"From Cairo...It's Saturday Night!"
An Arabic version of "Saturday Night Live" is airing across the Arab world for the first time this weekend, offering a Middle Eastern twist on the hit U.S. comedy show.
In a newly renovated theater in the Egyptian capital, the live audience laughed their way through the shooting of the first episode on Tuesday. The host was Donia Samir Ghanem, one of Egypt's top female comedians, who cracked jokes at her own expense, and sent up stereotypes of different Arabic countries. All the elements of SNL were there: a celebrity guest, music performances, live sketches, videos and parody news — but when it comes to politics, they're playing it safe.
The writers of "Saturday Night Live in Arabic" are treading lightly after Egypt's sharply satirical version of "The Daily Show" had to go off air in 2014. Its star, the country's most popular satirist Bassem Youssef — known overseas as "Egypt's Jon Stewart" — said he believed the political climate was no longer conducive to satire.
Youssef's TV show was canceled the month Egypt's president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, took office after winning elections. El-Sissi led the 2013 popularly-backed overthrow of a former Islamist president, and then jailed thousands of Islamists before broadening the crackdown on dissent to include secular activists.
Youssef lost viewers after airing an episode shortly after el-Sissi's landslide election win in which he poked fun at the hype around el-Sissi and mocked his die-hard supporters, suggesting that many Egyptians may not be open to satire if the joke is directed at them.
A large number of Egyptians now complain of a gap in satire, but in a country that has suffered years of political turmoil, comedy writers are aware that some subjects are off-limits.
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"It's a challenging time for anyone who writes in Egypt," said George Azmi, the lead writer on SNL in Arabic. "Everyone is antagonized... You cannot make a decent joke without offending someone."
"Never mind the regime... the people themselves are very antagonized, both right and left. And at the same time a lot is happening (politically) so if you ignore this completely you will also appear out of tune," he said.
Tarek El Ganainy, whose company TVision is co-producing the show, said the humor would focus on social issues "as much as possible".
"Anywhere in the world, the funny topics are sex, religion, and politics," he said, before noting that those who joke about religion in Egypt risk blasphemy law suits, sex jokes can scare away viewers and politics "is no longer funny". "We are living in a transitional period, so no one can stand joking about it," he said.
SNL in Arabic's team hopes that, if they pitch the gags right, the Middle East is the perfect place to launch a new comedy show. Egypt is the Arab world's biggest market, with 90 million people, and it is known across the region for its sense of humor.
"There is a lot of thirst for real comedy shows in the Arab world," said Kholoud Abu Homos, an executive at Dubai-based Orbit Showtime Network, which is co-producing the show.
Two comedians from Youssef's show, Shady Alfons and Khaled Mansour, have joined SNL in Arabic. They touched on politics, but steered clear of anything too provocative, something that seemed to sit well with the audience.
"I liked it a lot," said interior designer Nehal Leheta during a break. "It's a lot nicer than Bassem Youssef because he was too political."
"It was very funny; I didn't expect it to be that funny," said Ahmed el-Ganzouri, one of Egypt's top party organizers.
The show is initially being broadcast by the satellite service OSN, which means that most Egyptians will not be able to see the show until it is broadcast by the free CBC channel in three months' time.
In the meantime, some Egyptian fans of SNL are unsure of whether an Arabic spin-off will work.
"I'm skeptical about it because most of the stuff that gets remade here gets ruined," said Ahmed Hegazy, who loves the U.S. show. "If they do it right, it would have the potential to replace Bassem Youssef," he said — before adding that he'd like the Arabic version to be as blunt and political as its American counterpart.
George Azmi also worried initially about doing the original justice, saying he turned the job down at first.
"It was a lot of pressure... I felt we were going to ruin it, and I initially refused," said Azmi. "They then approached me again and I thought 'oh well, it's not a problem, let's ruin SNL... It won't be the first or the last thing we ruin, so let's do it,'" he added jokingly.
The producer and comedians Alfons and Mansour traveled to New York last May for an intensive two-week immersion at SNL to learn about all aspects of the show's production. They also regularly consult with the American program-makers.
Yet they emphasize the jokes are not Arabic translations of American gags. The idea is that they will provide completely fresh material, presented in SNL's trademark style.
SNL has also sent a small team to make a short documentary about how the show will work in Arabic.
SNL in Arabic's team says it has been hard work — each star spends around 50 hours rehearsing and shooting one episode — but they are excited by the project. The comedian Mansour was happy to be performing again, over 18 months after Youssef's program was taken off air. He was dancing and entertaining the live audience even when the cameras weren't rolling.
"It's a thrill and an adrenaline rush," he said.