On Monday night in Zamalek, over 100 people filled the swanky Left Bank café for a night of stand-up comedy. The evening was hosted by Hashem El-Garhy and his band of underground, Cairene comics calling themselves El-Hezb El-Comedy. The night consisted of four comics running through their sets and ended with the two-man No Talents Band belting out a handful of songs on acoustic guitar.
The overarching feeling of the performance was discomfort, interspersed with a few hearty fits of laughter from the large audience. The first performer was Rami Boraie and he was the funniest of the evening. Much of his jokes felt stock, but when he hit a rhythm and seemed to relax, the crowd responded.
The second performer was Mohamed Shahine. He accompanied his one-liners with a steady melody plucked out on his guitar. Like most one-line comedians, his punch-lines were hit or miss. He had enough hits to make an enjoyable performance but his whole bit felt derivative of Dmitri Martin, or early Adam Sandler, or any number of performers who give a laundry list of sing-songy jokes. It did not help that he would often revert to a sort of irritating baby-voice.
Next up was Mohamed Farouk, who performed mostly in Arabic. Though I understood little of what he said, the crowd was as quiet during Farouk’s segment as it was all night. Farouk did come back later and showed he was more at ease rocking out on the guitar than being funny.
Last was Marwan Iman. He giggled incessantly through his set as it bombed, especially a bit about sexual harassment that seemed to drag on forever as the crowd shifted uncomfortably.
Throughout the entire show, a table in the front was constantly erupting in applause and shrieks. Again, the crowd was 100 strong, but to make one table laugh that much the comics must be connecting with some type of taste. Or they brought their family and friends along to the gig.
The biggest reason the show was disappointing was that the jokes were so uniformly inoffensive. At one point the crowd was scandalised by a joke about flipping over a turtle so it couldn’t run away but that was as far as it went. The opportunity continually arose for the comedians to pursue jokes further, but it seemed like they would shy away or choose to stick to their scripts. None ever seemed fully at ease, so the crowd was not able to be either.
By far the worst part of the night was the MC Hashem El-Garhy. Between every set he would get on stage to energetically flop himself around and yell out stale, forced jokes. He had all the energy necessary to be a hype man, but kept trying to fit in with the comics. Steve Harvey does this, fluidly adding his own comedy to his introduction of other comics, but Harvey is in another class. For future performances El-Hezb would benefit from El-Garhy doing less Steve Harvey and more Flava Flave.
There is hope for this group though, especially because they see themselves existing in a vacuum of the mostly comedy-less Cairo entertainment scene. It just takes more and more performances like the one on Monday before they become the real deal. That is the thing about stand-up comedy. While gymnasts practice in the privacy of the gym only to dazzle when put in front of the crowd, the only way stand-up comedians get better is by being thrust in front of places like the horribly lit Left Bank with the hiss of cappuccinos being made for the upscale clientele.
They perform again tonight at El Sawy Culturewheel and we can only hope they will have adjusted their show according to lessons learned on Monday.