Not Just For Laughs

BY AHMED AL OMRAN
March 22, 2011

Thirty minutes after the show was supposed to start, the dancers finally took the stage.

“Welcome to the Arabs Gone Wild comedy tour!” the announcer exclaimed. The show started with ‘dabka,’ a Middle Eastern folk dance in which dancers hold hands and stamp their feet on the ground to the rhythm of music. The dabka was performed by a dozen of young ladies dressed in black with keffiyehs wrapped around their waists, then they made way to host Dean Obeidallah, who looked out over the audience packing The Town Hall theater on West 43rd Street and feigned amazement.

“Are you sure you are Arabs?” he asked.

The crowd roared in approval.

“You are not Arabs!” Obeidallah insisted, with a broad smile on his face. “The real Arabs are probably still on their way, or maybe haven’t left their houses yet!”

Thrilled to see many happy faces, he cracked another joke: “If you have a Muslim or Arab name right now, you’re probably immune to identity theft. I have a friend whose first name is Osama. He can leave his driver’s license and credit card in crack house, and nobody would dare to steal it.”

The crowd roared again.

That night was special to Obeidallah and the other six Arab-American comics who shared the stage with him. This was the first Arab comedy show on Broadway; a milestone performance that few people could have anticipated even a few years ago. But these comics not only managed to succeed in the U.S., they also exported standup comedy to the Middle East by touring the region and encouraging a generation of young and upcoming Arab comics. Some topics like religion, sex and politics remain sensitive for their audiences, but these comics keep trying to push the envelope by using homur to send their message across.

Religious and ethnic comedy is not a new phenomenon — Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce have poked fun at themselves for years, as have numerous other groups like African-Americans.

And actors and comics of Arab descent have been making intermittent appearances in movies and on television for years. Danny Thomas, a Lebanese-American comedian, was the lead actor in the television sitcom Make Room for Daddy, which ran from 1953-1957 on ABC and from 1957-1964 on CBS. His daughter Marlo is also an actress, best known for her starring role on the TV series That Girl. Other recent examples include Kathy Najimy, who appeared in the sitcom Veronica’s Closet on NBC in the late 1990s, as well as Paula Abdul whose father is a Syrian Jew. Abdul started her career as a dancer and choreographer, then became a singer before starting another career as one of three judges for the reality television music competition show American Idol. But the combination of Arab entertainers and standup comedy into Arab-American standup comedy is very much a product of post-9/11.

In a sense, the rise of this new art form it was the natural reaction of these artists to the terrorist attacks. The comedians saw the surge in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments after the attack, and they felt an obligation to respond. They wanted to break down stereotypes and show the mainstream audience in the U.S. a different side of Arabs and Muslims through comedy.

Dean Obeidallah was born and raised in New Jersey. The son of a Palestinian father and Scillian mother, he was trained and worked as a lawyer before he started his career in comedy. Performing in clubs around New York City before, his comedy was mostly observational. But after the jet planes hit the twin twoers, things changed forever. As he sat in front of the television night after night, watching news reports of Arab Americans being attacked, Arab Americans being deported, he knew he had to do something. And what he knew how to do was make people laugh. Why, he thought, couldn’t he use humor to bring some awareness. And so his act was born.

“I’m jealous that we don’t get a whole month that celebrates our [Arab] heritage like other groups in America,” he riffs in his Axis of Evil tour, the video of which has received more than a half-million hits on YouTube. “… Like African Americans? Black History Heritage Month. Asian Americans? Asian-American Awareness Month … What do we get? Orange alert.”

“9/11 was a turning point for my own life, my self-awareness and my own self-identification,” Obeidallah said. Before 9/11, he was never referred to as Arab American comedian. Things have come to take a sharp turn after the attacks. “After 9/11, America changed,” he said. “I didn’t change, America changed.”

Obeidallah became more in touch with his Arabic heritage. He started reading books about the Arab world, and tried to learn the Arabic language. That was reflected in his standup act. His jokes started to dive deeper in the Arabic psyche and the nuances of Arab culture.

He wasn’t the only one to whom such an idea had occurred. Maysoon Zayid, another Palestinian-American comic from New Jersey, was also watching the news in horror and wondering what she could do to help. In 2003, they joined forces and founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which aims to showcase the talents of Arab American actors, comics, playwrights and filmmakers.

For Obeidallah, Zayid and others, that decision took a lot of courage and determination. Wearing their Arab identity on their sleeve at a time when the number of hate crimes against Arabs was skyrocketing was potentially dangerous. But it was more dangerous, the comedians felt, to stay quiet in post-9/11 America seemed like a disastrous decision, and these comedians made the decision despite objections from their agents and friends in showbiz. They felt an obligation to their community. According to Obeidallah, “it wasn’t a career choice. It was a personal choice.”

What the comedians do is that they knock on the door of mainstream and demand to be heard on behalf of their group. Mona Eltahawy, an Arab American columnist who has followed Arab American comedy since its early days, said what comedy has always done is that it has helped the people to take on awkward and difficult subjects and bridge a gap of misunderstanding and discomfort.

“If it breaks stereotypes that’s great,” she said. “But what’s more important is that they take a difficult conversation and use comedy to demand that conversations do happen.”

Eltahawy also pointed out that these Arab America comedians are pioneers, not only in their field of entertainment, but in the Arab American experience in general. The stereotype of Arab Americans even within the Arab community in the U.S. is that kids from privileged backgrounds become doctors and lawyers, while those from not-so-privileged backgrounds go to work in gas stations and grocery stores. “Someone doing something artistic is unheard of,” Eltahawy said. “Comedians, actors, writers are absolute pioneers” because there is nothing in their community to assure their parents that they will succeed.

The 2003 festival proved to be very successful, with many nights playing to standing-room-only crowds, most of them Arabs, but a large number of non-Arabs too. The festival also attracted Arab comics from around the United States. They started with only a couple of nights and a dozen of comedians, and it was never intended to be annual, but the overwhelming success and the constant growth turned it into one. Last year there were more than 40 performers, including an all-Arabic night and a haraam late show where comedians talked about politics, sex and religion — topics that are still taboos in the Arab world.

“It was nice to see Arabs working together instead of fighting each other,” said Baha Khalil, Palestinian-American comic from New Jersey. The 29-year-old got his start in standup in May 2009, and he has been performing at universities, New York City comedy clubs, Arab-American festivals and fundraising events across the U.S.

The success also encouraged other Middle Eastern comics to ride that wave. In November 2005, the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was launched featuring comedians Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani.

The three are based in Los Angeles. Ahmed was born in Egypt, his family came to the U.S. when he was three years old and he grew up in Riverside, California, before moving to Hollywood when he was 19. Kader was born to to a Palestinian father and a Mormon mother. He grew up partly in Utah but mostly Washington D.C., and also moved to Hollywood when he was 19 to pursue comedy and acting. As for Jobrani, he was born in Tehran, Iran, and his parents moved to California when he was six years old. He studied political science at UC Berkeley, and was enrolled in a Ph.D. program at UCLA when he decided to pursue his childhood dream of acting and performing comedy.

Obeidallah appeared as a special guest on some shows during the tour, which was well received. But when the trio asked him if he wanted to join them on a tour in the Middle East, his answer was a firm “No.”

“I’m not going to the Middle East,” he told them. “No one is going to come out” for the show.

Obeidallah’s skepticism seemed justified. Standup comedy was not a standard performance art in the Middle East. Plus, none of them spoke Arabic and the shows were going to be fully in English, in a region where Arabic is the language spoken by the great majority. He did not think it was going to work. It was a gamble that he simply was not willing to take.

As it turned out, he was wrong: The tour worked. It worked very well, actually. The tour attracted sell-out crowds in the different countries where they performed like Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. “It was a huge surprise to me that it was embraced so amazingly by the young people there,” he said.

Indeed, it was the young people who made that possible. Studies estimate that 60 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 25. The internet-savvy younger members of the population already had encountered standup comedy on YouTube, and thanks to the Web they were ready to receive the Arab-American comics on their first tours in the region.

After seeing the great reception the trio had, Obeidallah was convinced. He joined the Axis of Evil second tour in the Middle East and it was just as popular as the first one. In fact, when the tour stopped in Amman, Jordan, King Abdullah II attended their show.

When he first came across the tour DVD, Yazeed al-Harthi, a Saudi student in the United Kingdom, thought to himself: “OK this must be lame, but let me give it a try.” Despite his skepticism, he found himself laughing out loud as he watched. “Most of the stand up comedy we see these days is either politically motivated, or racially motivated, which I can’t really fully relate to,” he said. “I have already watched it twice and I still find it very funny.”

This is one of the major differences between performing in the United States and performing in the Middle East. When they perform in the Middle East, Arab American comics prefer to stay away from politics and focus on Arab culture and everyday life — things like being late, talking at the movies, or fighting over who pays the check after they have a meal in a restaurant.

“It’s like the red meat they demand from you,” Obeidallah said.

That’s because in the Arab world, comedy is just about making people laugh and having a good time. In the U.S., Arab American comics of course want to make people laugh and have a good time, but they also have a mission: to change which is changing the perception of Arabs among the American people. “Comedy jihad,” Obeidallah calls it.

Stand up is an American invention, with its roots going back into the mid 1800s. Up until then comedy was the exclusive domain of theater, where actors followed a pre-written script. The grandfather of stand-up comedy was a man named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, who is credited with inventing the minstrel shows. These shows caricatured African Americans, reflecting the racism of the time. They started before the Civil War and remained popular well past it, but by the late 19th Century they had begun to fade as the era of vaudeville kicked in.

Vaudeville featured variety acts that traveled circuits of small-town theaters. The variety show uses the theater format, but detaches it from plot or story. Instead, the focus is on a collection of short acts that all seek simply to entertain. “Earlier stand-up comedy that made fun of different ethnicities is divisive,” said Jerry Zolten, associate professor of communication arts & sciences and American studies at Penn State Altoona. “During the World Wars, comedians gradually began poking fun at what we as a society could all laugh at together.”

There is a long legacy in the U.S. of using comedy to raise social issues. Arabs are not the first minority group use comedy in order to correct misconceptions and break down stereotypes. Other minority groups have gone through similar transitions, starting with comedy that is closely linked to their identity and later moving into the mainstream. Many Arab comics interviewed for this article cited comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor as their inspirations.

Pryor, an African American, was known for his examination of racism and other controversial issues, but he managed to reach a broad audience thanks to his sharp observations and storytelling talent. According to Pryor’s official biography, Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett, Jr. credited him as “the single most reason for us making it in this business. He made it possible for us [black people] to be in this business on equal terms.”

During the early years of his career, Pryor tried to enter the mainstream by presenting what he called “white bread,” non-offensive humor in the style of comedians such as Bill Cosby. But then he realized he wanted to do something different. He wanted to become himself. He went underground and came back to the stage years later with new material. The new material touched on sensitive racial topics, like mocking police harassment of blacks and exploring differences between white and black sexual attitudes.

Many Arab American comics say they are trying to play a role similar to the one played by the black comics in the 60s and early 70s – that is, using comedy to push the envelope and challenge people’s misconceptions about their race and who they were. They are trying to use comedy that is warm and embracing. “We are the new blacks,” Khalil said. Arabs did not invent the model, but this was the first time an Arabic voice is inserted into this comedy reel, and that makes these comics pioneers in their group.

However, change is not easy. “There is a lot of ignorance and prejudice. In the press, media and movies, the impression of Arabs is always negative,” said Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. He does not think that change is impossible, but it will take time, and comedy should not be thought of as a silver bullet.

“In some ways, Arabs have it easier. Arabs benefit from the success of Jews and African Americans,” he said. “They don’t have to fight every fight.”

Not all comics buy into the idea that they should be on a mission to change the stereotypes of Arabs in America. Nine years after the 9/11, some comics think it’s time to move away from the aftermath of that tragic event, and the racial profiling that followed. “It started as: ‘We are not terrorists!’ Now it’s about ‘That’s who we are,’” said Joyce Artinian, a Lebanese-American actress of Armenian descent.

Eman Morgan, a standup comedian living in Los Angeles, said that while he wants to remain truthful to his Middle Eastern roots, he is increasingly trying to avoid ethnic comedy because it no longer has the same spark to it. “It has all been done before. It’s over,” he said. “Terrorists, women, pork, hijab. It’s boring to me.” Morgan, an Egyptian-American who described himself as “addicted to laughter,” does not think that it is his job to break any stereotypes. “I got into this business to entertain people,” he said, adding that he did not want to go “educational.”

He might be right. Maybe Arab comedians should get over 9/11 and its aftermath. That’s what Obeidallah also thought for a while, and for the past three years, the negative images of Arabs were mostly absent from the mainstream media.

Then came the news of proposed plans to build an Islamic community center near ground zero, and suddenly the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments were once again center stage. “We thought these days were over,” Obeidallah said. “But what happened shows these days are far from over.”

While Arab-American comedians may disagree over their mission in the U.S. and if it’s over or not, they agree that their other mission of introducing standup comedy in the Middle East is just beginning. Touring the region in the past few years was just the first step in establishing standup as a performance art, and opening the door for young local comics to make their mark.

One of these locals is Fahad al-Butairi, a Saudi national who had his first taste of standup comedy when he was pursuing his bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Texas between 2003 and 2007. “I got into standup comedy after trying out for amateur nights at local comedy clubs in the city of Austin, Texas,” he said. After graduation, he returned to Saudi Arabia, bringing his interest in standup with him.

The timing was perfect because Arab American comedians were just starting to tour the Middle East. Al-Butairi’s debut was on October 2, 2008, opening for Maz Jobrani in Bahrain as part of the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.” Al-Butairi believes the rise of standup comedy in the Arab world was inevitable, because it was one of the few places left without standup content that represented it. “I think it is a wonderful development and reflects the level of awareness amongst people in the region, especially the youth,” he said.

Al-Butairi works for Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, and he spends extended periods of time with the company’s seismic crew in the middle of the desert. He uses the time there to develop his material, and says he finds the serenity of the desert helpful and stimulating. Sometimes he would entertains his colleagues by testing his newly written jokes during impromptu mini-comedy shows.

Early last year, al-Butairi approached Ali al-Kalthami, another young Saudi national, with the idea of starting a comedy show on YouTube. After months of preparing, they launched “La Yekthar,” which translates to “Say No More.” The show is very simple: al-Butairi sits in front of the camera with a white background behind him, and just banters about different topics every two weeks, including current news events, sports and the everyday life of young people.

The five videos they uploaded so far have received over 2 million views. Al-Kalthami said they are pleased with the reaction from the audience online, but admitted that they also get comments from people who don’t understand the format. The reason, he said, is because their show is closer to standup than TV sitcoms, which is the format most people in the Middle East are most used to.

“Some people don’t get the humor we do,” al-Kalthami said. “It’s usually older people who watch TV all the time.”

Al-Kalthmi said he and al-Butairi wanted to make something that young people in his country can relate to. “I’ve been waiting for someone to do something like this,” he said. Then he decided instead of waiting, young people should do their own thing. His partner al-Butairi is quick to give credit to the Arab-American comedians who helped launch standup in the region. They did not necessarily inspire him, he said, but they “provided us with opportunities to grow professionally.”

Arab-American comics say they are much happier teaching comedy and trying to nurture along this movement by young Arabs than simply visiting the Middle East to perform every once in a while. This way, they can ensure there will be a longevity of standup comedy in the region instead of just waiting for Arab Americans to come perform once a year.

“I didn’t want it to be like Christina Aguilera,” Obeidallah said. “She comes, sings a song, gets a paycheck and then goes home.”

The story was written as my master’s project at Columbia Journalism School. All the reporting was done in New York City under the supervision of Professor Laura Muha and Betsy Rate.