CAIRO (AP) — "From Cairo ... it's Saturday night!"
An Arabic version of "Saturday Night Live" aired 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 its 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 the air in 2014. Its star, the country's most popular satirist, Bassem Youssef, said he believed the political climate was no longer conducive to satire.
"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."
The team members for "SNL in Arabic" hope that, if they pitch the gags right, the Middle East is the perfect place to launch a 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.
Two comedians from Youssef's show, Shady Alfons and Khaled Mansour, have joined "SNL in Arabic."
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.
George Azmi worried initially about doing the original "SNL" 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 the trademark style of "SNL."
"SNL" has also sent a small team to make a short documentary about how the show will work in Arabic.