Even in Tough Times, Arab Comedians Find a Wealth of Humor

Joy Behar, co-host of the ABC-TV program The View, was clapping and laughing. So were people in the studio audience. Comedian Dean Obeidallah had just told them a joke about how Americans of Middle East descent can avoid being interrogated at airports: "Remember this expression -- 'Dress white, make your flight.'. . . It means two words: Banana Republic, my friends. Khaki pants, polo shirt with a little animal like an alligator or a tiger. No camel."

Obeidallah is (pun slightly intended) the dean of Arab American comedians -- a 41-year-old former lawyer who uses his quick wit and humor to make light of serious subjects like airport interrogations and Islamophobia and benign ones like cigarette smoking and the state of New Jersey. On Thursday, Obeidallah and two other notable Arab-American stand-up comics, Maysoon Zayid and Aron Kader, start a four-day run at Cobb's Comedy Club in San Francisco. It's being billed as Arabs Gone Wild, a title that suggests salacious material or even nudity, but the most radical feature of the trio's tour may simply be this: Showcasing Arabs' funny side. When was the last time you saw an Arab person (or Muslim) tell a joke in public? Or laugh? Remember that 2005 Albert Brooks movie, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World? Brooks may have failed in his quest (the film was mostly horrible), but in the past five years, comedy in the Arab and Muslim world has taken off. One example: Saudi Arabia has a bustling stand-up comedy scene, which Obeidallah has seen first-hand during his recent performances in the country.

Among Arab countries, "they have the most young people doing stand-up comedy next to Egypt on a consistent level," Obeidallah tells me during a phone interview from his home in New York City. "They do (comedy nights) all the time. There are limits on what you can talk about, but it's no different from anyplace else. What makes it different in Saudi is that movie theaters are banned but stand-up comedy has been able to do well. Once a month they do a big-time show."

Even bigger, though, is the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, held every year since 2008 in Amman, Jordan. Obeidallah is the Executive Producer, a position he took after being wooed by Jordanian King Abdullah II, who saw Obeidallah perform in Amman. The festival brings American comics to Jordan but has also promoted such Middle Eastern comedians as George Azmy of Egypt, who is in his mid 20s and jokes (in Arabic) about Cairo's taxi drivers and Egyptian TV shows; and Nemr Abou Nassar of Lebanon, who is in his late 20s and (in Arabic and English) talks about everything from pornography to political campaigns.

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Says Obeidallah: "What's been more exciting in the last couple of years has been the rise of Arab comics who are doing comedy mostly in English, but now more and more in Arabic. So it's no longer just an import from the West. I like the fact that it's growing, and becoming a true entertainment form there."

In the United States, Obeidallah is emblematic of a new hybridized America that has one foot in the United States and one foot in the rest of the world. Half-Arab on his father's side (his dad was a Palestinian Muslim) and half Sicilian on his mother's side (his mom observes Catholic traditions), Obeidallah grew up in New Jersey, and speaks with a noticeable East Coast accent, sounding at times like a young Martin Scorsese. For seven years, he has co-organized the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. Given the seriousness of what has happened in the Greater Middle East over the past few months -- the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, ongoing protests in Bahrain, the military campaign against Libyan leader Muammmar Gaddafi, etc. -- I asked Obeidallah if there was any room for humor in these events.

"I'll see funny things in not usually the main issue but things along the periphery," he tells me. "For example, I was talking about Gaddafi, how there's no doubt he's insane. We heard he paid a million dollars to Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Nellie Furtado to perform. Who pays a million dollars to Nellie Furtado? That is just crazy. She'll sing for food at this point. A few days ago, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister was literally using terms like, 'We're going to send the Libyan rebels things that Canadians excel at to help them.' I'm like, 'You're going to send them a hockey team? Maple syrup?' The rebels are going to be like, 'OK. We have maple syrup. Gadaffi, you're going to be sticky.' So, you talk about the little things like that. And also in the Middle East I was over there doing jokes . . . in Dubai, the country is like an exclusive nightclub. I told them how, 'I don't think you'll ever have protests in Dubai unless you have a VIP section. There's got to be a line. You have to get on a list. The velvet rope and everything.' "

Some other reflections from Obeidallah:About the history of comedy in the Middle East: "There was humor in films and storytelling, but the American form of stand-up? That's what's new. My father (who was born in a village near Bethlehem) was a funny guy. He would tell these funny stories all the time. But it was not a set-up, punch line like American stand-up. That's different. Comedy in the Middle East was like a long story and a punch line at the end. So it was funny and entertaining -- it just wasn't our form that we use in America."

About the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival: "The festival became the first stand-up comedy festival in the history of the Middle East. The biggest thing when you come to these shows: The audiences love jokes about Arab culture. They love being made fun of. At the beginning, they were hesitant. And now they almost demand it, talking about their own foibles. And Arabs being late for things. Smoking cigarettes all the time. And speaking really loudly. The typical things about Arabs that we go through. It's a lot of fun."

A few weeks ago, What Unites Us, a San Francisco-based organization, had Obeidallah go to Washington, D.C. to comment (via Twitter) on Congressman Peter King's hearings on the potential radicalization of Muslim Americans. "I tweeted: Whenever a Republican Congressman goes, 'I'm not saying all Muslims are bad,' you know that what's going to follow will be horrible,' " Obeidallah says. "Some of my tweets were silly. Like when Peter King came out, I remember tweeting about how huge his head was. It was like a melon on a toothpick. I called (the hearings) the Islamophobia Super Bowl. Peter King talked about all the people opposed to the hearing, including Kim Kardashian. And I remember tweeting, 'You don't want to piss off Kim Kardashian!' "

After appearing on The View Obeidallah added a second line to his joke about "Dress white, make your flight." The line: "Dress brown, never leave town."

Obeidallah laughs a bit as he tells me this added punch line. I laugh even more. You don't have to be Arab to get Obeidallah's jokes. It helps, I suppose, but Obeidallah's humor is equal opportunity. The tour featuring Obeidallaah, Zayid and Kader stopped in Chicago and Dearborn, Michigan, before coming to San Francisco and then going on to San Diego and Los Angeles.

"It (my comedy) tends to be a bit more political or topical," says Obeidallah, "and some people don't like that. But in general, it's written for everybody."

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Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid and Aron Kader perform March 24-27, 2011 at Cobb's Comedy Club in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit cobbscomedyclub.com.

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