BEIRUT: As the Middle East arm of U.S. TV channel Comedy Central scheduled its first commissioned local Arab standup series, four Lebanese comedians seize the opportunity to share laughs and push the boundaries of Lebanese and Arab society.
The show will be the first standup comedy series featuring local Arab comics to be produced by Comedy Central Arabia. Tracey Grant, the senior editorial director for Comedy Central in the UAE, also said it was the channel’s first Arabic language production. Over 30 acts will perform seven to 10 sketches over multiple episodes that will air next month. Comedians have come from multiple countries across the region.
“What I’m trying to do, no, what I am doing is breaking the barriers,” 25-year-old comedian Wissam Kamal, one of the four Lebanese featured on the upcoming show, told The Daily Star. “My style is very ‘in your face,’ so this is a huge invite for people to do whatever they think of doing and whatever they like.”
Kamal, who recently appeared on a live stage broadcast of LBCI’s comedy show B.B.CHI, refers to himself as a “dark social critic.” Priding himself in his provocative sketches, Kamal said he uses his style to create laughs while also critiquing social issues such as religion and politics in Lebanon.
“I’ve started dark comedy two to three years ago,” Kamal said. “But I began doing stand up comedy since I was 16-year-old."
Yet, he noted his style of comedy was not mainstream in Lebanon. Limited by societal tensions, products of strong sectarianism and violent history, such open critiques have been made taboo.
“Yes, I get backlash. I get threats, but I’m used to it,” he said nonchalantly. “The good thing is I also get a lot of positive feedback ... slowly I’m getting the acceptance to try and push more for this dark humor.”
In 2009, Lebanese comedian Edmond Haddad, also from Chi.N.N, and theater and film actress Rawiya al-Shab were detained by authorities in Beirut for “breaching public morality” when Haddad showed his underwear during a set at a bar in Gemmayzeh.
The case caused a backlash from many in the country who saw it as a draconian and outdated accusation. All the criminal charges were eventually dropped.
Despite these cases, Elie Iskandar, another Lebanese comedian featured in the standup series, considers censorship in Lebanon to be less aggressive than anywhere else in the entire region.
“There’s always the taboo, you can’t really talk about sex, religion or politics, the ‘trinity of censorship.’ [But] Lebanon itself is a bit less moderated than [other parts of] the Arab world so we can get away with a bit more,” the 30-year-old comedian told The Daily Star.
He noted that performing on TV in particular brought certain challenges of censorship, more limiting than stage performances.
“The censors tend to check your lines and, if needed, they modify accordingly. Luckily for [me] at Comedy Central the censors were more than open to [me] and hardly changed a thing ... Slowly we [in the Arab world] are able to speak our minds. That’s what a comedian is there for, [we] are critics.”
Iskandar, who is now based in Dubai, describes his comedy as “absurdist,” taking things to the extreme. The comic noted how his style was made to push people out of their comfort zones.
“When I’m tackling an issue I take it to the absurd extreme, a Kafkaesque approach to what might happen,” he laughed referring to the nightmarish depictions of society and authority in the writings of Franz Kafka. “Once you insert a bit of absurdity, people will start to open up new doors,” Iskandar said.
For 30-year-old George Tarabay, the third Lebanese comic featured in the show, the local comedy scene serves as a symbol of resistance.
“There are great comics living in Lebanon and they go against all odds and circumstances to keep their passion and scene alive. It’s laughter against all odds.”
Tarabay, who said he riffs on negativity in his dark comic style, sees the new Comedy Central show with optimistic positivity.
“Comedy Central’s show broke many barriers already ... it enforces the positive image about Arabs worldwide by taking attention away from news and negative imagery about us toward showing that we, like everyone else, believe in peace one laugh at a time,” Tarabay said.
“Initiatives such as that of Comedy Central make it easier for everyone to just get up there and speak their mind,” Iskandar added, before asking what more a comedian could want from their work.
Kamal, Iskandar, Tarabay and Karim Mata, who is half Lebanese and half Egyptian, will be featured alongside a group of other Arab comics in Comedy Central Arabia’s first local production of standup comedians. The series will air on Feb. 5.