I met Sheeko and Fahmy in 2010 when they were still thinking about their big Ramadan hit Al-Ragol al-Innab (Hibiscus Man).
At that moment the two actor-writers, with their third musketeer Hisham Maged, had a CV that included one homemade movie, one television show and two successful commercial movies, Waraqit Shafra (The Code, 2007) and Sameer w Shaheer w Baheer (Sameer, Shaheer and Baheer, 2010), which gave them the names they still go by.
A team of other writers and I were supposed to work on the script of their new project at the time. The ambitious young men wanted to do a superhero comedy in Egypt, not a very common topic. In fact, the only prior reference may have been Al-Attaba Gazaz (1969), written by Abdel Moniem Madbouly and Abdel Hay Adeeb, and directed by Niyazy Moustafa, in which the protagonist Fouad (Fouad al-Mohandis) turns into a super-mouse on hearing a jingle that goes: “The step is made of glass, and the stairs are made of nylon!”
They asked me what I thought of Sameer, Shaheer and Baheer.
“Honestly …” I started.
“Listen, we weren’t thinking we were making Al-Ard (The Land),” Sheeko interrupted. “We know it’s a trivial movie, but isn’t it funny?”
I laughed a couple of times during the movie. Once because one character was called Bahgoury, like the famous old Egyptian cartoonist George al-Bahgoury, who wears funny hats. Even though he is an important cartoonist and artist who shows in Paris, Bahgoury is almost completely unknown in Egypt, especially perhaps for the audience of a post-Ramadan-feast B-movie.
I found the anomalousness funny. Yet I walked out of the movie with a weird bitterness in my mouth, confused and distracted. This big commercial hit about three young men building a time machine that takes them to meet their ancestors failed to engage my brain at any moment. It’s not like I want movies to involve math skills, but this movie seemed to expect me to have limited brain capacity.
The trio established themselves in the early 2000s with their homemade feature-length VHS parody of Al-Tareeq ila Eilat (Road to Eilat), the famous, state-sponsored army movie about the Egyptian sabotage operation that successfully sank an Israeli destroyer in 1967 during the War of Attrition. The almost zero-cost movie, which they called Rigal la Taarif al-Mostaheel (Men Who Don’t Know the Impossible) was distributed on CDs and hard drives in the pre-YouTube era of dial-up internet.
As cliched as it sounds, Rigal la Taarif al-Mostaheel literally presented the trio as men who conquered the impossible, made a movie out of nothing, made it famous and made themselves before doing that became a trend.
This stunt meant a lot at the time, and I believe the movie was a success because of that. It was released in 2001, when “youth cinema” was triumphing. It was the year when Mohamed Saad and Ahmed Helmy — now megastars — had their first joint outing as stars, Mohamed Heneidy was carving his name into the box office and Ahmed al-Saqqa started becoming more serious about his career as a person who jumps off high things.
This quietly independent movie was a statement that anybody could do anything without anybody’s help, and this aligned perfectly with the wave of independence that followed in music, cinema, publishing and street art. And the choice of topic was an important indicator of generational change and attendant changing perceptions of official propaganda and guidance.
Parody is such a classic form of comedy: There’s nothing better than making fun of things that take themselves very seriously. Road to Eilat aired on Egyptian television on almost every national holiday. The operation on which it’s based is a source of pride for the military — it was one of the earliest Egyptian responses to the 1967 defeat, and the movie documents it with epic grace. This is why it’s very easy to pick up on the moments — and there are many — in which its makers got slightly carried away with their emotions and made something ridiculous. The more serious the movie is, the funnier the parody — it’s basic physics.
I don’t want to claim that the movie is about this. Maybe Sheeko, Fahmy and Hisham were discussing these theories, maybe they just intuitively reacted to how Road to Eilat wanted us all to behave, and decided they were just going to be silly or naughty about it, as comedy has always done and will always do.
Since the dawn of human ability to communicate, people understood comedy’s ability to counter reality and defeat it, to open up new horizons for the imagination and point out the ridiculousness of the way we built this world and made up its logic. This is why humor is often a reverse of our world, or a mirror of it that looks exactly like it, yet is completely different.
Because of this, comedy is given a license to be as absurd and outrageous as it wants, and it is part of comedy’s role in life to stretch our awareness as much as it can, to flip our logic inside out and make us rethink common everyday details — or very existential beliefs and matters — and see them in a different scope.
In that sense, comedy is a very intellectual approach, in the way it stimulates your brain and makes you think about what’s happening around you and laugh about it. And that, as well as the upcoming point in this article, explains why comedy has always been associated with wisdom and philosophy, as well as the existence of Charlie Chaplin and all the great sarcastic writers and cartoonists and standup comedians in the world.
Humor is like a guerilla fighter as opposed to a fat, well-equipped regular army of logic. Guerilla fighters often have nothing to lose, so they can afford to risk more daring methods of attack.
When Sheeko shaved his head, giving himself the silliest fake baldness you could imagine in order to look older and fit the role of overconfident, deluded, stupid intelligence officer training a team of special forces to destroy the Mossad building in Israel (and failing of course), it was a suicide attack. He was strapping his face with TNT and risking his own image in terms of what common culture considers deportment and dignity, but as he did that he also blew up the concept of deportment and dignity, and infiltrated the defenses that real-life overconfident, deluded, stupid intelligence officers and look-alikes hide their insecurities behind.
Reckless acts of self-harm for the sake of making a point have always characterized humor and shaped its tools. That’s why excessive laughter or joking in the wrong situation is associated with being undignified or disrespectful. This association helped humor evolve and find an important place in collective human heritage by using its abnormal effect on people’s thinking and emotions for interesting and productive purposes. Speaking of Chaplin and his slapstick, sometimes he made people laugh by showing someone kicking someone else’s butt. It’s funny, cheap and flat when it’s just someone kicking someone’s butt, but Chaplin made it funnier and more meaningful by having the guy kicking a police officer’s butt. Man versus authority, injustice, power, fear.
Fouad al-Mohandis, super-mouse in Al-Attaba Gazaz, also acted in Land of Hypocrisy (1968), in which a weird scientist cooks pills of ethics. Fouad goes around pouring pills in the Nile to make people more honest, brave or kind. It was a very thoughtful and funny movie with quite a realistic, maybe pessimistic conclusion. I don’t think there were many producers at the time interested in movies that made people think hard about their lives and how manipulated they are by the system, because that might make people stop going to the movies. I don’t think there are many of them now either.
To sum up, the main problem about the lazy “Wasn’t it funny?” response is: There is nothing impressive about making a comedy that is funny! Funny is one of the basic objectives of comedy. If it’s not funny there’s a huge problem, and if it is funny that’s just a starting point.