The Comedic Phenomenon that is SNL Arabia
The Cast on Comedy, Censorship, and Making History
By Nadia El Dasher
Three comedians and a writer sit through terrible Cairo traffic together.
No, this isn’t the punch line to a joke nor is it an exaggeration; it’s a Monday night and a football game is about to start. However, the hour and a half drive from the Saturday Night Live (SNL) Arabia space in Studio Misr flies by. Three of the show’s cast, Nour Kadry, Elwy Hussein and Khaled Mansour, share casual, comedy banter in the car and I’m the sole audience.
Much like SNL Arabia itself, the conversation fluctuates between humorous and serious, and the three comedians are unstoppable – feeding off each other’s energy and creating a show of their own.
Earlier in the day, Cairo West Magazine sat down with all twelve of the SNL Arabia cast to talk about inspiration, censorship and being a part of Egypt’s newest comedic family. The bold venture of visionary producer Tarek El Ganainy, SNL Arabia has trail-blazed through the comedy scene of Egypt, transforming it forever.
Shadi Alfons – Writer/Comedian
CWM: What’s it like filming in front of a live audience?
SA: This is televised theatre; we don’t stop like others do on other live audience shows. Doing anything in front of a live audience is hard – it’s a give and take of energy.
Since starting SNL Arabia, what specific moment stood out for you?
When we first came on board we went to New York, became under-studies for a week and met the cast and crew of the American SNL. It was one of the highlights of my career for sure!
Khaled Mansour – Writer/Comedian
CWM: As one of the writers of the show, how does censorship affect the sketches and jokes you put together?
KM: In Egypt, like everywhere else in the world, there’s censorship – but here there’s also self-censorship. [Our philosophy] is that it’s not what you say but how you say it. We know that families sit together to watch our show so we try to keep the naughty jokes subtle enough so children don’t understand.
Do people take offence at some of your jokes?
Political correctness kills comedy so if we’re going to crack a joke about women, we make sure to give men an equal blow – kind of like spreading the love. We understand the environment we’re in so we try not to adopt one particular standpoint.
Elwy ElHussein – Comedian
CWM: How’s the chemistry between the team?
EE: The best thing about us is that we’re like siblings. We have an organic relationship where it’s comfortable to have healthy conversations, and that is projected through the show.
How has the general public received the show?
Everyone’s asking us when it’ll air on the free-to-watch Egyptian television channels. People are constantly asking us when, where, how – they’re so eager to see it.
Hazem Ihab – Comedian
CWM: What sketches have you enjoyed acting in the most?
HI: Playing a cab driver is definitely up there as one of my favorites. It was a challenge for me to switch from my usual role of the spoilt, little rich boy to this obnoxious taxi driver.
Is the written script the same as the show played?
HI: When you compare the live show with the original script, you’ll find a lot of differences because every actor adds his own his punch lines and personal touch to the sketches.
Eslam Ibrahim – Writer/Comedian
CWM: How do you get inspired when it comes to writing the sketches?
EI: This show is more about the writing than anything else. We get our inspiration from anywhere we can, be it a funny piece of news in the paper or a character one of us met earlier that day.
Do you find it hard to stop yourself from laughing while filming a sketch?
It’s rare that it happens but sometimes you can’t help it. For example, while we were filming a recent episode, a row of women in the front were laughing so hard they couldn’t stay seated so every time we saw them we burst into laughter.
Nancy Salah – Comedian
CWM: In some episodes you play two or three completely different characters, how do you make the switch?
NS: With comedy, as opposed to tragedy or drama, it’s easy to disassociate from your role quickly and get into another role.
Do you have fun at work?
To be honest, I come to work just to have fun and when we’re on a break I miss my cast-mates. Also, the space lends itself to fun – it has soul and you can really feel the presence of the people who’ve walked through here.
Tony Maher – Comedian
CWM: How does it feel to be a part of the SNL Arabia cast?
TM: We’re basing our show on one that’s been on air for 41 years! It’s a big endeavor to say the least but I’m excited to a part of the legacy.
What’s it like working with such a large cast?
Five of us, Mahmoud El Laithy, Islam Ibrahim, Mirna Gameel, Nour Kadry and myself, had already worked together for three years so we already knew each other very well. Shadi Alfons and Khaled Mansour worked on El Bernameg together as well; Ahmed Sultan and Elwy ElHussein went to the Higher Institute of Dramatic Art together. It was easier because we already had a lot of chemistry between us.
Yara Fahmy – Comedian
CWM: What’s it like working with a different host each episode?
YF: It’s exhilarating! To get a chance to work in acting – my dream job – is one thing, and to get to work with 13 different actors and actresses per season is a whole other thing.
How would you compare the current Egyptian comedy scene with that of the 1980s and 1990s? Does the classical, slapstick humor still apply now?
What made people laugh back then won’t make us laugh now and what makes us laugh now might have been considered inappropriate then. What we’re trying to do on the show is build [a joke] up and let the audience do the math.
Mirna Gameel – Comedian
CWM: Theatre versus the SNL stage – what’s the biggest difference?
MG: On a theatre stage I’m free to move wherever I want, I can add a punch line whenever I want and play off the other actors and crowd. During the live audience filming of SNL, on the other hand, I have to work within the camera frames as well as follow the teleprompter – it leaves little wiggle room.
Where do you find that wiggle room?
We get a few days to read our scripts before we start rehearsals. On the rehearsal days the actors, director and writers all work together to edit the script and that’s when we get to give the characters our own flavor.
Mahmoud El Laithy – Comedian
CWM: What makes a show like SNL unique to you as an actor?
ME: We’re doing three things at the same time on this show: we’re creating a theatre stage, a sitcom and a short movie. The live audience experiences the theatre side, the sets are just like those of a sitcom and the digital screens (located within the stage set-up) showcase the short films.
How does this affect you as a comedian taking part in the show?
The live part is easy because I’m used to being in front of an audience. What’s new is working with the digital aspect of the show; figuring out how to get that raw energy without a crowd.
Nour Kadry – Comedian
CWM: How have people reacted to the show?
NK: A lot of people don’t have access to the show but want to see something new. The sketches that were leaked onto the Internet gave people a little teaser of what it’s about and they’re curious.
How is it being a female comedian in Egypt?
I disagree with the stereotype that comedy is a genre dominated by men especially after working with the other women on the show and realizing my own comedic potential.
Ahmed Sultan – Comedian
CWM: What are the similarities and differences between the original SNL to SNL Arabia?
AS: As opposed to the American version, we can’t approach the three taboos: religion, politics and sex. Our similarities are in the format of the show with both the live and digital versions.
What do you think SNL Arabia’s recipe for success is?
The show is very different – the comedians themselves are acting as well as singing through several different roles. Then there’s a different host each episode and a musician so it’s a completely new concept in the region.