The saying goes: "If you're bored, then you're boring". While this might well be true for some dreary sorts out there, it certainly can't be said for Fahad Albutairi, the lively Saudi stand-up comic and one of the masterminds behind the successful YouTube comedy La Yekthar, which has just started its second series.
Albutairi, who was already a rising name on the comedy circuit since he debuted as the opening act for The Axis of Evil five years ago (he was later dubbed the “Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia”), admits that he and his mates were “very, very bored” when they first picked up a video camera in late 2010.
“We started shooting a few monologues and stuff like that, which developed into a few sketches,” he says in fluent English with a distinct Texan twang, hinting at his time at university in Austin. And from there, La Yekthar – which loosely translates as “Zip it” – was born, propelling the 27-year-old from Khobar into Saudi celebrity-dom.
As La Yekthar – which is largely sketch- and character-driven but touches on socio-political issues within the kingdom – grew in popularity with each monthly episode (the most popular one got more than five million hits), so came the support. “We got sponsors and signed on Google in Dubai as a partner channel,” says Albutairi, adding that the little project quickly grew into its own cottage industry. “It has helped us build a field of business that wasn’t there before,” he says.
The group that started La Yekthar – Albutairi along with his fellow writers Ibraheem Alkhairallah, Mazroua Al Mazroua and directors Ali Kalthami and Alaa Yoosef – formed the production house C3 Films. “We now have four different shows and collectively have more than a million subscribers, with more than 100 million views since we started.”
The La Yekthar team has grown in size, too, adding more talent from across Saudi. “Faisal Assad started as this guy with a humorous Twitter account but it turns out he’s a great writer,” says Albutairi. “Then there’s a composer, who goes by the name of Mo Ghazi, who took our theme tune and did an old-school, hip-hop remix. And we have a graffiti artist who helped create a lot of the imagery for the intro, and the artistic--conception sides to the sketches.”
The characters that were brought to life on the show have also developed wings and spin-offs. “We’ve even started a show for a crocodile puppet that initially featured as a character on La Yekthar,” laughs Albutairi. “Now he interviews celebrities and makes fun of them.”
Crocodile puppets aside, there are clear messages in La Yekthar that touch on the problems faced by young Saudis living in the kingdom today. “Each character kind of represents a sort of socio-political issue,” explains Albutairi. “There’s a tall guy who wears a shamal [ghutra] and he kind of represents corruption. Then there’s a guy who wears a ragged thobe [kandura] and carries a green film holder, and he represents unemployment. We also have a guy chained to a concrete block, the sort found in road works, and that is a kind of hint at traffic problems and corruption.”
A show that pokes fun at the inner mechanisms of a country considered to be the most conservative in the region – if not the world – might be considered ripe for censorship.
But although Albutairi admits they’ve had to occasionally reach out to lawyers for consultation, he says the show has so far been untouched by censorship. “People think that, because we talk about certain political or socio-political issues, we’ve got into trouble with the government. But, no, they’ve been encouraging, for some reason.”
Albutairi recounts the time four of them from the show went to meet the Saudi crown prince Salman bin Abdulaziz in his office. “We chilled with him. The number two guy in the whole country, well, he’s a fan. He watches a lot of the YouTube shows we produce.”
But beyond the royal offices, La Yekthar’s comedic tentacles have spread out beyond Saudi borders. While Albutairi says its interesting that he’s now recognised by Egyptians – the show has quite a following in Egypt – he adds that he was recently contacted by a casting director who wanted to know if he’d be interested in appearing in Wes Anderson’s next project.
“I said yes, of course. But it was still at the writing stage. After a while, they said they were going for a different cultural background for the character. But for the show to have reached them is amazing.”
This taste of Hollywood – albeit unsuccessful – is something Albutairi would certainly like again, and he isn’t averse to getting a representative in North America or the UK. “One thing we really want to do, as comedians, is to have global appeal. Many of us do comedy not just in Arabic but also in English. We’d also like to pursue acting careers, like other stand-up comedians. Me and Alkhairallah would love to reach out to Hollywood again at some point.”
Aside from the personal achievement such success might bring, they also hope to perhaps break down negative stereotypes. “We’d really like to represent Saudis in general in a very bright light.”
Saudi Arabia might not have any cinemas nor dedicated comedy venues (most are temporary, set up far away from the religious police), but thanks to Albutairi and the La Yekthar gang, the country is home to one of the most vibrant comic scenes in the region, with fans across the Arab world and beyond.
So, the next time you’re bored ...
Watch La Yekthar on www.youtube.com/layektharshow