There’s a running joke that Arab parents want their children to be anything they want — so long as ‘anything’ involves getting a degree in finance, engineering or medicine.
But, much like the famed Egyptian doctor-turned-comedian Bassim Youssef, three stand-up hopefuls — Adi Khalefa (Palestine), Rawsan Hallak (Jordan) and Ebrahim Khairallah (KSA) — found a loophole in the clause. Each studied accounting, civil engineering and finance respectively, before throwing caution to the wind and pursuing their ultimate dream of making people laugh.
On January 1, the trio will feature in a new Netflix series titled ‘Comedians of the World’. It comprises of a whopping 47 episodes, featuring comedians from 13 regions. Topics range from school bullying, spinning around a claustrophobic gym shower like a shawarma skewer and being mistaken for footballing hero Mo Salah on the streets of Montreal.
The show will feature a few familiar faces, too — you might recognise Chris D’Elia from Comedy Central’s epic roast of Justin Bieber, or Nicole Byer from Netflix’s disaster cooking show ‘Nailed It!’ — but most of the stand-ups are sprightly newcomers with something to prove.
In an Arabic interview translated below, Gulf News tabloid! catches up with Khalefa, Hallak and Khairallah to dig deep into their origin story, and find out who their Middle Eastern comedy heroes are.
Q: How did you first get into stand-up comedy? What was the thing that got you started?
Adi Khalefa: I used to work as a waiter in Nazareth, and I would make the customers laugh for a bigger tip. The year before I went to university, while I was working, a friend of my brother’s told me I had to do stand-up comedy. He brought me a CD of ‘Dave Chappelle: Killin’ Them Softly’. I watched his set — it was translated, because I didn’t know how to speak English very well — and that’s how I fell into this world.
Ebrahim Khairallah: Back then, I was working at a bank with a bachelor’s degree in finance. But my hobby of doing stand-up started to take up more time — and bring in more money — than my full-time job. There was a compound residence in Riyadh for British and Australian doctors, and a British man started to bring in British comedians to perform. I would go watch. It was a little difficult to understand their British accents. But by the fourth show, the man started to bring in Middle Eastern comedians instead, like Maz Jobrani and Dean Obeidallah. He sent out Facebook messages, asking if there was a Saudi Arabian comedian who wanted to try out. I had a background doing theatre in school and university, so I immediately signed up.
Rawsan Hallak: I’ve been in theatre since I was a kid. I used to run to the school radio so I can grab the microphone and speak. Then it turned serious, and I started acting in plays and winning awards. In 2013, I decided to enter the realm of stand-up comedy on YouTube. After that, I would do live and recorded sets. All my topics would revolve around women.
Q: Who’s your comedic role model from the Arab world — stand-up or otherwise?
Khalefa: [Lebanese composer] Ziad Al Rahbani and [Syrian actor] Duraid Lahham. But the first person to inspire me was [Syrian satirical poet] Mohammad Al Maghout. His writing is genius, it seriously impacted me when I was young. [The Syrian actor] Yasser Al Azmeh, as well — I used to watch him a lot. When it comes to stand-up comedy, however, Dave Chappelle is my inspiration.
Khairallah: From the Gulf, we have [comedy actors] Abdul Hussain Abdul Redha, God rest his soul, and Nasser Al Qasabi, of course. These people were essential to watch after breaking our fast in Ramadan. There was also Adel Emam, Sa’eed Saleh, these theatre actors in the Arab world. But it was YouTube that introduced me to stand-up comedy as a concept; I didn’t know about it, to be honest. We never saw that kind of thing on television. We used to see ventriloquism on TV, like Jeff Dunham; for some reason, they liked that kind of thing back home.
Hallak: For me, anyone who is chubby is an inspiration, because they always have a good sense of humour. They put me in high spirits and drive me to begin my own attack on the audience.
Q: What were you like growing up? Were you quiet or were you always extroverted?
Khalefa: I was really short, so I always wanted to steal attention from other people around me. Everyone asks me why I do comedy, and I really don’t have an answer. But I know that I always wanted to be the centre of attention by being funny. I never thought I would turn it into a career. I went into accounting and economics, and in my last semester, I read a quote from Bruce Lee that truly changed my life: If you want to succeed with Plan A, you can’t have a Plan B. My finance degree was my Plan B in case I failed on the stage.
Khairallah: I was always quiet. People might be surprised [to see my set]. My brother tells me, ‘Whoa, all of a sudden you’re a comedian? Why?’
Hallak: I was really nerdy in school. I studied civil engineering, and I was such a good student, to the point that my teachers are getting in touch on social media now saying, ‘Why did we never see this side of you? It turns out you’re funny!’
Q: What was your family’s reaction when you decided to pursue stand-up comedy?
Khalefa: I broke the news to my parents about quitting accounting and economics in a skit show on stage. They had no idea I was performing. When we went home, I got it bad. They were really upset. Without their knowledge, I used to wait tables for three months intensively, working for 13 hours a day, to save money to go into first year of theatre. I told them to give me one year — if I couldn’t make it, then I would go back into accounting and economics. Seven years later, I received something saying I can go back to school. At the same time, I had booked a sold-out show for 1,200 people. I showed it to my mum, and it was like coming full circle. I tore the offer up.
Hallak: My dad was a civil engineer, and I wouldn’t say it was by force, but he really wanted me to study the same thing, so that’s why I entered civil engineering, to make his dream come true. He wanted me to do comedy and engineering side-by-side, and I used to work from day until night doing both. But now my parents are big fans and big supporters — the whole family is.
Q: Finally, how did you decide on the material you wanted to include in your Netflix special?
Khalefa: For me, the most important thing was that any person who could speak Arabic could understand me. I didn’t want to use super specific references. I wanted all Arabic speakers to understand at least 80 per cent of my jokes.
Hallak: They’re all real stories, close to the heart, and close to the eye. Happy New Year to all — check us out on January 1, 2019.
Don’t miss it
‘Comedians of the World’ begins streaming on January 1 on Netflix.
DID YOU KNOW?
Saudi stand-up Moayad Nefaie will also perform in Arabic on ‘Comedians of the World’, while Dutch actress Soundos Al Ahmadi, who has Moroccan roots, will be part of the Netherlands contingent.