Thursday,14 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)
Thursday,14 December, 2017
Issue 1348, (8 - 14 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The triumph of bad taste

Hani Mustafa sums up the history of the candid camera in Egypt

#Galal # Al-Mohandess # Nasr as Zakia Zakaria
# # #

All year every year television people work towards a spot in the intensive Ramadan season, the greatest opportunity in the year for every kind of televised entertainment. Indeed the competition is such that many programmes are postponed, not to be released until the holy month is over. The competition has driven programme writers to come with new and attractive ideas, but only some such ideas manage to grab the viewers attention. At the same time, paradoxically, there are programmes that succeed, lasting for years on end despite having nothing new or truly humorous about them. Despite some people objecting to the concept on principle, candid camera type programmes – the comedian Ramez Galal’s yearly programme, which has one of the highest viewing rates in the Arab world, for example – demonstrate this.

This kind of programme in Egypt emerged in the 1980s when actor-director Ismail Youssri created Al-Camera Al-Khafeya (Invisible Camera) and managed to persuade the late comedy star Fouad Al-Mohandess to provide an introduction to each episode, explaining the trick and the process of implementing it; Ismail was after all the son of actor Salah Youssri, who performed opposite Al-Mohandess in the latter’s 1960s stage hit Ana wa Huwa wa Hiya (Me, Him and Her). Due to its pioneering status and ability to extract hilarious, spontaneous reactions from ordinary people Al-Camera Al-Khafeya was an unprecedented success; the presence of Al-Mohandess no doubt also helped to seal the programme’s fate.

Al-Camera Al-Khafeya would come to be associated with Ibrahim Nasr, who replaced Al-Mohandess in providing the introduction before joining in the episode itself in disguise. In this way he would perform the trick and then reveal his identity to the victim, asking them whether they agree to screening. In one remarkable episode, Nasr was disguised as a woman; and he masterfully changed his voice so that a major part of the comedy resulted from a close-up of the victim’s face the moment Nasr revealed himself, when before removing his disguise he started to speak normally. Nasr would subsequently play this female character, Zakia Zakariya, in different contexts; the character spread, becoming extremely popular and taking on a kind of cult status – so much so that it appeared in the form of a doll.

The success of Al-Camera Al-Khafeya inspired a number of similar programmes before Ramadan 2001, when in Hussein on Air the late actor-musician Hussein Al-Imam thought of hosting and playing tricks on celebrities rather than ordinary people within the studio. The show proved popular not only because of the comic appeal of Al-Imam and his two sidekicks, Badriya Tolba and Ismail Farghali, but also because of the draw of a celebrity exposed in a way seldom available to the viewer. It was a chance to find out how a given star will react when in an embarrassing situation or as the victim of a confidence trick. Many have tried to replicate this premise since Al-Imam but, lacking Al-Imam’s charisma, none succeeded.

Then Ramez Galal arrived on the scene, starting with Ramez Lionheart in 2011. The premise of the programme was to host a star in a talk show setting and later have them go down in the lift, which stops on a given floor where the guest ends up alone with a real, live lion. The guest’s reaction is filmed while Galal’s voice provides live commentary, which often went beyond describing the guest’s reaction to make fun of what they were wearing. Despite the resulting controversy, the programme was successful enough to enable Galal to repeat the formula. The next year, Ramez Desert Fox was even more widely criticised because, instead of facing a lion, the guest was physically kidnapped by pretend highwaymen, recalling recent acts of terrorism in Iraq.

The campaign this gave way to seemed to work in favour of Galal, however, and in 2013 he presented Ramezankhamun, in which the star attends the opening of a newly discovered tomb only to end up locked underground and attacked by mummies. In 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, Galal made shows  in which he dressed in a shark costume to scare a swimming guest during a fishing trip (following the discovery of a shark near the beach in Sharm Al-Sheikh), had a professional pilot fly a helicopter in such a way as to persuade the guest on board that it was crashing and persuaded the guest that a fire has broken out in the skyscraper where they were. This year, in Ramez Underground, the guest is interviewed by the Lebanese talk show host Nishan at a desert oasis, and on the way back their car is caught in quicksand and they have to face a giant lizard that materialises out of nowhere – Ramez Galal in another lifelike costume.

The comedian Hani Ramzi was said to exploit Galal’s success when he entered the candid camera world in 2015. His programme Emergency Landing lasted two years; it involved a celebrity being flown to Cyprus for a TV interview only to be subjected to what looks like an emergency landing.

The most distinctive aspect of Galal’s programme, however – which is always the same – is that it relies not on the guest’s spontaneous reactions as in Al-Camera Al-Khafeya or Hussein on Air but on Galal’s own commentary, in which he makes fun of the guest’s appearance and mannerisms. It is this humour or thinly veiled contempt that seems to make the show popular, since it strikes the viewer as just punishment for the arrogance or inaccessibility of the celebrities in question. And though candid camera programmes clearly started out with a focus on the humorous potential of people’s spontaneous responses to a shocking or embarrassing situation, they seem to have taken an entirely new turn when the victims became celebrities and household names. Perhaps it is the viewer’s desire to bring their demigods down to size that explains this, since these programmes provide evidence that celebrities are embarrassed and scared just like everyone else.

More remarkable, however, is the makers’ of these programmes readiness to do anything in order to increase viewing rates. Higher rates mean more and more expensive ads, and so greater profits. On the Algerian channel Al-Nahar, one such programme hosted the celebrated novelist Rachid Boudjedra and during the supposed interview he was giving the studio was stormed by a number of people who claimed to be security officers and went on to interrogate Boudjedra, accusing him of atheism and demanding that he should utter the Shahada – until the programme makers explained that this was a trick. The episode has prompted the literary community across the Arab world to launch a solidarity campaign in which they have decried Boudjedra’s humiliation and spoken out against programmes that rely on contempt and libel.

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