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Stand-Up Comedy Scene Thrives in Arab Nations

Young Saudi comedian Hisham Fageeh in 2013 posted a satirical video on YouTube titled “No Woman, No Drive,” set to Bob Marley’s iconic song “No Woman, No Cry.” Within days, it got 13 million hits, becoming the country’s most popular YouTube video and perhaps helped the movement to strike down Saudi’s ban on female motorists in late 2017.

There is a thriving stand-up comedy scene across the Arab world. It’s being driven by YouTube, Twitter and Western formats including “Saturday Night Live” and also channels such as Viacom’s Comedy Central, which is going strong. Netflix’s first non-scripted original, now streaming, is a special on Lebanese comedian and actor Adel Karam, live from Beirut’s Casino du Libyan spouting on issues ranging from social norms and food to colonoscopies and porn.

In the special, Karam, who stars in Lebanon’s Oscar-nommed drama “The Insult,” managed to steer clear of the country’s censorship authorities,who recently charged fellow Lebanese comedian Hicham Haddad — host of popular show “Enough Is Enough” — with libel for cracking politically sensitive jokes that took their cue from the diet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Censorship is certainly a concern for Arab standups.

Egyptian authorities in February ordered a ban on “Saturday Night Live Arabia,” which airs out of Cairo on top Middle East pay-TV network OSN. “SNL Arabia,” which was in its fourth season, followed a similar format to the U.S. show but did its best to steer clear of provocative political jokes. Producers have appealed the ban, which was allegedly prompted by inappropriate sexual phrases and insinuations.

Meanwhile, Comedy Central Arabia is now a hit on OSN following its launch two years ago with a splashy event at Dubai’s Armani Hotel, co-hosted by Saudi U. of Texas alumni Fahad Albutairi, dubbed the Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia — he helped write and produce “No Woman, No Drive” — and Trevor Noah.

“There is a longstanding tradition of Arab humor,” says Amalia Martinez de Velasco, Viacom Intl.’s senior VP of entertainment brands for continental Europe, Africa and the Middle East, who notes that the Middle East “is a very oral culture.”

As for the censorship obstacle, De Velasco says Viacom’s approach all over the world is to “respect the culture in the region.” Though they obviously oversee their Arabic content, she points out that it’s more the comedians themselves “who know how to touch on specific issues in ways that is funny and not [too] provocative.” So far they have not run into problems.

The first thing Viacom did to produce the Comedy Central Presents format in the Middle East in 2016 was to talk to the major established comedians, comedy clubs and agents. They’ve also been hosting talent development workshops and standup nights across the region to identify and foster local comedic talent. De Velasco notes that some of the best talent in the region comes from Saudi Arabia, especially Jeddah, on the Red Sea, which is considered the kingdom’s most cosmopolitan city.

Jeddah’s Comedy Club recently hosted a two-hour solo performance by Maisaa Sabihi, a Saudi actress who was raised in California. Her show reportedly touched on issues including love, marriage and divorce, and is being considered a game-changer.

“Comedy Central Presents … Al Wagef” now features more than 60 Arab comedians who mostly perform in Arabic (and some also in English), including Arab-American Mohammad “Mo” Amer, who regularly performs with Dave Chappelle.

In April 2017, Comedy Central launched an Arabic version of “Ridiculousness” on OSN hosted by Syrian-born Mohanad Alhattab, with co-hosts Samantha Hamadeh, who is Lebanese, and Moroccan blogger Khalid Sheriff.

De Velasco says Viacom Intl. has a comic web series in the works for the Middle East and will further increase local productions.

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