How the Saudi comedy scene grew from viral videos to global Netflix specials
With Netflix’s original series ‘Comedians of the World’, which highlights the best that various regions of the world have to offer, Saudi comedy seems to have finally reached the international stage. While this is the first time that the Kingdom’s stand-up comedians have reached out to a global audience, the move does not mark the birth of the Saudi comedy—but is merely its next step.
Moayad Alnefaie and Ibraheem Alkhairallah, the two Saudi nationals from Jeddah and Riyadh respectively, have a half-hour special as part of the series. The specials, performed in Arabic and available with English subtitles, have received rave reviews on social media in the region, and should be the first of many such specials for Saudi comedians.
Rising fan base
The fan base for Saudi comedy has grown steadily before becoming a phenomenon that has made the world take notice. YouTube was integral to the way that Saudi comedy developed, as it was the first global platform that allowed Saudis create and share content that was mass consumed. Content creators such as Mmoshaya and Saudi Reporters quickly transformed viral success into massive followings, creating some of the most popular online content in the whole of the region.
“I think there was a cultural movement in Saudi Arabia five or six years ago on YouTube, and people started producing shows and putting content. I started with a bunch of guys who have a company that posts shows on there. It was a friendship thing first and foremost, and comedy allows you to reach out, know people, and link up,” Alnefaie tells Al Arabiya English.
Online buzz has translated into success on the traditional stage. After building a following on YouTube and Twitter, Alnefaie transitioned to stand-up comedy, first performing at the Alcomedy Club in Jeddah, originally called the Jeddah Comedy Club, founded by Khaled Omar in 2012.
“It was in my hometown in Jeddah. It’s a comedy club that started around five years ago. I jumped in and I did 25 minutes, and it was amazing, man,” Alnefaie says.
“I will tell you something—all my colleagues told me to just go and talk. ‘You’re a natural, just be you,’ they said. I’m a storyteller. My mom and dad made me this way. I tell stories, man.”
Though Alkhairallah did not start as a YouTuber himself, he was inspired by what his fellow Saudis were doing on the platform, as well as what international comedians were doing on stage.
“I used to watch videos on YouTube mostly. There was an opportunity when stand up comedy became trendy in Saudi Arabia. There were English and Australian communities. When I saw that on YouTube, I pushed myself and started watching live shows. I watched the first show, then the second then the third. On the fourth, the organizers said, there aren’t any Saudis who would like to go up on stage? I said to myself ‘yes’, and let’s go try,” says Alkhairallah.
Alkhairallah took to the artform instantly.
“I tried and it’s a fascinating feeling making people laugh. They leave happy because of you. I never expected it to be this great a feeling that way,” Alkhairallah says.
Need for comedy clubs
Though clubs have opened up across the region, including The Laughter Factory in Dubai and Bahrain Comedy Club in Manama, Alkhairallah believes that there are not enough small clubs across the Kingdom and the broader Arab world to allow young comedians to develop, as there are in places like New York or Los Angeles.
“We have a problem in the Arab world. Trying out the joke in front of 3,000 people is very tough. So I used to try at home, making a small comedy club at home and try the jokes and then go to the big shows. This was me making a comedy club, though technically it wasn’t a comedy club, to create a different atmosphere. This was a great experience,” says Alkhairallah.
In the past six years, Alnefaie and Alkhairallah have travelled across the region, including to Kuwait, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, before transitioning to the United States, UK and Canada, all for Arabic-speaking audiences, says Alnefaie.
Because Netflix is launching all of ‘Comedians of the World’ at once, Alkhairallah believes it will help drive more people to diversify the comedy they consume, rather than focus on their own region—which could be a boon for Arab comedians.
Netflix’s audience is huge, approximately 190 million around the world. If we came on Netflix individually, then maybe only the Arab world would watch. But with ‘Comedians of the World’, I think people would want to know and watch the comedians all around the world — from France, the Middle East, and more, and see what they offer,” says Alkhairallah.
Where this will take each of their careers is uncertain, but it has been a positive experience for each, thus far.
“To be honest, it’s a blessing. I believe in experiments. I believe that everything I do is an experiment that I learn from. It just adds up in the end in terms of acting, stand up, everything. I feel good about it,” says Alnefaie.
According to Alkhairallah, one of the unexpected things that the special has brought is not only the chance to find a new audience, but to help comedians find each other.
“It opens doors to meet other comedians. I remember meeting Maz Jobrani in Montreal where we recorded the special. He told me ‘It’s crazy! You will get people from Argentina!’ He even sent me e-mails. I was like, thank God. It’s something beautiful and great,” says Alkhairallah.
While the world is discovering Saudi Arabia’s funny bone, Saudi Arabia itself is continuing to embrace stand-up comedy. In 2017, the General Entertainment Authority held an amateur comedy festival in Riyadh’s King Fahd Cultural Center.
Alnefaie hopes that young Saudis are inspired by his Netflix special.
“If I can influence somebody or push somebody to do something, then that’s the best thing that anybody can wish for out of this experience.”
- Comedians of the World is streaming now on Netflix -