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!
So I sent a Facebook message to the admin of group, and I am like “Oh, I would like to audition to be a opening act.” And he replies, “How did you know we had auditions?”
And I was like, “I don’t know, I shot in the dark and, you know, I was lucky.”
So I went to an audition at Costa Coffee, there were no real facilities for us to try our material, and it was just, I’m there, outdoors, they are sitting drinking coffee and I’m up there cracking jokes, everybody looking at me like I’m crazy. So they loved it, they loved my material, the fact that I was drawing on my own background as a Saudi, especially some jokes that were relating to the audience as a part of the GCC and I was one of five opening acts in Bahrain. That was in October 2008 and I was lucky enough to meet and kind of learn from the experience of both international comedians.
And from there on, a friend of mine, currently a friend of mine I met this guy called Khaled Khalifa, another guy who came to me from the crowd in Bahrain and he was like, “Hi, I am a Saudi standup comedian too!”
I was like, “Yeah, right. Yeah, like I’m going to believe that.”
And he is like, “No, no! I’m trying to organize a show in Saudi.”
“OK, call me here’s my number.” Right, I didn’t want to take part in organizing the whole thing and I was a little worried about how it would be received in Saudi. And a little odd Riyadh because it is a very conservative city. And little did I know that in February 2009, I was performing in front of 1,200 people in the audience in Riyadh with Ahmed Ahmed and a bunch of other local comedians that I had no idea existed. And it was amazing. Since then we performed in over 25 comedy shows, since then in 2009. And I also managed to take part in — be a part of the Ammam stand-up comedy festival competition in 2009. I was one out of 65 English-speaking comedians to be chosen to take part; and I met two of my other idols: Russell Peters and Gabriel Iglesias, and it was cool and they were making fun of me, so that was cool. And they told me that I looked like Humpty from Digital Underground. So anyway, that was the joke that I got out of the whole thing, and also because of this, I got invited to take part in the New York Arab-American comedy festival, May 2010. And they liked it so much they chose me for the best of the fest night of that festival. But that’s as far as standup comedy goes.
However I felt like I was neglecting a lot of my other creative paths like writing, acting — it’s a natural transition for a stand-up comedian to want to do acting. So I decided maybe I should start doing it, maybe I should start working into getting into TV for example. But the thing is, the Hollywood dream is not really applicable in the region, especially with the mega networks in Saudi Arabia. A lot of stuff is done in house: the casting, the production, the writing… you got to have a foot in the door.
And I was still contemplating and still doing comedy shows. Then I decided, you know what? Screw this. I’m going to get on YouTube. I’m going to do something on YouTube and I was lucky enough to also do a tour of the GCC doing stand-up comedy and during these events, during these comedy shows, I was performing with Gabriel Iglesias, and it was all over the GCC as well. It was in Khobar, Riyadh, Dubai and Doha, I managed to meet a very talented director, Ali Kazmi, who is based in Riyadh, and he, then, introduced me to our current cameraman, a very talented photographer, which is really interesting, Alaa Yousif, also based in Riyadh as well. He had never got into video before this. So this was his very first experience but one thing we got out of this is high definition. He was obsessed with high definition, everything had to be HD.
So that was cool and it gave us the simplicity of the show as well as the format of the show, it really attracted a lot of people and I had to recruit a fellow comedian Ibrahim Khairallah as a writer on the team. I don’t know if you guys saw him but he was on Arabs Got Talent recently. He is the voice behind the crocodile on the show and also a co-writer of the show, and that is how “la yekther” was born.
La yekther is a YouTube channel, we have been getting a lot of views, we’ve been getting about 300,000 views on each of our videos at least, and it’s really cool, and we’ve only had like five episodes and we are still getting major following from a lot of people. We weren’t the first comedy show that was based in Saudi to get on YouTube, “la yekther ” as well: Omer Hussein, a friend of mine as well, was on YouTube, he got there before we did actually, and he was telling me that you don’t have to be the first, you just have to strive to be the best, which really, really got to me, and we are now friends and we are competing, so that’s cool. And we managed to get the #1 most subscribed channel in Saudi Arabia with over 25,000 subscribers and after looking at other statistics, I think it’s one of the highest in the region, I was really surprised at that.
And we have been getting approached by the TV, the very people I was trying to contact at first. Woo! So now we are having talks with a bunch of major networks in the region to start some kind of comedy show, a little related to la yekther or the like. And I’m really hesitant at getting on TV, and there is a reason because there is this whole new media movement. And I’ve talked to a friend, a couple of friends of mine in Google Middle-East North Africa for some statistics to back my opinion. Basically, la yekther is in Arabic, it’s an Arabic-speaking show with English subtitles. And the reason a lot of people were saying: “why would you do that? In English, it would probably be funnier? Like other comedians on YouTube, Ray William Johnson, and you would get more fans that way.” I kind of doubt that because the top search term in Saudi Arabia is ‘YouTube’ in Arabic. That’s interesting also, 80% of Saudi queries on Google are in Arabic, and Saudi Arabia is also the third in the world when it comes to YouTube mobile playbacks, normal active population, it’s number one: they really like entertainment there.
Also the reason we use social media or social networking to promote the show as well as opposed to advertising on TV or other form of traditional media is that we have about 2.94 million Facebook users in Saudi Arabia and the website gets about 5,000 members everyday. So that is a substantial amount of people to reach out to and we’ve been getting 300,000 views each, which is a kind of equivalent to when normal active population to 7.32 million views, if we were in the United States. So that is pretty cool.
And other statistics that are related to YouTube or internet versus TV in general are there is this statistics or there is a study that was done by an effective measurer group in the Middle East and North Africa, it covered majorly Egypt and the GCC countries and it shows that the internet retains a substantial audience throughout the whole day when traditional TV peaks in viewership at night or in the evening.
However E-mail and social networking are the most popular online activities for the internet users in the Middle East and North Africa, and the last part, which is really interesting, of the respondents, 88% say — or that is almost 90% right? — say they access the internet daily, only 71% said they watch TV everyday.
So to us, that is keeping us comfortable within the realm of YouTube but we are considering seriously moving into TV. And what I want you guys to get out of this, is if you think that you’re funny enough, good enough, you think you can produce content that’s good enough, get on YouTube. Get on YouTube and trust me, people will notice, people will reach out to you, and the very same people you were trying so hard to prove yourself to, will end up calling you and begging you to come. So that also goes back to the concept of mind shift, if you can put your mind to it, it can really happen.
Thank you very much, and that’s it.