Funny business: the challenges of stand-up in the Middle East

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Stand-up comedy is relatively new in the Middle East, where censorship and cultural sensitivities remain big challenges, but Iranian-American Maz Jobrani says people in the region are learning how to let go and laugh it off

If you think it’s harder to write stand-up comedy material in the Middle East than it is in the United States, think again.

Maz Jobrani, the Iranian American stand-up comedian, who has had specials on Netflix and Showtime, roles in Comedy Central’s The Axis of Evil and appearances on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, believes restrictions such as censorship are not exclusive to the Arab world.

“The first time we toured in the [Arab] region, they said you can talk about anything you want; just no sex, no religion and no politics. I said well hello and goodnight.

“But one of the things I realised when I did a show in America… I submitted my material and they said you can’t do jokes about some of the sponsors… I realised in the Middle East, God is God and in America, the advertiser is God.”

Jobrani, who returned to Dubai last Friday, December 13, has shot his first ever outdoor special in the emirate. The show, which was filmed using drones, will be the first of its kind to be shot outdoors in the city and featured on a major streaming platform or television network. It will also send a message to the world that, in the Middle East, stand-up comedy works.

“I did a Ted Talk in Doha and it’s one of my most viewed YouTube videos, it’s got around 12 million views. What I like about it is when it [films] the audience and shows this diverse Middle Eastern crowd… If we can get one of the major carriers [to broadcast it] then it’s showing that stand-up comedy works.

“A lot of comedians have been coming and seeing [the region], but a lot of people in other parts of the world, especially in the middle of America, don’t know that we can actually tell jokes and laugh. It will show a positive face for people from this part of the world,” he says.

Hollywood actor Dave Chappelle has made a name for himself as a bankable stand-up comedian

Kingdom comedy

It’s not only in the expat-dominated Dubai that Jobrani has performed – although he was one of the first prominent stand-up comedians to do a show in the city in 2007. Since then he’s performed in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain and even
Saudi Arabia.

Once the region’s most conservative country, the kingdom has seen a wave of social reforms under its ambitious leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, starting with the historic lifting of the cinema ban in 2017.

“It’s hard to keep people in the dark when they have access to the internet and see how everyone else is living and they say, ‘well, we want to live like that. We want to be able to go out and enjoy a movie. We want to, as women, be able to drive cars’.

“This is all progress and obviously there’s a long way to go still but the progress is being made and my hope is that people embrace the progress and they’re not overwhelmed by it,” Jobrani says.

Thanks to Saudi Arabia’s progressive leader Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the title of the region’s most conservative country has now gone to the Islamic Republic of Iran, with whom the kingdom has shared a bitter political rivalry for decades. But when Iranian Jobrani gets on stage in Saudi Arabia, comedy overrules politics.

“The people of Iran and the people of Saudi Arabia all just want to live their lives. When they come to a comedy show, they just want to come and laugh. They’re not concerned about the politics of it all. When I did shows as an Iranian American in Saudi Arabia, I’ve been embraced by the Saudi people. They’ve just come out and had a good time and seen beyond the politics. I don’t represent a particular country. I’m just a comedian trying to be funny.

“If anything it’s kind of an olive branch, it’s an outreach for peace when you do a show in a place where the countries are at odds but you can go out and do a show and after the show you have actual Saudis coming up to you and saying thank you so much for coming, we’re really trying to have entertainment here…

“Really the difficulty comes with the governments you run into. Again, with Iran, I’ve made jokes or mentioned criticism of the government so I feel that, if I were to go to Iran, there’s a possibility that somebody could bother me and that would unfortunately not be a good thing. I would love to one day be able to do a show in Iran but I think for the current time I can’t,” he says.

Are you not offended?

But it’s not just the censorship by governments that Jobrani must consider when writing a stand-up comedy act. Perhaps equally worrying is that younger generations are thin-skinned and everyone from vegans to Republicans are easily offended. Jobrani, however, is refreshingly unapologetic.

“We live in a crazy time with the apologising for jokes. Comedians should be able to say whatever they want, and they have to live and die by the laughter… we need to be careful how much we police comedians and what they’re saying.

“The whole point of comedians is to push the envelope, go to the edge and see how far they can push the envelope. That’s part of what our job is… I don’t really think about the offensiveness of my jokes when I write them. I write them based on my life and they come about based on an experience I had or something I read. So I can’t worry about the general public and how they will perceive my joke.

“I do jokes about Donald Trump… and there are people who have come to my shows that have been offended by jokes about Trump because they’re Trump supporters. And they feel that we shouldn’t be making fun of our president and I totally disagree with that. So I can’t worry about what that audience is going to say or think. I need to express my true self. So it hasn’t affected my writing,” he says.

This is not America

While the president may have given Jobrani material for his stand-up shows, he says living through the Trump era as an immigrant has been “a nightmare for me”.

He says: “I really hope he does not win again and it’s very possible that he does. I just watch everything that he does and I tell my friends, even if you’re Republican, let’s just admit that the guy is incompetent, that the guy is a bull in a china shop, making the world – not just America – a worse place.

“Watching Trump is like watching a turbulent child throw a bunch of fits. And I’m watching him and I’m in a restaurant, and this child is running around screaming and destroying everything, and I’m asking everyone, ‘don’t you see what he’s doing?’ and management is going, ‘no, no he’s good entertainment, it’s good for business so let him keep breaking stuff’.

“It really is worrisome, especially as an immigrant. It really has increased anti-immigrant sentiment, the way he talks about immigrants, the way he’s limiting immigrants coming to America, the refugee program is being limited. It’s really not the America I thought I knew.”

When one stage closes…

Ironically it is now the Middle East – not America – that is witnessing a massive boom in comedy. While the US saw its golden comedy years in the late 70s and 80s with the rise of comedy clubs across the country, the region is being thought of as the land of opportunity for both international stars looking to make a quick buck as well as regional emerging talent seeking to build their careers.

Comedians from Russell Peters to Dave Chappelle have performed on stages in Dubai while comedy club Laughter Factory averages 16,000 guests a year and expects a rise to 20,000 by the first quarter of 2020.

“People coming to comedy shows [in the Middle East] is still relatively new. People coming to comedy shows now, they’re learning to laugh, learning to let go. I just did shows in Kuwait [last month] and it was the first public show that was approved by the censors,” Jobrani says.

Despite material being censored in the region, Jobrani says the Middle East is moving towards a liberal approach
to comedy.

“We’re in the infancy stages of comedy in this part of the world and a big part of it has to do with people getting more and more used to the culture and then hopefully also the leaders in all these countries realising that comedy is not a threat to them. If somebody does jokes about somebody in power, it’s actually almost a form of flattery because you should be able to joke about people in positions of power… It’s not like everything is going to tumble from one joke. But it’s embracing it and we have a long way to go.

“I remember when we first did Beirut in 2007 – there’s always some sort of turmoil in the Lebanese government and when you would talk about it, the audience loved it… We did a show one time and a former Miss Lebanon was there and I said you guys don’t have a president but you have Miss Lebanon and the crowd was like ‘yeah we love Miss Lebanon we don’t need a president’,” he says.

It is in comedy’s infancy stages that the Middle East is seeing the emergence of a wave of regional talent including Talal Al Shikhi, Ismail Al Hassan and Saad Alessa, who performed the opening act for Jobrani’s Kuwait show in November.

“With stand-up comedy you really have to work hard and get on stage five to 10 times a week for five to 10 years before you start really getting good… But I feel like there’s been a growth of comedians in the region. There’s been a growth of stand-up comedians, guys and girls, who are getting on stage a bunch of times and getting better and better.

“Even in Kuwait my opening act was Saad Alessa, a Kuwaiti guy who was very comfortable on stage and did a great job. Not only that but he understood that he wants to be a stand-up comedian,” he says.

Kuwaiti funny man Saad Alessa performed the opening act for Jobrani’s Kuwait show in November

Comedy as therapy

Whether comedy in the Middle East will ever grow to rival markets like the United States is probably unlikely, but its growth in the region goes beyond breaking censorship or political barriers or even making a few extra bucks. In a part of the world where mental health continues to be a taboo, comedy is therapy.

“Comedy is therapeutic for the comedian to have people laugh with you and for you to tell your story. When people embrace you, it feels so good… You really feel the rush. For the audience too, to come and laugh with a bunch of people, you realise oh wow, we’re all going through the same thing…” Jobrani says.

“When people come and see this guy talking about his childhood or issues with his wife or getting older, he’s showing his vulnerability and that might encourage people to go and say let me look into myself and investigate my own vulnerabilities. In the bigger picture I think comedy makes the world a better place.”