Anyone who has lived in Egypt has come to realise that, in any situation, we have the uncanny ability to find humour in everything. We’re a very comedic culture by nature, so why is it that Egyptian pop-culture no longer has a comedic voice of truth?
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that our mainstream comedic voice isn’t funny enough – I’m saying that it relies very heavily on slapstick, pranks and cheap laughs. It’s very difficult to find an intelligent or controversial joke in Egyptian comedy films.
Things in Egypt have been pretty tragic for a few decades and comedy has been our light in the darkness. Comedy transcends cultural and social barriers and reaches every member of society. To be honest, our sense of humor may have evolved as a coping mechanism, but that doesn’t matter – we have it.
So…what is comedy? It seems to be the ability to evoke an unexplainable, involuntary bodily reaction. What is laughter? I literally have no idea, but I know it’s awesome when it happens. I might not know how it happens, but I know that comedy can be an incredibly powerful tool.
Ancient Greece was the birthplace of theatre, with three genres having emerged; tragedy, comedy, and the satyr play (basically a burlesque show on crack). With time, the duality of comedy and tragedy became kind of a big deal. Genres are not defined by their content; they’re distinctive perspectives on life, they impact how we tell stories.
As an art form, comedy has been manipulated to do many things; it can be used to make people happy, or to sell things – every single Ramadan ad that isn’t trying to emotionally manipulate you is trying to make you laugh – or to discuss things and communicate ideas that simple debate would not do justice to, a la Jon Stewart. Anything can be funny, which is why ‘free’ comedic mediums exist – like sketch shows and stand-up. Having popular mediums entirely dedicated to comedy has shown us the kind of potential it has. There are dedicated artists who work every day to figure out what will make you laugh and how they can do it.
It’s really easy to get a cheap laugh. Slapstick comedy is what you see every time someone slips on a banana or gets a pie to the face. It’s pretty great if you’re five years old, but any older and you’re just an idiot – unless someone is REALLY getting hurt – and I’ll admit that I often find myself laughing agreeably and it’s hilarious. Just ask the Jackass guys; it’s an empire based on extreme slapstick.
Most Egyptian public storytelling mediums rely on slapstick, pranks, and the ‘iffei’ – that one-liner that cracks everyone up. We haven’t intellectualised it or helped it develop; we just reuse and recycle what was funny ten years ago. It’s not sustainable and it certainly isn’t going to stick.
The comedy that really sticks is the clever kind. I’m not telling you to make a joke about quantum physics; I’m talking about the humor that surprises you. The joke comes out of left field and you don’t know how to process it in your brain but your body knows what to do – you laugh, you’re overwhelmed. This type of humour can be timeless and can be used to say really powerful things.
A few years ago, we had a revolution. An Egyptian doctor decided to use the Daily Show format to discuss what was happening in Egypt. He quickly became one of the biggest names in Egypt. What he was doing wasn’t globally groundbreaking, innovative, or new – but Egypt hadn’t seen it before.
He used comedy and fearless, honest, hilarious dialogue to spread truth. He spoke about politics, culture and society in a way that made people laugh and got them through an incredibly difficult time. He helped people see things in a new way, while highlighting all the crazy and ridiculous things that some of us had come to accept as normal. He delivered important messages, like, ‘hey, things really suck and people are doing crazy things but it’s so ridiculous it’s hilarious’. As long as you can laugh, all hope is not lost.
Good comedians – Louis C.K, George Carlin – talk about things that are taboo. They make them acceptable to talk about beyond our living rooms. They talk about things that society makes us scared to talk about. In a way, these people are saving us by making ideas more accessible.
Bassem Youssef did the same thing in Egypt. People started talking about things because he talked about them. Talking about Bassem Youssef became a political conversation in and of itself, because he brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness the debate of free speech in Egypt. He criticised political leaders in a culture where that was simply not an avenue to be taken – until, you know, he wasn’t allowed to anymore because some entities are exempt from criticism.
On the internet, Egyptians have literally mastered the art of the meme and the Vine. But we don’t seem to have any comedians reflecting the radical opinions and thoughts and jokes that exist online. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with fear but I could be wrong. Stand-up or sketch comedy as a part of Egyptian culture doesn’t really exist. Stand-up collective, Al Hezb El Comedy, has made headway over the last few years, but even they have found more acclaim abroad. Our comedy is personal, between groups of friends and family we laugh like maniacs, but our comedy is strictly limited in the mainstream to film and television.
So where are all the Bassem Youssefs? Where is the chain-reaction of comics unabashedly coming out and talking about the dudes that got arrested in the bathhouse a few months ago? Or any of the other million insane things that happen in this country on a daily basis? Are people scared of getting arrested for making people laugh at the ‘wrong’ things? I am not a comedian and I don’t work in comedy currently. I do not feel like I have the expertise to answer these questions but I will be speaking to such people and finding out everything I can – stay tuned.
By Yousef Adris