GOOD

Fahad Albutairi

Meet the standup leading the comedic revolution in Saudi Arabia.

Stand-up comedy may have been born in the United States of Vaudevillian heritage, but the format’s simplicity and endless flexibility have attracted fans and followers across the globe. In Saudi Arabia, its popularity can be attributed to one man. Fahad Albutairi is often credited as the first Saudi to perform stand-up comedy professionally, following a performance in 2008. Now the 30-year-old comic lords over a massive YouTube empire that has racked up nearly a billion hits. His next challenge is to change the way Saudis view entertainment forever.

In a country known for political conservatism, comedy may seem an unlikely hit. But Albutairi says that young people in the region—a huge contingent of under-30s armed with smartphones and high-speed internet—are cautiously experimenting with comedy via outlets like YouTube. “They’re not so much willing to test the boundaries as basically not sure what their boundaries are,” he explains over a Skype call from Riyadh. “A lot of them are still trying to find their opinions, their own voices in a quick-developing world.”


In 2010, Albutairi began working with friends to produce La Yekthar Show, a monologue-based comedy that touched on social and political topics in a deliberately reserved manner. Within months, Albutairi and his colleagues were pulling in millions of hits on YouTube, and in 2011, they launched their own network, which oversees dozens of subchannels and shows. “We called it Telfaz11”—“telfaz” means television in Arabic—“because we saw it as an alternative to actual TV programming in the Middle East, which was lacking in quality and relevance and a lot of other things,” he says.

The challenge, Albutairi continues, is providing thought-provoking comedy that doesn’t upset viewers. “Constraints that are formulated by the conservative culture of the population are way tighter than government regulations,” he explains. “I’ve said this before: When I release something that’s a little edgy—if not crossing the red line, kind of walking by it—I piss off the audience before I do the government.”

Albutairi grew up in Saudi Arabia speaking both Arabic and English at home with his father, a corporate banker, and his college-educated mother, a relatively rare distinction for her generation. In 2003, he attended the University of Texas at Austin under a scholarship program run by the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or Saudi Aramco, the national oil and gas company based near his hometown of Khobar. He majored in geophysics, but Albutairi soon found he was more interested in the local comedy scene than his studies.

Until recently, comedy in Saudi Arabia had been limited to imported American sitcoms like Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier. “As far as stand-up comedy, I had no exposure whatsoever until I went to the U.S. and actually started seeing stand-up specials on Comedy Central,” he says. He quickly became obsessed, estimating that he watched more than a hundred specials before eventually deciding to try his own hand. He describes his first attempts as “complete failures,” but in time he began to draw from his unique position “as a Saudi student in the U.S., post 9/11, in Texas, and going through culture shock. And that’s when audiences started relating more.” He chuckles, recalling his early attempts at jokes, like the story of explaining the “that’s what she said” joke to his father. “That was fun. And then he ended up asking me, ‘Who is she and what did she say?’”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]But what we’re trying to do is encourage them to all go out and say something, or at least try to push their own limits.[/quote]

He played open mics and local clubs in Austin for two years before returning to Saudi Arabia to work for Aramco, thinking his comedy days were done. But in 2008, when the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour”—comprised of prominent Middle Eastern comedians combating post-9/11 prejudice with humor—was stopping in nearby Bahrain, he contacted the organizers and landed a spot as an opener. “A lot of people were telling me that I was the first Saudi stand-up comedian to appear professionally onstage in a ticketed show of that caliber,” he says. “I went from performing in local comedy clubs to performing in front of 2,000 people each night.”

It helped kick off a desire for comedy in the region. Stand-up shows started popping up in several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. And scenes even began reflecting the nuance of particular areas. “People started realizing that maybe we should localize the material a little more, as in perform it in Arabic, because we used to do a mix or purely English.” By 2010, Albutairi was being called the “Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia.”

With the success of Telfaz11, Albutairi and his colleagues are now thinking about their next steps, which include expanding into television production and film. Albutairi also recently starred in the Middle Eastern movie From A to B, which garnered a nomination at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

“The next natural step would be to get into film, but it would be a huge challenge, especially in a country that doesn’t have cinemas,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve already kind of started a movement in the region for individually driven efforts. And more people started realizing that anyone can pretty much shoot content, edit, and put it up online for free.” With the help of social media and the widespread proliferation of mobile phones in the region, there’s ample space for growth. “The whole region is driven by youth with smartphones.”

His main goal with the network isn’t a political agenda, but an artistic one. “What we would like to achieve [...] is to improve local taste,” he says. “Introduce people to different genres of comedy: satire, deadpan, dark humor, observational, character play, sketches, series, sitcoms—everything. We still haven’t achieved even 10 percent of that yet.”

But Albutairi hopes that Telfaz11 will ultimately nudge its young audience into action. “Some things that the older generation would consider untouchable, especially when it comes to tradition, the new generation finds stupid or unfounded, or something that can even be seen as an obstacle for further development,” he says. “But they’re still formulating their own opinions about this as they go. When I started doing this, I was 23. I’m 30 now, so I’m still within that generation. We’re all growing up together, so we’re all finding our own voices at the same time. But what we’re trying to do is encourage them to all go out and say something, or at least try to push their own limits.”

Features

The global climate change strikes on Friday are said to have been the largest protest for climate change in history. An estimated four million people participated in 2,500 events across 163 countries on all seven continents. That included an estimated 300,000 Australians, but a total of zero were in Hyde Park in Sydney, despite a viral photo that claims otherwise.

Australian Youth Coal Coalition, a pro-coal Facebook page, posted a photo showing trash strewn across a park after what appears to have been a large event. "Look at the mess today's climate protesters left behind in beautiful Hyde Park," the photo was captioned. "So much plastic. So much landfill. So sad." The only problem is, the photo wasn't taken after a climate change protest. It wasn't even taken in Australia.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via GOOD / YouTube

Last Friday, millions of people in 150 countries across the globe took to the streets to urge world leaders to enact dramatic solutions to combat climate change.

The Climate Strike was inspired, in part, by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has captured worldwide attention for her tireless work to hold lawmakers responsible for the climate crisis.

The strike gave people across the planet the opportunity to make their voices heard before the U.N. General Assembly Climate Summit in New York City on Monday.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

As world leaders meet to discuss new ways to tackle climate change at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, they might miss one very big part of healing nature – nature. In a new short film, youth climate change activist Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot, a writer for the Guardian, talked about how we need to use nature as a solution to climate change.

There's a huge push to curb emissions, but it's not the be all end all of handling climate change; we also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While we don't have technology to do that for us, there is another solution. "There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It's called a tree," Monboit says in the film. Researchers found that we could get rid of two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that we've emitted during the industrial era just by growing trees. That amounts to 205 billion tons of carbon. Right now, deforestation of tropical forests is responsible for 20% of current greenhouse emissions.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Climate Action Tracker

In 2016, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to combat climate change by taking action to curb the increase in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement requires countries to report on their emissions and what steps they're taking to implement those plans. Now that the countries are coming together again for the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, it's worth taking a look at what kind of progress they've made.

The Climate Action Trackerkeeps tabs on what each country is doing to limit warming, and if they're meeting their self-set goals. Countries are graded based on whether or not their actions would help limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

According to a recent article from National Geographic, The Gambia, Morocco, and India are at the head of the class. "Even though carbon emissions in The Gambia, Morocco, and India are expected to rise, they'll fall short of exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius limit," the article reads. Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, on the other hand, get a big fat F. "Projected emissions in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States are far greater than what it would take to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Screenshot via Sweden.se/Twitter (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet