CAIRO — The marquee lights and stage set look familiar, as does the band that opened before the comedy sketch began: A nuclear plant manager is trying to cover up an accident as an employee with an oversized, conical head deadpans that she’s healthy, drawing laughter from the audience.
When the skit ends, the actors freeze and shout out in unison.
“It’s ‘Saturday Night Live’ in Arabic!”
Welcome to the Middle East’s newest comedy show, launched across the region last month and, of course, modeled after its famed U.S. counterpart. There’s all the usual stuff: celebrity guests, “news anchors” who parody current events, musical performances and skits with edgy social commentary. But unlike its New York-based parent, “SNL Arabia” has a daunting task: finding comedic inspiration in a region plagued by war and Islamic State violence.
And don’t expect the show’s comedians to impersonate Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and other Arab leaders or poke fun at their policies or rhetoric. These days, political satire could easily shut down the show and even result in a jail sentence.
“We are doing SNL without politics. It’s like you’ve lost a leg out of two,” said George Azmi, one of the show’s head writers, adding that sex and religion are also taboo subjects. “We are trying to tread softly as we go.”
The arrival of “SNL Arabia” comes as cultural repression is deepening in Egypt and other parts of the region. In Saudi Arabia, blogger Raif Badawi is serving a 10-year sentence for “insulting Islam” on his website. In Bahrain, the government has jailed journalists on what human rights groups describe as flimsy charges. Turkish authorities seized control of the nation’s largest newspaper earlier this month.
In Egypt, no comedian has forgotten what happened to Bassem Youssef, a popular satirist. Known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, his version of the “The Daily Show” was shut down two years ago — the same month Sissi entered office. Youssef once mocked Sissi, the former army general who overthrew Egypt’s Islamist president in 2013 and consolidated power in a landslide electoral victory the following year. Declaring the political climate too dangerous to continue his show, Youssef left Egypt and eventually moved to the United States.
“You don’t know exactly what will put you behind bars,” said Amr Salama, the show’s director.
There are other SNL franchises in Spain, Italy and Germany, as well as in China and South Korea. The Arabic version reaches audiences across the Middle East and North Africa.
Even as they strive to create a uniquely Middle Eastern version of the show, the producers and comedians seek to preserve SNL’s 40-plus-year history and legendary status. Last year, some traveled to New York to meet with the U.S. staff and learn about the show’s production. The producers regularly consult with their American counterparts.
Open auditions were held in Cairo, and the 12 members of the all-Egyptian cast who were selected range in age from late teens to mid-30s. They include two comedians from Youssef’s show, Khaled Mansour and Shady Alfons, who have so far steered clear of saying anything too provocative.
The show — which appears on OSN, a private Dubai-based satellite service in the Middle East whose shows are uncensored — is taped at one of Egypt’s oldest studios, not far from the famed pyramids of Giza. Each week, two shows are produced with a quarter of the staff of the original show, forcing workers to put in long hours each week. But the program, while taped in front of an audience, is not broadcast live. One reason is to avoid getting into trouble.
“In Egypt and in the whole Middle East, we have to make sure everything is censored and everything matches the policy of the channel,” Salama said. “So they have time to edit and take out whatever they want. In Egypt, it’s very hard to find any comedy show that’s broadcast live.”
In the first episode, a new “Egyptian minister of happiness” vows to get rid of songs by two popular musicians, deeming them too sad. The skit was inspired by a real-life minister of happiness in the United Arab Emirates, a position that was announced last month.
Another episode poked fun at Egyptian society. In one sketch, an exterminator gets rid of a rat only by offering him a hefty payment. And a talking vending machine taunts ordinary Egyptians but becomes obsequious when a group of policemen arrive to buy soda — the closest to anything provocative on the show.
Some in the audience said the absence of anything politicized was a welcome escape from an economic crisis, security concerns and government crackdowns.
“Politics is something we have to endure every day in and out,” said Ahmed Youssri, 33, an editor. “It’s nice to get away from that.”
Others said Egypt’s era of political satire was over. “There’s no point in doing political satire after Bassem Youssef,” said Israa Medhat, 28, a government employee. “The way he covered politics and kept people informed cannot be replicated.”
Faced with such creative limitations, the producers and comedians of “SNL Arabia” don’t see their goal as being a catalyst for change but surviving in today’s restrictive environment without tarnishing the legacy of the original show.
“The best achievement we can look for,” Salama said, “is that nobody says we ruined SNL.”