Standup comedian Hisham Yanis expected the worst.

The star of a hit play that is giving Jordan its first taste of political satire, he was ready to go on stage one night - and as usual poke fun at Arab leaders - when King Hussein showed up.To top it off, sitting next to the king was the chief of Jordan's feared intelligence agency.

"I was scared like hell," the comedian said.

Yanis suddenly wondered if he'd been right to think Jordan had become liberal enough for his satirical comedy. It didn't help when someone shouted "What are you doing, Hisham?" as the comedian started to mimic the king's husky voice.

But Hussein "clapped, laughed and encouraged us," Yanis recalled.

"When the show ended, I shook hands with the king, then asked his intelligence chief, `Should I go home or go with you?' "

Yanis and partner Nabil Sawalha, who wrote and perform the comedy "Welcome, Arab Citizens' Rights," see the king's reaction as a symbol of Jordan's growing tolerance in what remains a largely authoritarian Arab world.

"I can't imagine daring to speak out the people's minds a few years ago without getting locked up," Yanis said.

Jordan's liberalization began seven years ago when riots spurred the government to loosen its grip. It held the first parliamentary elections in 22 years and then allowed political parties, which had been banned since the 1950s. Four years ago, it annulled the martial law that had been in effect since 1956.

Along with skewering Arab leaders, the play by Yanis and Sawalha takes on other subjects - like premarital sex and political Islam - that are still taboo in much of the Arab world.

One of their targets is President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whose name is more associated with fear than humor for most Jordanians. But the audience laughs loudly when the Saddam character struts about, puffing a cigar and threatening to repeat the invasion of Kuwait that brought U.N. sanctions and war down on his country.

In another scene, Yanis impersonates Hussein venturing into divisive territory - relations between Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan, where Palestinians make up more than half of the 3.8 million population.

"I envisage an independent Palestinian state," Hussein says at an imagined news conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

"I and my brother Mubarak will build that state stone by stone," the king declares - a remark that would seem to leave out any role for Arafat.

An astonished Mubarak interrupts and asks: "What about Arafat?"

"He will bring us the stones," a laughing Hussein responds, referring to the 1987-93 uprising during which rock-throwing Palestinian youths faced off with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In another scene, Arab-Americans go into hiding for fear of a backlash after the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"Sleep under the mattress, and wear a blond wig if you must leave home," a man shouts at his friend.

The friend answers: "Why? What about our rights?"

"Arabs have no rights in America - as they have no rights in the Arab world," the man responds.

Yanis and Sawalha gained prominence in 1993 with the play "New World Order" on the political confusion after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Their latest comedy has run for nearly 11 months, and in November they began a series on state-owned television aiming barbs at Cabinet ministers and the government's Byzantine workings.

A recent opinion poll found that 86 percent of Jordanians surveyed said they regularly watch the series, "Ahlan, Hukoma" - "Welcome, Government." That compared with just 40 percent who watch the news.