Chuckles and squeals ran through the crowd at a rare amateur comedy festival last week in Riyadh, organized by the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).
The authority is boosting entertainment options like never before, from a Comic-Con festival to concerts by female musicians.
“I am a jobless dentist,” 26-year-old Battar Al-Battar said in a slow, deadpan delivery on stage to a smiling audience.
“My prayers have been answered. I see lots of braces in this crowd.”
The festival would hardly be unusual if it were not in Saudi Arabia.
“The common perception is that Saudis don’t have a funny bone,” said Yaser Bakr, a festival jury member and founder of the Kingdom’s first comedy club.
“Saudis love to laugh. Numbers don’t lie,” he said, scrolling through a list of Saudi comedy videos on his mobile’s YouTube app, each with hundreds of thousands of views.
The venue for the five-day festival, Riyadh’s King Fahd Cultural Center, was like a bubble of laughing gas over the course of the performances.
The festival, a talent-hunt of sorts for Saudi Arabia’s own version of “Seinfeld,” was a rare attempt to introduce stand-up comedy to the masses.
Aside from a handful of Saudi YouTube comedy stars, performers are largely struggling without theaters and entertainment companies, as well as a lack of mass awareness of the art form.
“Many people think comedy is only sex jokes. We are trying to change that,” said festival director Jubran Al-Jubran. “Saudi Arabia needs to cultivate this art. Comedy has a purifying effect, it cleanses the soul. It’s a relief to laugh about our own problems.”
But the audience was only mildly amused by cringe-worthy jokes and low-brow humor from some performers.
The performing comedians were all men, but the festival organizers said women were expected to participate next year despite the risk of riling conservatives. The festival highlights a broader reform push by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Legendary Greek composer and pianist Yanni performed to a packed audience in Riyadh last week, accompanied by female vocalists. The change chimes with the crown prince’s recent pledge to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam.”
Expanding on the crown prince’s comment, Al-Jubran said: “We aim to destroy extremism through comedy, by making people laugh.”