Waddah Swar’s Stand-Up Story

The Bahraini comedian on riding the region’s comedy wave 

Waddah Swar
Waddah Swar
By Adam Grundey
Nov 05, 2013

WADDAH SWAR LIKES TO SPEAK HIS MIND. It’s the basis of his stand-up comedy routines – “I don’t tell jokes,” he says. “I’m a storyteller” – and it’s also the reason why, as a 19-year-old, he ended up onstage in an Orlando, Florida comedy club one night in 1999 doing his first ever stand-up show without any preparation at all.

“I was in the club with some friends,” says the Bahraini comedian, who had moved to the States to study. “The guys that were on stage, they were really…” He pauses. “Well, I didn’t laugh. So I said – out loud – ‘I can do better than these guys.’ And the owner of the club was behind me, so he said, ‘OK. Get up there. Show me what you’ve got.” Straight away. That night. I didn’t know what to say, so I just told true-life stories, in a funny way. When I got offstage, he gave me $20 and said, ‘Good job kid. Come back next week.’”

Swar did return the following week. And the week after. And within a couple of months he’d gotten offers from other comedy club owners across the state of Florida and was traveling to different cities every weekend to perform.

Swar returned to Bahrain in 2008 to work in his father’s business. But he’s continued to perform regularly and has seen stand-up comedy flourish in the region in the years since. He came home just in time to open for the Axis of Evil tour – which many credit with kick-starting the recent Middle East comedy boom – and that performance saw him land numerous regional gigs. “In Saudi, stand-up’s booming right now,” Swar says. “You can sell out a show in a day. And you don’t need advertising; it’s just Facebook and Twitter and it sells out. The comedy scene’s booming in the Middle East generally, and that’s being recognized by audiences, by artists and by companies too. A lot of promoters in Bahrain have stopped organizing concerts, because that’s predictable. Comedy’s a new art form in the region, and people like new. That’s why it’s selling.”

The recent boom is also helping to dispel the stereotype that Arabs don’t enjoy comedy, Swar believes. “We do have a sense of humor, you know? Because we’re very bored people. We’re so bored, we’ll destroy our cars, just to do something.”

But, he allows, there’s a big difference between performing in the Arab world and performing in the West. “There are borderlines here,” he says. “It’s not like you can get up onstage and talk freely about any subject. There are lines you have to respect in terms of religion, culture, race, politics. [For it to be] a great show for [a wide audience], they can’t feel in any way offended.”

Swar adds that he feels the region’s censorship issues may actually have contributed to the new wave of talented comedians coming out of the Middle East. “It’s tough, you have to be careful. Especially performing in a country like Saudi. But there are great comedians there, you can’t imagine – very talented people. And I think it’s the restriction that makes them talented. They’ve learned how they can go over [those lines] without breaking the rules and without offending anyone. And that’s where the real talent comes out. It’s a big challenge.”

A challenge, he points out, that troubles even the most accomplished international comedians. “We actually have to sit with these A-list stars and tell them what to do with their material – what they can and can’t say.” It can, he admits, be frustrating at times for someone who started out doing material in the West. “You have to edit. I always work according to the crowd. I don’t believe it’s your material; it’s the crowd’s material. Once I get to know the crowd, I feel like I’m sitting in my living room and having a chat with my friends.”

Swar’s commitment to reality-based comedy comes from the stand-ups who inspired him as a high-school student back in America. “My idol is Martin Lawrence,” he says. “Because he’s very funny and physical, but it’s all based on his life stories; out of his misery, you know? That’s why it makes people laugh. Comedians, the better they are, the more miserable their lives are. They make you laugh because they’re just tired of stuff.”

In the near future, Swar hopes he can get into TV and film work. “I’ve been told I’m a good candidate for a bad guy,” he says. And with his carefully groomed facial hair and deep, sonorous voice (he does an excellent Voiceover Guy), you can see why. There are a couple of film offers on the table, he says, “So I’m hoping.” But Swar doesn’t see himself quitting stand-up any time soon. “I love the camera, but I’m married to the stage,” he says. “It’s a connecting thing with the crowd. When I talk to the audience and tell them what’s bugging me, for me, it’s like therapy.”

 

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