Woes can have their funny side

Egyptians are known for their sense of humour, but years of economic crises has left them in need of some comic relief.

An actress parodies Egyptian television presenter Mona al Shazly during an episode of the comedy programme Talk Show.
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CAIRO // Egyptians may be known for their sense of humour, but years of economic crises and political stagnation have left them in need of some comic relief. So when Moga (Wave) Comedy channel, whose motto is "Laughter from the first look", launched in late June, there was much excitement. Moga, which airs on the state-owned Nilesat satellite network 24 hours a day, runs Egyptian comedy movies, satirical news shows, teleplays and sitcoms.

"The idea of having a pure Egyptian comedy channel has been simmering for years," said Saif Momtaz, the channel's manager. "Finally, a group of Egyptian businessmen made the dream come true." The channel's most popular programme is Talk Show, which parodies the anchors from serious Egyptian news and talk shows. The feeling among Moga's programmers was that the majority of news shows were relentlessly negative, and depressed viewers more than they informed.

"For sure Egypt, like all countries, has problems, but these shows keep emphasising the problems without providing any solution or hope," Mr Momtaz said. "I'm against using and abusing the suffering and dreams of the Egyptians. So we decided to criticise [the shows] and make fun of them, and people are loving it." Talk Show imitates such popular programmes as Cairo Today, hosted by Amr Adib, a well-known anchor, on the Saudi-owned Orbit satellite channel; Mona al Shazly's Ten o'Clock Show on the privately owned Egyptian satellite channel Dream; and Sorry for the Disturbance, featuring Mona al Husseiny, on the same channel.

Wael Alaa, 31, is one of the young actors and actresses who impersonate the anchors and their guests, and so far has played Adel Imam, one of Egypt's most famous actors and comedians, and Youssef Chahine, the late movie director. "I knew our society today was in desperate need of comedy and laughter, but didn't expect people to adore it like this," Mr Alaa said. "People are stopping me in the street to congratulate me for my episodes as well as the channel, which makes me very happy."

And the impersonations of the anchors are not necessarily derisive. Shahira Saad, a graduate from the Theatre Arts Institute who plays Mona al Husseiny of Dream TV, said she is "in love with" her subject and "imitated her with admiration". Ms Husseiny was so impressed by Ms Saad's work that she personally congratulated her. "Ms al Husseiny is inviting us on to her show," she said. "I'm so glad she wasn't upset that I imitate her."

Egypt has long been known in the Arab world as Ibn Nokta (the son of laughter) for its people's jovial sense of humour, but the mood throughout the country, where unemployment, poverty and inflation have grown considerably in recent years, has noticeably darkened. The public's response to a channel that attempts to lift the gloom has been largely positive. "I love this channel, I'm watching it all the time," said Alia Magdy, 24. "It's very funny."

"Moga Comedy has a big audience, despite its young age," wrote Ahmed Farhat on his website al Mahata (the Station). However, the channel has come under fire for some of its portrayals, in particular Mr Alaa's impersonation of Mr Chahine. The elderly director was in a critical condition in a hospital at the time the sketch was broadcast. He died eight days ago. "The timing of the programme making fun of Youssef Chahine was tasteless as the man is being treated in France for a haemorrhage and is in an unstable condition," one blog writer said at the time.

Others have questioned why Egyptians would choose to mock talk shows that attempt to hold the government to account by discussing such issues as corruption, flagging public services and growing poverty - and at a time when the threat of censorship looms. News shows have come under fire from the Egyptian government recently for publicly discussing national problems, and on April 1, state-owned Nilesat abruptly dropped the signal of al Hiwar, a London-based Arabic television station known for its criticism of the government, without providing any reason.

Moreover, in February, Egypt and Saudi Arabia introduced Principles for Organising Satellite Broadcast and Television Transmission and Reception in the Arab Region, which was adopted by the Arab League. Many complain it has tamed the serious talk shows. "As long as [Moga] and others can't make fun of the rulers, their path will be short," said Ali Salem, an Egyptian comic and playwright. "We'll wait and see."