Sand Up Comedy tour brings much-needed laughs from Saudi Arabia to San Francisco

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It’s easy for an observational comic to tell a joke along the lines of “what’s the deal with airplanes,” but it’s safe to say that such comics have had vastly different experiences on airplanes than Saudi Arabian comics. At Sand Up Comedy, Saudi Arabia’s first comedy tour, there was even an air marshall present. Er, almost.

During a Nov. 9 show at Cobb’s Comedy Club, comedian Tehran pointed out a token white man in the audience. After a few jabs describing him as the room’s air marshall, he asked his name. It was (of course) Dennis. “Dennis, that must be nice,” Tehran said. “You know what his name is?” The comic pointed at a fellow Saudi in the audience. “His name is,” then Tehran simply made a glottal sound to an outburst of laughter.

But more so than pointing out what’s different between comics of different cultural backgrounds, the five comedians of Sand Up Comedy are showing audiences that we’re all very much the same. Top Saudi comedians Lama Alfard, Thamer Alhazmi, Yaser Bakr, Khalid Khalifa and Shakir Sharif, alongside emcee Ahmed Ahmed, embarked on a five-city U.S. tour at the beginning of November. Offering free tickets at each of their stops, the comedians played Cobb’s in San Francisco on Nov. 9 and 10.

The group of stand-ups is really the ideal medley of comedic styles. All five comics have been inspired by Western comedy, having had access to television shows or grown up in the States. Khalid remembers sneaking peeks of “Eddie Murphy: Raw” and connecting with what was happening on screen, filth and all. Alfard scored a brief spot at a Gabriel Iglesias show in Florida, and Bakr gained access to more comics via YouTube.

Saudi Arabian comedy has been on the rise since an early wave of comics arrived on the scene in 2008. And thus there became a need for a centralized location, a home of sorts, for comics to work material. Bakr had a hand in launching Saudi Arabia’s first comedy club, AlComedyClub in Jeddah.

Bakr spoke about the language barrier he’s encountered when performing for American audiences as a definitive part of his tour experience. “I can only express maybe 70 percent of what I’m thinking,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s like performing handicapped.”

Clearly, over the course of the tour, which will make its final stop at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York, the comics have learned what American audiences will laugh at and implemented their newfound knowledge well. Translating the nuances of stand-up through cultural and language barriers is a difficult skill to master, and audiences rarely get to experience it live.

The comedians’ sets have not been short of Donald Trump material, certainly not during their show Nov. 9: America’s traumatic morning after the election. How could we laugh again?

“You guys must be fucking depressed, huh?” opened host Ahmed. “I woke up hungover and I didn’t even drink last night.” Of course, the comedians of Sand Up Comedy didn’t anticipate the world all but falling apart for many Americans smack dab in the middle of their run, yet it was undeniable that the first show post-Trump election would be a heavy one. At first, the audience wasn’t biting, but then fell into that old rhythm of laughing. It would be OK — eventually.

Thamer expressed some pity for us Americans. You think dictatorship is bad? “Try fucked up democracy,” he said.

Guest comedian Dhaya Lakshminarayanan talked about growing up as a young Indian woman in Alabama, as Christian folks tried to convert her from Hinduism. “What’s hell?” she asked a well-meaning Alabaman. “Is it kind of like being a Hindu in Alabama?” The joke got an applause break.

With the much-needed frankness from the comics, the show was everything you want stand-up to be: honest, open and hilarious. Our nation had a bleak outlook on Tuesday night, and come Wednesday, Sand Up Comedy turned it around, at least for an evening.

In a phone interview, Sharif at first joked about going into the Nov. 9 show as a visiting Saudi comedian. He stayed in his hotel all day — being half Black and half Arab, also known as the “police’s favorite suspect,” he didn’t know what would happen outside on the stressful day. He laughed and said, “I don’t got that complexion.”

But Sharif tossed the jokes aside and spoke to the gravity of what that Wednesday show meant to him. “I don’t hate the guy that got elected or the guy that lost. I don’t hate (anyone),” said Sharif. “I just want to find a way to make people laugh. You can fix everything by laughing.”

Danielle Gutierrez covers comedy. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @dmariegutierrez.