Dubai writing panel a laughing matter

Comedians bring back 'Friday Night Live'

Complete Dubai fest coverage

UPDATED: 11: 38 am, Dec. 29, 2008

DUBAI -- Back by popular demand to test the boundaries, ask the tough questions and boost up -- and tear down -- the stern image often assigned to North Africa and the Middle East are a group of comedians whose jokes must walk a fine line.

Starting on the eve of the Muslim day of rest, "Friday Night Live: New World Order," will play three sold-out shows at the Dubai Community Theater supported by the Showtime Arabia channel that reaches 18 regional markets.

"In a post-boom, Obama era, it seemed a good time to revisit the region, see what it can take now," Showtime executive Eric Preven said on the sidelines of a comedy writing panel on Day 2 of the Dubai International Film Festival.

The "Friday Night" players have a growing fan base here after two previous tours called "Access of Evil" and "Minority Rules."

The group -- humorist Ron Josol from the Philippines and Canada; Sugar Sammy, Montreal's No. 1 Indian comic; Egyptian-American funnyman Ronnie Khalil; and Dubai's own Wonho Chung -- appears to have returned just in time.

In the wake of the end of Saudi network MBC's long-running hit series "Tash ma Tash" -- shown for years during Ramadan -- there's a bit of a comedy vacuum.

"People got tired of it. It just wasn't funny anymore," said Saudi producer Danya Alhamrani, who has tried for three years to get a comedy conference going in Saudi Arabia, "to discuss laughter and Islam," inspired partly by the U.S. troupe "Allah Made Me Funny."

"They were asking, 'If God made me funny, why can't I use my comedy?' " Alhamrani said.

The answer might lie in the myriad subjects, even seemingly harmless words, which are off limits.

Khalil said that regional taboo is not always clear, except around a few issues: "Don't deal with sex or the leader of the country where you're playing. Other leaders are okay, but if you offend the wrong person, you won't come back."

Tariq Al Bahar, a journalist from neighboring Bahrain, expanded on this from the panel audience. "You must understand,even the word 'crap,' is forbidden here. A deejay on the radio would get fired for saying it."

As comedian George Carlin -- famous for his skit about the seven words banned from American TV -- rolled over in his grave, another panel guest dropped a bomb: "Could an Arab Archie Bunker ever exist?"

Preven said that Showtime is hoping for change that could make a local avatar of the hit '70s sitcom "All in the Family," whose bigoted patriarch, played by Carroll O'Connor, turned U.S. television into an uncomfortable mirror.

"We're working with local producers to develop that kind of a show," Preven said. "We're not sure it'd be as hard-hitting, but we do think there's room for comedy to be constructive."

"Friday Night" performers allowed that Showtime Arabia, owned partly by Viacom, cleared their jokes.

"We want to make sure the material we use here is family friendly," Sugar Sammy said.

Khalil, for his part, remembered returning to his parents' homeland, Egypt, and making fun of the accents. "Now I play the region and my perspective has changed. Now I am a Middle Easterner making the locals laugh." He aims for subtlety in his routine. "You don't always have to hit comedy right on the head."

Josol, said that the "Friday Night" team is no different from comedians the world over. "We were all neglected as children," he said. When the panel audience cracked up, Josol shot back, "That's not funny," then added a plea: "I will say that, apart from getting attention, I'm just out to prove that Filipinos are the greatest people on Earth. And not at all boastful, and really humble."

Applauding from the audience was Abduljalil Al-Nasser, a 25-year-old Saudi filmmaker. "We need comedy now more than ever in the Middle East. When people laugh about their own problems and prejudices, unconsciously they'll think about it differently next time," he said.

Khalil said that the "Friday Night" show in Jordan last week shattered a stereotype daunting to comedians: "They say Jordanians don't laugh. But they do."