Saudi Arabian comedians Khaliv Kalifa, Shak and Yaser Bakr performed Wednesday at the Magnolia Theater as part of the Comedy Caravan, a touring comedy show sponsored by the Middle East Institute.
Saudi Arabian comedians Khaliv Kalifa, Shak and Yaser Bakr performed Wednesday at the Magnolia Theater as part of the Comedy Caravan, a touring comedy show sponsored by the Middle East Institute.
Danny Gallagher

During Dallas Visit, Saudi Comics Say Comedy Can Help Their People Become 'Free-Thinking'

When you think of Saudi Arabia and its people, a great sense of humor probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind, but last week The Middle East Institute was in Dallas to prove that the country has actually produced some fine comedians.

The institute sponsored a free, hourlong touring show at The Magnolia hotel Wednesday night featuring a trio of Saudi Arabian comedians including Khaliv Kalifa, Shak and Yaser Bakr, the latter of whom opened Saudi Arabia's first comedy club.

The evening offered three unique perspectives on comedy. It opened with Kalifa, whose set consisted mostly of observational humor based on his experiences in Saudi Arabia and America.

"For me, Richard Pryor is my number one," Kalifa told the Observer. "When my parents were studying here in the States, because I was born in California, I remember being influenced by TV shows like The Jeffersons and Three's Company as well as this magazine called MAD Magazine. I never imagined there would be something that from cover to cover would just make fun of everything."

In his set Kalifa said he's noticed some Indian citizens used the word "hotel" to mean both a place where one sleeps overnight and where one obtains a meal and adult beverages.

"If that guy came here, that would be a problem," Kalifa said. "Hello baby, can I take you to a hotel?"

Shak strutted out on stage next with the bravado and voice of your average Brooklyn bro. In his act, he joked that Facebook is a place where friends "poke you like you're a dead dog, just to see if you're alive." He also flirted with some self-effacing racial humor, like how both halves of his ethnicity fight with each to go on a boat or a plane.

Shak told the Observer he gets his sense humor from his family as well as Western comedians that he grew up listening to and unconsciously studying as a kid. "I was influenced by my mother," Shak said. "I also love Louis CK, David Chappelle, Chris Rock, Khaliv Kalifa ... because he's American if you didn't notice. He was born in California."

Bakr closed out the evening. He's one of the founding fathers of comedy in Saudi Arabia, and he also opened its first comedy club. He's great with characters, voices and crowd work. He can link the people he talks to in the audience as if he's doing a "Connect the Dots" page in an adult activity book.

"Stand up comedy is fairly new to the Middle East and a little bit more popular in Saudi Arabia than the rest of the Arab world," Bakr told the Observer. "It's picking up. Seventy percent of the nation is under 30 so they are subscribing to digital comedy and stand-up comedy as a new form that's emerging."

Kalifa said his and his fellow comedians' main goal is to use their comedy to entertain people, whether in Saudi Arabia or America. He has noticed that humor seems to help Saudi Arabian audiences to become more free-thinking.

"I thought I was just standing on stage rambling my thoughts, but the reaction was very strong," Kalifa told the Observer. "People were laughing very strongly because it's the first time they hear somebody saying something in public that's on a lot of people's minds, like making fun of the typical people you see at the mall or just anything you can relate to. Then from there, it picks up."

Shak said that while Americans and Saudi Arabians may have different perspectives and experiences, the humor is pretty much the same. "Both of them laugh at stereotypical jokes," Shak said. "Both of them laugh at daily life or family jokes. I would say 80 percent of the humor would work in both countries. The American society is a little bit more liberal and open to some ideas which give us a little bit more range to do stuff that would fit with an audience in the States here."

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