After graduating from the U. of Texas at Austin, Fahad Albutairi in 2010 launched his “La Yekthar Show,” which loosely translates as “Zip it,” on YouTube. It has since evolved from ad-libbed monologues to scripted episodes that now score an average of between two and three million hits each. Last year hits reached a peak of 12 million for “No Woman, No Drive,” a Bob Marley song cover satirizing Saudi Arabia’s ban on female driving. Albutairi more recently landed a lead role in pan-Arab road movie “From A to B,” by Emirati director Ali Mostafa, which opened the Abu Dhabi film fest. Albutairi spoke with Variety‘s Nick Vivarelli about being an actor in Saudi Arabia, a country with no movie theaters but with the world’s highest density of YouTube users.
Q: How did your career in comedy get started?
A: While I was getting a degree in geophysics from the University of Texas at Austin,I started doing open mic nights, and I also went to see lots of movies. Even though I didn’t major in film or acting, I soaked up a lot in Austin. I saw movies in proper movie theatres, which is something I couldn’t do in Saudi. That’s a huge deterrent for us. Then I went to work for Saudi Aramco. But during that time I also started a YouTube show, and it grew from there.
Q: Aside from “No Woman, No Drive” which has, of course, been massive, are there any other episodes of the show that you consider real standouts?
A: There is one that’s really interesting called “Stereotype.” It’s about a group of Saudi students in Boston after the Boston marathon bombings, and how they act like they’re not Saudis, pretending to be Latinos, because the main suspect was thought to be Saudi.
Q: How important has YouTube been for your career?
A: I work with what you might call a YouTube troupe called Telfaz11. We are a bunch of writers, cinematographers, directors and actors who got together and started doing different things. The reason we started on YouTube is because the TV industry in this region is a bit of a monopoly. So it’s really difficult to break through. You have to knock on a lot of doors. We kind of wanted to be independent of all of that, to not be influenced by production companies who are already working with TV here. On YouTube we have complete freedom. And the numbers for YouTube users in Saudi Arabia are massive.
Q: How did you make the transition to acting?
A: In 2012 I got approached by a casting agent. I auditioned for the bellboy part in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” That was an eye-opener, even though I did not get the part. A couple of months later, I got the email from Ali Mostafa regarding “From A to B.”