Meet the Comedian Making Saudis Laugh About Driving Laws
Fahad Albutairi is revolutionizing Saudi Arabia's comedy scene. This month, he sat down with FP to talk about launching his career on YouTube, going to school in Texas, and walking the fine line of funny and political.
Fahad Albutairi’s traditional Saudi parents weren’t thrilled when they sent their oldest son to the United States to study geophysics and he came home to the Gulf an aspiring professional comedian.
Seven years later, they’re no longer complaining: What started as a hobby in Austin’s comedy clubs is now a big-time career. His YouTube channel, La Yekthar Show, has roughly a million subscribers, and its videos have been watched more than 91 million times in the past five years.
One reason: an ability to gently poke fun at Saudi Arabia’s conservative culture without crossing too many lines. Take one of his best-known YouTube videos, a 2013 parody of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” called “No Woman, No Drive,” a mocking reference to the Saudi ban on female drivers.
“Say I remember, when you used to sit, in the family car, but backseat,” sings his friend and fellow Saudi actor Hisham Fageeh. “Ova-ovaries, all safe and well, so you can make lots and lots of babies.” Their version is entirely a cappella, and Albutairi appears throughout, whistling, humming, and even scratching his beard to recreate the sound of Marley’s maracas.
The video, published on the Alaa Wardi channel, immediately went viral, earning more than 10 million page views in less than 24 hours, according to Albutairi. It was later featured on major American news outlets, including CNN.
As for that geophysics degree? “It just gave me discipline and punctuality,” Albutairi said in an interview at a Washington, D.C., hotel, where he was speaking at a conference hosted by the Middle East Institute. “I don’t do anything at all with it right now.”
The rise to stardom has been a whirlwind for Albutairi. The oldest of five siblings, the 30-year-old showed up for the interview dressed in a thawb — a traditional, ankle-length garment worn by Saudi men — and head covering, but wearing his signature hipster Armani glasses. He grew up in Khobar, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, but went to an international school as a child and his Americanized English is flawless. His college education was sponsored by Aramco, a Saudi oil company that he worked for after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007.
Going to college in the American south, and experiencing initial culture shock, then reverse culture shock when he returned home for vacations, was key to helping Albutairi hone his craft and comedic style. Jokes about blondes, he said he learned, will never be funny coming from him. But jokes about being a Saudi male, living in Texas in post-9/11 America? Those did a lot better in Austin’s comedy clubs. “I made fun of a lot of similarities in conservatism between Saudi [Arabia] and Texas, and people in Austin really got it because that’s pretty much the only liberal outlet they have in the whole state,” he said.
His professional career in the Arab world began in October 2008, when he was picked as an opening act for a comedy tour in Bahrain, marking the first time a Saudi stand-up comedian had performed on stage professionally.
Soon he was performing all over the Gulf region, including in Riyadh. At one of those stand-up gigs, his jokes caught the attention of Ali Kalthami, a Saudi director who the comedian says bought into his idea for a YouTube show catered specifically to a Saudi audience. They launched it in 2010.
The success of La Yekthar (which translates roughly to “put a lid on it”) inspired the establishment of a YouTube network called Telfaz11, which Albutairi said produces roughly a dozen channels that together have about 1 billion total page views — 80 percent of which come from within Saudi Arabia. Those statistics couldn’t be independently confirmed. The shows are mainly in Arabic, but many have English subtitles to accommodate a Western audience.
Around a year after “No Woman, No Drive” went viral, Albutairi married Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist who was detained last year for trying to drive from the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia.
But despite being married to a prominent activist, Albutairi tries to keep any references to political topics as subtle as possible on his show. His fear isn’t that the government would react negatively to their jokes, but that the apolitical Saudi population would — and that’s the majority of his audience.
“Most of the pressure that we’re afraid of is driven by public opinion, not the government,” he said. “The Saudi population is one of the most conservative populations in the region, and there are a few red lines we try not to cross or admittedly cross. Religion, politics, and explicit adult content are some of those. We try to keep things as clean as we can.”
Albutairi’s willingness to walk that narrow line doesn’t stop him or the rest of his cast of characters from having fun. He is so beloved at home that he has earned the nickname of “Saudi Arabia’s Seinfeld.”
In one of Albutairi’s favorite La Yekthar episodes, which has more than 5 million views, the crew travels to New York City to prove to their audience that even if Saudis are convinced Western culture is infiltrating the Arabian Peninsula, it’s really the other way around. At one point, in crowded Times Square, Fageeh runs into a couple dressed up as Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
“I’ve always been a fan of you, I love you,” he says to Mickey. Then, turning to Minnie, “This is your wife? Where’s your family card? What’s wrong with you? It’s shameful letting your wife go out looking like that.”
According to Albutairi, references like those are considered more social than political and have actually earned them fans inside the government and the Saudi royal family. When asked if he ever feels pressure to tone himself down to please the Ministry of Culture and Information, which recently licensed Telfaz11, Albutairi told me it’s really not a concern. “Thank God I’m not Egyptian,” he said.
Today, seven years after he first appeared as an opening act on stage in Bahrain, he’s helping to run a crew of 30 people working for Telfaz11, has starred in a feature film directed by Emirati Ali Mostafa, and is now a full-blown celebrity in Riyadh. But a self-described “slight introvert,” there are still a few hints he is not entirely comfortable with his newfound fame.
About halfway through the interview, a young woman wearing a headscarf walked through the conference room and did a double take. “I’m so sorry for the interruption, but I’m just such a big fan,” she gushed. “I really hope you enjoy your day here.”
Albutairi immediately tensed up, stammering out a few too many “thank yous,” as his admirer walked out, stealing another glance in his direction.
The comedian sheepishly admitted that happens a lot back home — far more often than he would like.
“I have to put up an act a lot of times, like I’m completely comfortable and completely laid back when really I’m pretty nervous most of the time when I get stopped for pictures,” he said with a laugh.
Photo credit: Fahad Albutairi’s Facebook page