Here is the full transcript of Saudi stand-up comedian Fahad Al Butairi’s TEDx Talk: Haha, Wait, What? at TEDxAjman Conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Fahad Al Butairi on Haha, Wait, What at TEDxAjman
How are you guys doing?
First of all, how is everyone feeling? Good, awesome. We’ve got a yuppie over here, so that’s good.
OK, the title of my talk today is going to be “Haha, wait what?” It’s the title and it’s also the number one response when I tell anybody that I am a Saudi stand-up comedian.
Another response I get is “what this standard comedy?” This is usually because in Saudi, comedy — stand-up comedy to be more specific, is a very new concept. It started end of 2008, beginning of 2009, so it’s still relatively new. There is a newly found following for it.
And the last common response I get is “I thought Egyptians were the funny ones.”
But really the media kind of ignores the funny side to Saudis, we’re always angry, and you know, very serious, announcements and stuff like that. But I am here to prove this wrong.
I was born and raised in Khobar, on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, and I started comedy in theater in middle school and high school, very humble beginnings, also in summer camps as well. And that was my first experience with comedy. I also built most of my acting skills during that period of time.
And in 2002-2009, I joined a sponsorship program by an oil company and I went to the University of Texas at Austin to go to school there, and before that, there is a little fun fact here — before that, I’d never had access to my passport. I’d never traveled alone, and next thing I know, my dad is like: “OK, get on the plane.”
“Where am I going?”
So it was a huge jump, I got — culture shock was a big thing for me, it was a big problem, it was interesting. I was cooked up in my apartment for about a week, I think I have watched too many action movies, so I thought everybody would have a gun and things would be exploding and crumbling all over the place. But I found out it wasn’t that way at all.
And then a couple of semesters go by and I’d become one of the most active socially — active people on campus. I joined every student organization I could lay my eyes on. It was like, Muslim students, yes! Baha’i muslim students association, yes! Iranian students association, yes. It was like, video game association, yes! Journalism — I joined just for the sake of joining basically. And this is where I got my first experience doing standup comedy because I was interested in this whole thing. I’d watched like a couple of standup comedy performances and I thought, “Hey, I can do this too!”
So during open mike nights, there was one specifically by the Arab students association, and I got on stage and I sucked, very bad. Oh, it was a very awkward bunch of Arab Americans and I’m there cracking blonde jokes so it wasn’t really working out very well. And I had invited some of my friends for support. Five people laughed, those were my friends.
So then, a friend of mine decided, “hey, instead of just trying out standup comedy, why don’t you observe standup comedy, why don’t you go and see what they are doing first before try it out yourself?” OK, that’s a smart advice, so I did. And I went to a bunch of local comedy clubs, the Velveeta Room, Esther’s Follies, in Austin, Texas, but my real start was with the open mic night at the Cap City Comedy Club. They usually give beginners about 3 to 10 minutes, a lot of 3 to 10 minutes, they gave me 2. So they really didn’t think I was going to be that funny.
I got on stage and I remember, one of things that I noticed about my jokes at first were, they weren’t representing me, I was trying to cater too much to the audience, I needed to be comfortable with my own identity as a Saudi student at the University of Texas and also before I’d do anything. So I did and I was, like, “OK, I am a Saudi international student in America, I’m sure that’s funny at some point. So I got on stage and I was like, “hi, everyone, my name is Fahad, so I just want to say that I am here, I’m a student at the university of Texas at Austin, from Saudi Arabia. Shhh, I know. And they started laughing right away. They got the joke, it was post 9/11, it was funny at the time. So they were like, “oh woow yeah” and it was a 2 to 3 minute set, and it really went well. And I went back again to the Cap City Comedy club a few times, before I graduated in 2007 and I had to go back to work for the oil company that was sponsoring me. At that point, I said, OK, that was cool, I did standup comedy, I can brag about that. But that’s about it, I’m never going to do standup comedy ever again.
Until a friend of mine told me, “Hey! You make this standup comedys, you’re funny right? There is this event in Bahrain.” And he sent me a link on Facebook. See, here’s where the social networking takes a part. I got the notification on Facebook, I checked out the page, oh my god! it was Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani performing live as part of their Axis of Evil Comedy tour in Bahrain. And I thought, “Wow! Maybe I should open for them.” And he was like, “Wait! What, how?! There are no auditions”. Er… you never know!