Jokes fall a little flat at comedy audition

An open-mic event held to find an amateur stand-up comedian to open a show in Abu Dhabi fails to find anyone funny enough to take the prize.

United Arab Emmirates - Abu Dhabi - Jan. 24 - 2009 : Abdul Majeed Akkad, from Syria, perform during an open mic comedy auditions organized by Comedy Arabia at Abu Dhabi Mall ( Jaime Puebla / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  JP06 Comedy Arabia.jpg
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ABU DHABI // There is little worse, comedians will tell you, than performing to a nearly empty room. By 3pm yesterday, already an hour behind schedule, it looked as if that fate would befall dozens of amateurs taking part in an open-mic comedy event at Abu Dhabi Mall. That's when the host of the event, the Egyptian comic Ahmed Ahmed, sprang into action. Less than 30 minutes later, he had gathered hundreds of passers-by to the Comedy Arabia stage at the shopping centre.

The event, which was staged ahead of Mr Ahmed's comedy shows at the Beach Rotana this week, was aimed at nurturing home-grown talent. The prize was a chance to open for Mr Ahmed and fellow comedians. The contestants told jokes in Arabic and English, with varying degrees of success, until 9pm. A short time later, Mr Ahmed declared that, unfortunately, the search had been in vain. "The hunt for Abu Dhabi's best comedian continues," he said.

Earlier in the day, contestants were slow to mount the stage as they battled with nerves. But after the first few brave souls tried to bring the house down, others soon followed to tell their jokes to Ahmed and his fellow judges, including the comedian Sebastian Maniscalco and a Dubai-based rapper who calls himself The Narcycist. The most fearless contestants, agreed the panel, were the children who both sang and told jokes.

Comments from the panel were light-hearted and less abrasive than those of, say, a Simon Cowell, the UK celebrity judge who has built a reputation for berating contestants on programmes such as American Idol. Mr Ahmed, 38, set up the event to promote comedy in the UAE. "We always want to find local talent in whichever city or region we are in," he said. "When you get to a place in your career where you can try to bring people up, there is a whole list of up-and-coming artists. It's only natural to try and reach out.

"I love watching other people rise and like watching their success. I like watching their eyes sparkle when they come offstage. "When we have found comics in Beirut and Dubai and Cairo in 2007, we gave them an opportunity to perform in front of thousands of people, which they wouldn't have ever had a chance to do. We wanted to do the same thing with Abu Dhabi essentially. It's gratifying for me to watch other people's excitement."

Comedy in the Middle East has come a long way in a short time, said Mr Ahmed. "What's interesting is that about 365 days ago, there was no such thing as stand-up comedy in the Middle East. Suddenly it has become this huge gold rush and everybody is trying to sift through." Mr Ahmed was born in Helwan, Egypt. His parents emigrated to the US a short time later and he grew up in Riverside, California. He moved to Hollywood when he was 19 years old to pursue a career as an actor and stand-up comedian.

"When I leave here I am going to back to the States," Mr Ahmed said. "We want to leave some sort of impression on the region that it is possible, you can be funny. The initiative that we started with the stand-up comedy scene in the Middle East has grown far beyond we could have ever imagined." In his almost 20 years in show business, Mr Ahmed has appeared in films and television shows including Iron Man, You Don't Mess With The Zohan, Swingers, Tracey Takes On and Roseanne. In 2007 he spent a month touring the US as part of the actor Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show, which became a documentary that aired last year on HBO.

"People get competitive when they get to the top and they say 'Well, I don't need anybody else taking my crown'," said the comedian. "Me personally, I feel guilty if I am trying to just hoard it all for myself. I have never had that mentality because I don't have any ego. I compete with myself, I don't compete with any other comedians or actors." Mr Ahmed's new company, Comedy Arabia, is intended to replace his previous troupe, which staged the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

The name Mr Ahmed had borrowed, Axis of Evil, was a term coined by the former US president, George W Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union address to describe governments he accused of helping terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. "After Axis of Evil disbanded, we had been touring for seven years. People had their own direction. President Bush is out of office so Axis of Evil is dated, so we started Comedy Arabia."

The company's headquarters are in Hollywood and the UAE. Comedians who grew up in the West will be accepted here, he said, but they have some adapting to do. "Comedians, we are reporters. We just report the news. But there is a gag order that is placed on comedians," he said. "That's the one setback that the Middle East, specifically the UAE, is going to have to deal with. In America we have freedom of speech. In the region here there is no such thing."

But overall it poses no major problems, he said. "There's enough material out there that we don't have to talk about those taboo things. I do a lot of family material." He also thinks Arabs need to lighten up. "Arabs have a hard time laughing at themselves. We take ourselves way too seriously," he said. "It's almost like the rest of the world can't laugh at us until we laugh at ourselves first." Jews are one minority who have succeeded in this way, he said.

"The Jews have it down to a science. All the Jews in Hollywood are so successful in Hollywood because they poke fun at themselves. When Arabs learn to do that, it's going to be a lot more accepted."