Stand-up comedy Qatari-style

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News

image captionQataris have a great deal to smile about, with enormous wealth and increasing diplomatic clout

Here is a sophisticated comedy research tool which will help to identify your location anywhere on the planet as surely as any tracking of your IP address or triangulation of your nearest 3G masts.

Why did the chicken cross the road ?

If you answered "to get to the other side" you are in Britain - and were given away by the gentle subversion of expectation which is the hallmark of a good joke there.

If your reply was "to see Gregory Peck" you're probably an American - and given the trajectory of his career you're likely to be more than 60 years old.

If your answer was "because in his wisdom and kindness the Emir has decided to provide poultry-friendly pedestrian crossings" then I'd say there's a good chance that you're Qatari.

A new tradition of stand-up comedy in the tiny Gulf Emirate is struggling to its feet - and its fair to say that performers there have their own ideas about what's funny. And what's not.

When we travelled to the Qatari capital Doha we had the idea of talking to new young performers about some of the themes in Qatari life which interest outsiders.

And Qatar is fascinating. It sits on vast gas deposits and is by some measures the richest country on earth. It has thrown up a startling skyline of Manhattan proportions in just a few years while its Sovereign Wealth Fund makes canny investments around the world.

And of course it will be hosting the 2022 World Cup in average summer temperatures of 45 degrees centigrade.

Comedy gold you might think. And you'd be wrong.

image captionQatari comedy is more in the Bernard Manning mould than of the Alexei Sayle kind

The most obvious subject to raise with young performers in any new country is political comedy.

In Britain and in plenty of other places too - France, Russia and the US for example - one of the purposes of comedy is to tear down the powerful.

A request to hear anyone's best one-liner about the ruling Emir is met with uncomfortable silence.

Abdallah al-Ghanim, who's just done some of his material about vegetarianism, seems a little shocked.

"The guy is an amazing person and there's the utmost respect for the leader," he tells me. "I wouldn't make fun of my father so why would I make fun of someone who's leading my country. We have the World Cup, we're the richest country in the world - why would I make fun of it?".

One of the young performers challenges us on Britain's comedy values - surely we're not trying to tell them that British comedians make fun of the Royal Family ?

We have a stab at explaining about Punch, Private Eye, Spitting Image and the rest of it but our culture of disrespect seems as absurd to them as their rather over-reverential attitude does to us.

What about lower down the political chain of command we ask - what about Hamad bin Jassim (known as HBJ) the man who serves as prime minister and foreign minister.

image captionComedian Saad Khan's routine concentrates on impersonations, not political satire

There is another moment of frosty silence.

"This guy," Abdallah says, "is one of the best foreign affairs politicians in the world. The guy is a good friend with the US and with Iran. It takes a genius to do that and when you have a genius like this in your country why do you need to make fun of them?"

I try without success to imagine a British stand-up comedian describing the work of David Cameron or William Hague in such glowing terms - or how a Comedy Club audience might react if they did.

It may be after all that discontent is one of the most important drivers of angry British comedy - and that there's simply not much discontent around in a rich country that feels it's beginning to punch above its diplomatic weight.

You can't really do cost-of-living gags in a country where every government employee has just been given a 60 per cent pay rise.


So we focus on what Qatari stand-ups do find funny - and it turns out that Qatar is not just a wealthy country, and a diplomatically influential country. It is also Bernard Manning country.

All three young performers agree that accent comedy - how foreigners speak either English or Arabic - is where it's at.

Omar Allouba - who it would be fair to say hasn't found the exchange of ideas about comedy funny and who hasn't done anything to make it funnier - attempts to explain.

"I do accent jokes," he explains, "Indian accents, Egyptian accents and Arabic English accents... basically I introduce myself and so my name is Umr... unless you're English in which case it's Oh-Mah."

image captionThe Emir may joke, but Qatari comics are not tempted to make him the butt of their jibes

Omar is Egyptian and I ask him if the upheaval in his home country in the last year has provided him with any material.

He looks at me disbelievingly. Egypt is an important society which is constantly evolving and improving. Why would anyone find that funny?

Some aspects of the comedy we heard did feel as though they might travel slightly better - one of the young comedians who spoke to us, Saad Khan, had a pleasing comic demeanour rather like a South Asian Oliver Hardy. And he did rather a good impersonation of a British football commentator too ("Ohmigod... He Shoots! He Scores!").

And its important to bring a degree of humility to all of this of course - what you find funny depends not just on how old you are and where you come from but who you are yourself.

But Qatar is a country which is learning quickly how to convert its enormous economic clout into soft power - whether that's through smart strategic investments like Harrods, through the Qatar Foundation (sponsor of FC Barcelona) or through its satellite TV network, Al Jazeera.

It just seems it might be a while before it can it rely on its home-grown stand-comedians to help develop the brand.

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