For Ibrahim Al Hajjaj, comedy is no laughing matter.
Although he has been at the forefront of the Saudi stand-up scene for almost a decade, his lighthearted observations frequently take on deeper meanings.
“We don’t say jokes only for the joke,” he tells The National. “I love the form of stand-up comedy. One man tells jokes, and he has hidden messages behind his jokes, criticising this and that, observing society and all.”
And his approach is clearly working. When he's not on stage, he's running a comedy club in Dammam. He has also appeared in several Saudi films and TV shows, including AlKhallat+, Rashash and Six Windows in the Desert.
With his ability to blend serious social commentary with comedy routines, Al Hajjaj's standing on the stand-up circuit is growing in the region and beyond. He recently marked his UK debut, performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where he sought to make light of similarities between Saudi and Scottish cultures.
Though his stage performances appear effortless, Al Hajjaj admits being a comedian is hard work – one that entangles comics in fear.
“You always have that fear of: ‘What if they don’t laugh?’” he says. “That fear begins with you when you start, and even if you become the biggest comedian in the world, you still have that fear. I think that’s the fuel that makes us come up with better jokes.”
Al Hajjaj’s roots in comedy trace to his childhood home. He initially aspired to be a musician, following the steps of his older brother M Al Hajjaj, who founded one of Saudi Arabia’s first rock bands Sound of Ruby.
“Our house was always full of guitars and artistic tools,” Al Hajjaj says. “I always wanted to be a musician, but I think I got that interest from my brother.”
However, Al Hajjaj came to “hate music for a while” after an experience he had as a university student, which he opted not to share.
“I just wanted to try something new and get away from music,” he says. “That’s when comedy happened. It was a coincidence.”
Al Hajjaj’s entry into the Saudi comedy scene was a modest one. In 2015, he performed as part of a private comedy show, an experience he loved, and which eventually inspired him to establish House of Comedy. As one of Saudi Arabia’s earliest comedy clubs, it was the first of its kind in Dammam and, after its success in Saudi’s eastern province, another branch was opened in Riyadh.
“I [wanted] to do shows and there [was] no place for me,” he says. “Stand-up comedy wasn’t trendy. I think the motive I had back then [was] having that space for you and people that look like you.
“That’s why I, along with Talal Alenizi, Faisal Adoukhi and Faisal Alenizi, my lovely partners, decided to open this comedy club. There was a lot of talents that [wanted] to do stand-up. We formed it in 2018. We did auditions, and 200 people came. It was crazy.
“Till today, House of Comedy is generating talents. In the last audition we did, we found two lovely female Saudi comedians and they’re going to start doing shows with us.”
While a decade ago, the Saudi comedy scene was a nascent one, it has grown considerably since, Al Hajjaj says. The kingdom now boasts eight comedy clubs, all of which “are functioning well”.
“A lot of comedians are coming out. [The scene] is becoming bigger and bigger,” he says. Established organisations, including MBC, have also started scouting for talents for their productions. “They’ve come up with maybe 300 talents, females and males,” he says. “There are a lot of female comedians in Saudi now, and it’s beautiful.”
Government entities have also been instrumental in bolstering up-and-comers, Al Hajjaj says, including the Ministry of Culture.
About his performances at the Fringe Festival, titled From Riyadh to Edinburgh, Al Hajjaj says he found quite a few similarities between the daily life and culture in the UK and in Saudi. “The main message that I’m trying to send is that, in some ways, we are all the same. We’re people that love to laugh.”
One of his main jokes revolves around the poster of his show that has been put up around Edinburgh and in which he is seen wearing a thawb. “Everybody that passes by, I’m sure, thinks that I’m rich,” he says. “In fact, we’re not all rich. I’m not rich.”
The feedback to his shows, he says, was “overwhelming” and “unexpected”, with an audience that was delightfully diverse.
“We’ve got people that travelled from London only for the show, a lot of Saudis, a lot of Scottish people,” he says. “I enjoyed it. I’m definitely coming back here again. It’s a huge festival. A lot of awesome comedians today […] started here.”