Using comedy to dismantle stereotypes, one joke at a time
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.