Wearing a jilbab and striped cap, Mahmoud Shokoko dominated the 1940s as Egypt’s top comedian. His monologues and sarcastic song lyrics oozed with harsh sociopolitical criticism that hid important messages. His musical sketch on the dangers of drugs, in a monologue called "Hashish," is still considered a reference to Egyptian musical sketches. In memory of Shokoko, on the occasion of his 102nd birthday in 2014, Google created a regional Doodle.
Shokoko monopolized Egypt’s comedy scene until Ismail Yasseen came on the scene in the late 1940s. Unlike the singing and dancing of Shokoko, Yasseen was known as a tragicomic figure. He excelled in monologues that tackled the woes of the middle class. He also carried the art of monologue to the silver screen in famous films such as “Aini Alayna YaAhl al-Fan, YaAini Alayna” ("In Praise of Art Lovers") and “Al-Dunya Di Moutiba” ("This Life is Hard").
In the 1960s, Egyptian standup comedy witnessed a new trio, “Tholathy Adwaa el-Masrah,” made up of Egyptian artists George Sidhom, Samir Ghanem and El Deif Ahmed. Dynamic and interactive with the audience, the trio brought a new style to musical sketches and standup comedy. They carried their fame to TV and film theaters, presenting the first ever Ramadan TV riddles, or Fawazir Ramadan — musical sketches staged like mini-Broadway scenes broadcast about an hour after iftar. The early death of Ahmed forced Sidhom and Ghanem to continue as a duo; Ghanem still appears on TV today.
These Ramadan sketches were part of the Egyptian scene in the 20th century, but they gradually disappeared in the last decades of the 20th century.
Today, Masr al-Qadimah troupe (Old Egypt) wants to revive the tradition. Mohammad Ali Hashem, a poet and writer, formed the troupe in 2004, which claimed fame after they participated in the TV talent show "Arabs Got Talent" in 2011.
The troupe started out in El Sawy Culture Wheel, a cultural center located on Zamalek island, Cairo, offering a platform for diverse talents and speakers to expose their work. When Masr al-Qadimah took their performances to YouTube, their popularity soared.
Hashem told Al-Monitor that his passion for standup comedy started when he was still a child. He would memorize the sketches of Shokoko, Yasseen, Thuraya Hilmi and Tholathy Adwaa El Masrah. He wrote songs that people liked to listen to, and eventually he focused on musical sketches that consist of satirical songs.
When he established his troupe in 2004, they would mainly perform comedy duets. The performance of the troupe gradually evolved, and several actors and composer Mohamed Helal joined in.
The troupe’s name is a reference to the golden age of Egyptian cinema, with its black and white films.
Just like his heroes whose monologues and musical sketches he learned by heart, Hashem's team was trying to tackle an important social issue with each performance. “Monologues are an art form that aim at raising awareness. I talk about topics that reflect social problems such as price hikes, women’s employment, Ramadan and Eid expenses, and a feud between a wife and her mother-in-law,” he told Al-Monitor.
Masr al-Qadimah participated in two awareness campaigns in the Egyptian countryside, using humor to create awareness. The first was a collaboration with UNICEF to raise public awareness of polio, and the second project aimed at creating awareness of the activities of Egypt’s cultural institutions and how culture is relevant in daily life, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture.
Hashem noted, “We were happy with the success of the campaigns that were warmly welcomed by the audience, who left the venue repeating text from the sketches.”
He added, “After several performances, we were asked to present a monologue on the radio. We prepared 'Atiya wa Mrato Sinniya' ['Atiya and his Sunni Wife'], which was broadcast on Shaaby FM.”
Hashem also co-wrote several comedies such as “Kamine fi Saraya al-Maganin” ("Checkpoint at the Mental Ward"), but he dreams of writing for the silver screen.
When asked why the old art form of musical sketches is declining, Hashem said it is due to the changing social culture and lifestyle, with the emergence of new forms of expression and access to global cultures that kill traditional arts.
He said, “With new forms of art, the space for old art like monologues and musical sketches have shrunk. There have been indirect attempts to revive it through comic songs, but the content and form do not compare to performances of the past. Musical monologues were composed and distributed as complete operettas with the participation of well-known musicians. The biggest problem facing performing arts currently is that performances have become tasteless and amateurish. There is no originality, and the musical sketches and monologues have stopped being a fine art.”