Meet the Middle East's Comedians Of The World, on Netflix now!
Rawsan Hallak, Ibraheem Alkhairallah and Adi Khalefa
By David Light
Published: Sat 19 Jan 2019, 5:22 PM
Last updated: Tue 22 Jan 2019, 6:33 PM
WE'VE BEEN MOOTING this concept for ages! No, not the mystery behind Mickey Rourke's morphologically altered visage, nor how Joe Rogan continues to find gainful employment; nope, we've always thought a mega stand-up show with comedians from all over the globe telling jokes in their native languages with subtitles was an amazing idea for a programme. And now we're too late to pitch it. Much the same as when those telepathic BBC thieves somehow pinched our plans for a TV remake of 1992 movie The Bodyguard from our minds (and didn't even really bother changing the title, by the way), we have had to sit back and watch as Netflix stream 'their' comic creation - Comedians Of The World (COTW). It is very good, though. Featuring 47 stand-ups from 13 regions in eight languages, the same anonymous venue in Montreal, Canada, provides a blank canvass for each performer to create a unique and hilarious half-hour show.
"I'm excited because not just the Arab world is going to see this, but it's international," said one of the Middle East group of comedians featured on the series. Palestinian Adi Khalefa's routines are always in his mother tongue, so opportunities to reach an audience outside the Arabic-speaking world have been limited. The same goes for Saudi's Ibraheem Alkhairallah and Rawsan Hallak from Jordan, who together with Khalefa, we sat down with at The Palace Hotel Dubai a few days before COTW dropped.
"It's challenging to see if the material will work with someone from the other side of the world," Khalefa continued. "If there are people who look at the Arab world with the classic stereotypes, this should change things for them. Some may think we are still on camels, but they will see we are the same."
Seamlessly negating one prominent cliché onlookers can often throw at Middle Eastern affairs, the fact Hallak's inclusion is taken as the norm with no additional attention is refreshing. While it is a fact female comedians in most countries have not been given the same opportunities as their male counterparts, and this is rightly being discussed and thankfully changed for the better, we think it is great Hallak's routine simply appeared among her contemporaries. The comedian puts it best when asked about gender equality: "This is the best of 47 world comedians. I have to make you laugh. That is it." 'Boom', we believe is the term they use in the stand-up game.
The artists' influences
When it comes to what to expect from the trio's performances, all are as varied as their personalities. Where Hallak may have a few minutes on married life with her fellow comedian husband, Alkhairallah riffs on modern technology and Khalefa introduces himself by recounting experiences of looking more than a touch like Liverpool footballer Mohamed Salah. The group's routines have been distilled from years in the profession. Given Jordan and Palestine have no comedy clubs of which to speak, we wondered how the jokes take shape without a regular audience to bounce off.
"We just ask our friends to come over and sit while we talk at them," Hallak said. "They know you very well, so it's more difficult than with strangers. My husband is a big support for me. He helps me a lot."
"I must do one hour in theatres every year because, financially, it is my only job," Khalefa said. "I only practice in front of friends of mine. I get their feedback then practice in my room for a week and then that's it. My first shows, some of it wasn't that good, but that is what made me learn and write very fast."
In contrast Saudi Arabia has had a comedy club in Riyadh for the best part of a decade. Although for Jeddah resident Alkhairallah, traveling isn't always possible.
"I want to try out my jokes with my friends. I do this a lot in my Majlis. Every month or so I have a big special show in Jeddah, but not in a 'club'. When I can I will go to Riyadh. They like me performing and want me to do it more."
But without regular exposure to traditional comedy rooms, from where did this enthusiasm for stand-up spring? It appears, if something is on tape and it's funny, it has a chance of turning up anywhere.
"When my brother showed me DVDs of specials, I realised that was what I wanted to do. I love [George] Carlin, he's a philosopher as well," said Alkhairallah.
"Killin' Them Softly by my hero Dave Chapelle was the first comedy show I ever saw on TV," said Khalefa. "I dreamt of doing the same thing and meeting him and I did three years ago. Richard Pryor, Carlin - I'm jealous of them artistically but I'll reach them in a few years!"
"I love chubby people!" Hallak said with a smile. "They make me laugh. My favourite comedian is Gabriel Iglesias. He is fantastic. Every chubby comedian attracts me to watch them!"
Intimate in nature and often touching on sensitive subjects (let's face it, the more uncomfortable the material, the bigger the laugh), humour and humourists are repeatedly under far greater scrutiny than even professional social commentators. Remember the backlash comedian Michelle Wolf received after her brilliant speech at last year's White House Correspondents' Dinner, compared to the comparative silence on the actual real world actions of some of the people she was lampooning? In a developing comedy market like the Middle East, where privacy is perhaps more valuably guarded than elsewhere, we wondered if the artists had ever come across resistance to their jokes.
"Everybody has negative comments and that can break you, but you also have people who love you and love your style and that is so much better and is what we listen to," said Hallak.
Alkhairallah took a more philosophical route. "If you want to break the ice with anybody it is with jokes. If you make people laugh they want to be your friend. That is what I think and why I hope people laugh with me."
Whereas Khalefa's only critics so far have been a couple of family members. But even that didn't last very long.
"After five years of doing comedy, my two brothers came to see me in a theatre," he recounted. "I was doing a Chekkov drama at that time. They liked me doing drama but they sat with me and said, 'we want the best for you and you must stop doing comedy. It is not working.' They are the two people who I trust the most. It was so hard for me because they didn't see my potential. Thankfully it changed when they saw my later shows. Now it's all good."