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.”