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Stand up stands up
Ashraf Khalil explores how home-grown stand-up comedy could become a big business in Egypt. But will any of the aspiring comics be able to turn it into a career?
August 22, 2010 3:40 by Ashraf Khalil
Maha Hosni, an advertising executive who organized the Hysteria mega-show, described the event as a crucial test to see whether Egypt had both the talent pool of comedians and the audience interest to make regular stand-up shows a viable business venture.
By almost any standard, the experiment was a raging success. The 500-seat cultural center was sold out for two separate shows – at a comparatively high price of 60 Egyptian pounds ($12) per ticket. Despite an air-conditioning malfunction that left both the audience and the comics sweating profusely, the crowd was clearly primed and laughed hard at almost everything – including some gags that weren’t really all that funny.
The comics moved back and forth between English and Arabic – with the audience seemingly following along in both languages. “I thought it would go well, but this was beyond my expectations,” said Hosni, the events and media manager for the Benchmark Advertising Agency. “This shows people want to laugh. They know stand-up comedy and they love it. All the university students know this culture and watch the comedy channels.”
Egyptians are, of course, no strangers to comedy. The country is famous for producing generations of iconic comedic actors (from Ismail Yassin to Adel Imam and Mohamed Heneidy), and Egyptians in general are known throughout the Arab world for their humor. “Egyptians are the best comedians,” said Hosni, using a common local colloquialism. “We’re known for our ‘light blood’.”
But that comedic spirit has always been channeled into slapstick movies and raucous four-hour plays. “We’ve always had comedy, but it wasn’t an individual thing. It was in the framework of something else,” Farag said.
This new explosion of the solo stand-up form actually owes its roots to a group of Middle Eastern immigrant children from the United States. Somewhere around 2006, a quartet of Arab- and Iranian-American stand-up comics started to gain notoriety in America, performing together under the banner of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. The group (Ahmed Ahmed, Dean Obeidallah, Aron Kader, and Maz Jobrani) had spent years honing their craft on comedy stages across the country.
Ahmed, Kader, and Jobrani were based in Los Angeles and rose through the ranks at legendary clubs like the Comedy Store and Laugh Factory. Obeidallah, based in New York, worked the East Coast clubs, and helped found the now wildly popular annual Arab-American Comedy Festival in New York City.
The collaboration produced a successful stand-up tour and an hour-long special on the American channel Comedy Central. Then the group decided to take their act to the Middle East, performing in Dubai, Cairo, and Beirut. At each stop, they held open tryouts for local talent. Obeidallah also helped found the annual Amman Stand-up Comedy Festival in Jordan, which is now entering its third year. “We’re trying to build a comedy infrastructure” in the Middle East, Obeidallah, who is Palestinian-American, said. “I tell people we’re comedy missionaries.”