ‘Hey, listen, I’m going to try this new routine out, just tell me if it’s bad or good, don’t hold back, throw it in my face. If it’s bad, tell me, because I’m going to have to do it in front of a lot of people, so it’s better to have a hard time now than having a hard time later.’”

Ibraheem Alkhairallah from Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Netflix
Ibraheem Alkhairallah from Saudi Arabia. Courtesy Netflix

The situation is in stark contrast to countries with more developed scenes, although Alkhairallah says he can sense that change is in the air in his homeland. “In the UK and US, they have comedy clubs, so you can try stuff in a small space, and if you bomb, you have the chance to fix it before you go to the big show, but we don’t have that,” he explains. “That’s slowly changing, though. We have a comedy club in the east and another in the west, and soon there will be one in Riyadh. I think I’m going to be very busy travelling three times a week to try things out in future.”

As reform continues in the country, does Alkhairallah see himself honing in on the politics of the country in his future jokes? He says political humour is not really his thing: “I respect everybody in the market, but in Comedians of the World we’re focused on keeping people entertained,” he says. “I love to make people laugh and see them enjoy the show. I’m not interested in doing political jokes. For me, audiences are tired, they’re busy with their work and I just want to be that guy that tells jokes,” he explains.

The balance between telling jokes and telling a story

One comedian from the show who doesn’t shy away from controversy is Palestinian funnyman Adi Khalefa. He is perhaps the most experienced of the trio we met ahead of the show. He has worked as a stand-up for 12 years, both in the Arab world and in the West, and has appeared alongside big names including Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef.

Adi Khalefa from Palestine. Courtesy Netflix
Adi Khalefa from Palestine. Courtesy Netflix

His most recent show, Billiat Show, enjoyed a sold-out run in his hometown, Nazareth, and his Comedians of the World show certainly pulls no punches. He dives straight into religion from the very opening line – the comic clearly feels that comedy should be about more than simply telling jokes. “In the beginning, I was just imitating things, but I realised I wanted to talk about topics that were important to me,” he says. “I hate discrimination and racism, and that’s why I try to strike a balance between telling jokes and delivering a message.”

All three comics seem acutely aware of the opportunity the show presents to bring different cultures together. As Alkhairallah concludes: “Comedians of the world, travellers of the world: let’s travel together, with laughter.”

Comedians of the World is streaming on Netflix from today

Updated: January 1, 2019 12:24 PM

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