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Thamer Al-Hazmi: Stand-up guy with the world his stage.

Summary: In a country where entertainment is limited and comedy shows almost nonexistent, 30-year-old Saudi comedian Thamer Al-Hazmi has been making people laugh for nearly three years.

Born in the US and raised in the UK (that explains his British accent!), Al-Hazmi comes from a traditional Saudi family, a Bedouin family. "We're originally from Madinah, but we lived in Jeddah all our lives," he explained.

Working in the banking sector full-time, he spends his free time doing what he loves most: Writing comedy or performing live on stage. "I think it's the interaction with the crowd when you're performing. I love performing; it's a great feeling," he said.

Style of Comedy

Al-Hazmi's style of comedy is exploring the provocative and controversial side of any subject. At the end of the day, he explained, stand-up comedy is a public freedom of speech outlet. The only difference between the comedian and the politician is the smile.

"I love taking risks when it comes to material because it makes you stand out at the end of the day, and this is how you learn," he said.

He writes jokes mainly based on the culture shock effect between Bedouin and Hejazi people, special issues related to KSA and expats living in the Kingdom.

Another issue he openly jokes about in his shows is his handicap, Arthrogryposis, which affects his joints and limits movement in his lower body. Instead of allowing it to be an issue, he sees it as an advantage to his performance. In fact, the first joke he ever wrote was: "There's a problem with you people. Most of you are stupid. Some of you are so dumb that you can't tell the difference between someone dancing and someone with a disability. This guy once saw me at the shopping mall. I was walking around, checking the stuff out and all of a sudden he said: 'Hey man, nice dancing.' I'm not dancing; I have a disability! If you see me next time in a wheel chair, will you think I'm jet skiing?"

"Because I'm a handicap, I face certain situations," he explained. "I think the best way to really earn people's respect and their laughter is by making fun of yourself firstly. So I always start some of my gigs with a joke about my handicap. I think it's a good icebreaker, but I never make it the main focus of my show."

"I'm proud of my handicap; it gives me that intangible edge. You don't make it a problem; you take it as a color or image that differentiates you from others," he added. "I think, because of my handicap, I have an advantage on how to approach and interact with the audience when I perform on stage. They are more patient with me, not in a sympathetic way I hope, but they are more supportive and can also remember me easily. I always get people coming to me after my act saying: 'You don't look afraid up there; we love that!' That's something that always makes me smile."

Love at first sight

For Al-Hazmi, stand-up comedy was love at first sight. "I was always a fan of stand-up comedy and of top-class sitcoms like 'Seinfeld' and 'Frasier,'" he admitted. "I also remember there was this UK sitcom called 'Bottom,' which was the first comedy sitcom that I've ever seen on TV and which I was a big fan of."

Al-Hazmi who admits he is a fan of Robin Williams, Jimmy Carr, Jerry Seinfeld, Russell Peters, Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle - the last two of whom he cites as comedic influences - got into stand-up comedy after attending a local show.

"I went to Smile Productions' first gig in 2008, which featured Ahmed Ahmed and some local comedians, including Omar Hussein and Omar Ramzi. But as I was sitting there, I had this feeling that I'm not supposed to be sitting and watching these people. I'm supposed to be up there on stage," he said.

Consequently, after the show, he sent an e-mail to Peter Howarth-Lees from Smile Productions, asking for an audition opportunity. He got a reply two or three months later, had a successful audition and performed for the first time with Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani at the Italian Cultural Center in 2009.

He said his family was not surprised when he decided to pursue stand-up comedy. "They always saw me as the funny one in the family, and they encouraged me deeply even though they still didn't attend a show of mine. I am waiting for the right one with the right material to make it a special night for them and for myself!"

He added that his family also has an influence on his comedy, particularly his two brothers, Anas and Omran; and his four aunts, Wafaa, Mona, Hind and Abeer.

Al-Hazmi is so good at what he does that after his third live performance, he managed to dazzle comedy rock star Sugar Sammy who he opened for in June 2010 at Smile Productions' show in King Abdullah Economic City. In fact, Sugar Sammy couldn't believe it was just Al-Hazmi's third time up on stage. "You're absolutely amazing. You are going to go places," Sugar Sammy told him.

And sure enough, Al-Hazmi has been doing just that. He has been performing since 2009, but wishes there were more opportunities.

Obstacles

"There is a lack of comedy shows in KSA. All the local comedians have done around 15-20 shows in total, which is a very small number," he explained. "To have a solid set of 15 minutes in Canada, the UK, the US etc, you have to go hit comedy clubs. And when they say comedy clubs, it's those small downtown places where you walk in at any time of the day and throw your show for whatever number of minutes to see people's reaction to your material. We don't have that opportunity. It's now or never. That's us; we're jumping hurdles instead of taking baby steps."

Then again, he said it depends on your material and your performance on stage, which will set an impact. "If you're up to it and feel this in you, it doesn't really matter whether you take baby steps or not. It's how you write the material, which will really help you."

Consequently, Al-Hazmi advises local stand-up comedians to hit private gigs and think of them as comedy clubs. "There is no learning process here. You have to go and do gigs and sit with people who have been in this business for 10-15 years to understand. For me, the learning curve is doing private gigs. I go there and try different material to see its impact. These gigs give me a feeling if these jokes are good or not, yet I still sometimes risk a joke. You sometimes have to go with your feeling."

"Let's Talk Saudi"

Last month, Al-Hazmi released his new show on YouTube, called "Let's Talk Saudi," produced by UTURN Entertainment, which is getting major hits. Their aim was 150,000 views in one month, however, they passed it in just three days and it now has over 350,000! One episode has been uploaded so far and it discusses unemployment.

"I'm more than pleased that it turned out like this, and that's what I want: I want to set this impact as a trend on people... people might start discussing something because we talked about it," he said, adding that his mom has been his biggest supporter. "She reads all the comments every day and checks how many views the show is getting."

"Let's Talk Saudi" is a dark comedy talk show, inspired by Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," where Al-Hazmi (the host) sits with a group of young people and discusses current affairs related to Saudi Arabia. Al-Hazmi plays the part of this obnoxious character who has a fixed opinion no matter how much you try to convince him.

"I'm playing the devil's advocate - I only believe what is in front of me from information, facts and statistics. The idea is to make the people on the show irritated or angered by my attitude. Therefore, the guests must cross their opinion not to convince me, but to convince the viewer and fight for his/her opinion," he explained.

Hey said the challenge he is facing is setting himself apart from the character he's playing. "Some people think that's my attitude, but it's not. I think they'll understand more in the upcoming episodes."

"The idea of 'Let's Talk Saudi' was a challenge concept in a way. I wanted to create and present something that is different from the Saudi YouTube shows out there. I always believe that the people's opinion is always more interesting than one, even better when it's a regular person's opinion, because an official always sugarcoats his answers, is very diplomatic and very vague, in other worlds VERY BORING! So, what's interesting about the concept of this show is that I don't talk with officials; I talk with the youth generation and take their opinion because it's the most important one. They are the people that are most important to listen to, the people that are being affected by this issue or cause, either positively or negatively," he explained.

He said he didn't want to do a comedy show and be funny all the time. Instead, he wanted to do something that had no relation and which would separate him on stage from his character in the show, as it would be a plus for him. "I wanted to do something that wasn't considered funny but that people will understand the sense of humor in it."

"This is something I've always wanted to do: Dark comedy and talking about real issues. The show is not about me but about the people talking, and I want to have influence on the viewer from these examples because he/she can relate to them. They're real examples," he added.

For those who still haven't seen the show, make sure you check it out. And for those who did, stay tuned for more episodes, which will be uploaded in the beginning of May.

- To stay updated on Al-Hazmi's news, follow him on Twitter: @ThaimzZz

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 28, 2012
Words:1721
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