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King’s resident stand-up comic was the youngest Arab comedian to be featured on Comedy Central Arabia 

In March 2018, Comedy Central Arabia — a channel on the Orbit Showtime Network (OSN) — began airing its third season of Standup, featuring a line-up of the best Arab comedians from around the world, including King’s own standup comedian Zayd Lahham ’19. Beyond King’s caught up with Lahham to get the scoop on being the youngest Arab comedian on television. 

How did you get into standup comedy?

My mother wanted to help me have more confidence and be less of an anxious kid, so when I was 10 years old she enrolled me in a summer “clown” camp, which was being offered by a new company in Dubai at the time called Dubomedy. I started going to their comedy shows and was really drawn to improv. I wanted to join in, but it was only for adults, so I kept asking them to hold a course for kids. Finally, when I was 12 years old, I got to join their first improv course for kids. After a couple of years of doing that I wanted to try something else so I signed up for their standup course. I performed my first ever standup comedy set in front of an audience of 500 at the 2015 Dubai Comedy Festival, where I opened for UAE comedy pioneer Ali Al Sayed.

What is it about standup comedy that you love so much?

Standup comedy in the Middle East is very new, but I think it is a way for Arabs to really express themselves. They have this new medium to connect with people all around the world and educate people about their struggles in a way that they can relate to.

Do your parents support your comedy career?

I think most parents from this region, mine included, have an inclination to say comedy is not the best career choice as it’s not as secure as being a doctor or engineer, for example. But after seeing how much time, energy and effort I put into perfecting the craft, my parents believe in me enough to support it as a career choice. My mom even tried improv with me once, it was on her bucket list. The most important thing to my parents is that I remain humble and don’t let performing go to my head.

How did it feel to be the youngest Arab standup comedian to be featured on Comedy Central Arabia?

I usually perform with really new comedians who are doing their first show and aren’t used to an audience. So, my experience helps me stand out because I’m more comfortable on stage. For this show on Comedy Central Arabia, all the other featured comedians were really strong. Instead of my jokes and confidence making me stand out, it was the fact that I was the youngest one there that did. That wasn’t a negative thing, it actually motivated me. The fact that I was sharing the stage with all these amazing people made me want to keep striving to do better.

What was filming a show for TV like?

It was nerve-racking! I’m always afraid I’m going to go on stage and blank out and forget what I wrote, even though I’ve practiced it a hundred times. I debuted my four-minute set in front of an audience of 100 people and was very aware that there were cameras all around me, and that it would reach even more people. It was a good audience though. After the show I just sat down and tried to take it all in and enjoy the moment.

Was that the most memorable moment of your comedy career so far?

Comedy Central has definitely been  the biggest thing to happen to me so far, especially as it’s on TV. As a kid, I imagined myself on television one day, and now that it’s a reality it is pretty crazy. I’d worked on it and put so much into it. My parents, coaches and friends supported me so much. It couldn’t have been easy for them to believe in me when they didn’t have something tangible to see, so this was the first time I showed them that I can actually do this, and that if I keep going I can do bigger and better things. I can’t wait to look back at this one day and remember it as a small moment in my career, when I’ve achieved even bigger things.

What was your worst moment?

My worst moment was the Comedy Central audition. In the first round, I was the only English performer in front of an all-Arab audience; I got very few laughs. To make it worse, it was one of the only shows my dad and friends from school came to watch. With the help of the coaches, I fixed the material and presented it again later. I just went up there and did the best that I could do and tried not to think about what the audience was thinking. I gave it everything I had and it ended up working.

Do you see your future in comedy?

I’m trying to keep as many doors open as possible. I’m really interested in studying film as I have a YouTube channel and have been busy building up that portfolio more than anything. My parody of Camila Cabello’s song Havana has had the best reception so far with almost 15,000 views in the first three months. I feel that the way the job market is changing, creative people have so many different opportunities. You don’t have to be just one thing anymore. A lot of the people I’m looking up to right now do music, are in movies, are in fashion; I feel that being able to have that freedom of creative expression is really what’s important right now. As well as being conscious of how to run a business and have revenue models and all that. So, if you have a little of both you don’t need to make a firm decision about what you are going to be doing.

It looks like you collaborate with other students in your YouTube videos.

With standup I’m used to doing things by myself. But now I’m trying to see who I can meet on campus, because there are so many creative people who haven’t had the opportunity to do all the things they want to do. I’m trying to find these people and say: it is possible. I have a laptop and you have ideas for lyrics, so let’s make a song together; or, you’re good at acting, let’s make a film together. It’s not important to me to be the most talented person in the room, I’m trying to show others that we can get these things done and come up with a creative product.

What have you learned from comedy and film making?

One of the skills I’ve learned —  through improv — is how to make decisions quickly. A lot of that is to stop overthinking and embrace the moment. Standing on stage can make you more confident, but it can also humble you, because people are judgmental by nature. You can put a lot of time and hard work into something and people can make an opinion very quickly about whether it is good or bad. It’s a wake-up call to do the best you can, because you only have a few seconds or minutes to make an impression. I feel like I’m growing an understanding of people, how to bring people together essentially. Understanding what makes people laugh says so much about them. Comedy is just a language to connect people.

What advice do you have for other students who might want to pursue a less traditional career?

Pursue whatever it is that ignites the passion in you. I can tell you from first-hand experience that it is very rewarding. Even if it doesn’t bring you much success or money, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. I think there needs to be a cultural shift, especially in this region, of people being more accepting about art forms. They should appreciate the work that people are putting into it, and support them.