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.