Terrorism. Racial Profiling. Religious Intolerance. The War on Terror. Perfect material for a hilarious night at a comedy show, right? Absolutely, according to fans, international audiences, the internet blogs, and now the big shot Hollywood executives fawning over the “Axis of Evil” comedy tour. Unlike most authoritative works on Arabs and the Middle East, this ensemble actually features four authentic, home grown, real life Middle Eastern American comedians. They use their experiences and comedy to play on society’s misconceptions, paranoia, and fear to not only break stereotypes but also emerge as new voices representing a diverse and dynamic Arab/Iranian-American experience.
The “Axis of Evil” lineup includes Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-Italian American who left a career in law to pursue his passion; Ahmed Ahmed, a Muslim Egyptian American who couldn’t land “terrorist” roles because he spoke English too well. Aron Kader, a Palestinian-Mormon American actor (you read that right), and Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American who dropped out of a PhD program to become an entertainer.
So how evil are they? Playwright and altmuslim correspondent Wajahat Ali recently sat down with these comedians to find out.
What was the catalyst that finally made the “The Axis of Evil” Comedy Tour happen, the straw that broke the camel’s back?
ARON KADER: Maz, Ahmed and I were basically the original 3 comedians, also including Sam Tripoli, who is half Armenian. I think we all thought in the back of our hearts and minds, “Oh it would be kinda’ cool if there were more Middle Eastern comics out there and we can do a show.” This was before 9-11, mind you. But it wasn’t something that could be a reality. If it were not for Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store, we probably wouldn’t be here. She saw us, recognized us, and Maz recommended me, so I came on.
She said let’s do a Middle Eastern show- this was before 9-11. So, we asked her, “Why do you want to do a Middle Eastern show?” And everyone thought she was crazy. And she says, “Because I think they will be the next voice in comedy. They are the one group that really needs a voice.” Through comedy and the arts, she’s seen you can get a lot done. We really owe a lot to her. She gave us stage time. And she called it “The Arabian Knights.”
MAZ JOBRANI: Mitzi Shore is Jewish and she saw a lot of news and there was the latest Intifada with the Palestinians. So, she felt there would be a need for a positive voice for Middle Easterners. In the past, she did Latino Night, so she wanted to do a Middle Eastern night. Basically, that meant anyone who was brown, but who wasn’t Mexican or Black. We had an Indian, an Armenian, some girls who were White but did impressions of Arabs – I don’t know… it was weird. And I kept saying, “You know, Iranians aren’t Arabs, so the name doesn’t really work.” But Mitzi owned the club, so we had to do what she told us.
First time we did an Arabian Knight show in LA, the club seated 300 people and none of us were known at the time. So, I put the word out to some Iranian organizations in LA and gave free comp ticket to like 120 people. It was in the early stages and we ended up getting 200 people. Tomorrow, we are going to do a show in LA after 7 years of doing this in a theatre with 1,900 people. But what’s funny is I still have to give 100 free complimentary tickets, because now it’s all the family and friends that want to come, and before it was just out of desperation.
AHMED AHMED: Mitzi Shore had an epiphany that there was going to be a war between the U.S. and the Middle East, and she wanted to be the first to put Arab comedians on the stage. She kept talking about how there might be a war, and we all didn’t know what she was talking about, so we just ignored her. A year later, 9-11 happened, and she was right. We changed the title to Axis of Evil, because right around that time Bush labeled these countries, and I thought it was hilarious. Being we are all from these countries, we decided let’s make light of what of our government is labeling us as and put comedy towards the end of it.
DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Before 9-11, I was doing comedy but I didn’t talk about being Arab. Being Arab was just a small part of my act here and there. We started doing the Arab American comedy festival in New York, and I found out that Aron and Ahmed are Arab, and they put me in touch with Maz. They came to New York, and we did more and more shows together. As we started doing shows like in DC with a 1,400-person audience, some people in the industry took note of us, and they came down to help produce the show. That’s how the Comedy Central special “Axis of Evil” was made last year. It wasn’t one dramatic moment, but it was just the post 9-11 climate. It just kept building and building. There were such few representations of us that were positive, I mean they weren’t even accurate, let alone positive – it was either inaccurate, negative, or just wrong.
Our comedy was a lot in response to people who just didn’t know what they were saying about us, or saying things maliciously with their own agenda. And we wanted to do what we could as comedians to right that. Now, we are in mainstream media so our messages gets out to more people, but we never thought we’d get a TV special. No one wanted to do Middle Eastern shows, no one was interested for years. As more and more media covered our shows, that made the industry say, “Hey, we think we can make money from this.” I mean that’s all the industry is about – it’s the entertainment industry. They aren’t altruistic or activists. All of us feel at some level we are activists as well as comedians. 9-11 was the moment that thrust us to talk more about it – our heritage and where we fit in America – and it just built from there.
You and other Arab American entertainers generally riff on being typecast as “Terrorist #3.” If you can, give us the insider tour from the auditions to the casting and the shooting. What do they expect of you, and how do they treat you on the set?
AHMED: First time I used to go these auditions, the casting director would ask me if I spoke English. It was that ignorant. I said, “Yup, I speak perfect English,” and they said, “Oh, you might be too American for the part then.” But, you don’t win either way, because they end up casting a Mexican guy. If you get cast, you show up on the set, and they have a certain way they write the character, and they want you to play it that way, and there is no room to find a voice for the character. There are limitations. That’s a reason why we went into standup comedy, because of those limitations. I actually quit acting for a year and a half, ran out of money, and went back to waiting tables. That’s where I realized the art of standup comedy, because funny is funny and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from.
DEAN: Not me, I was always White-looking. I was on Jim Lehrer show, and they had a roundtable and they asked me, “Did you have problems?” I said “Look at me, I’m White! I don’t have those problems.” My last name gets attention. My name legally is Dean, however my dad wanted it to be Salahuddin. I mean my life would’ve been different if he had his way. At these auditions for, you know, Arab Cab Driver #2, clearly I didn’t belong, I mean I was the White guy, and everyone else [auditioning] was dark and brown. I hope that I don’t play [these roles], and I don’t think I can play them and do these shows. Here, I’m trying to clear our name. You can’t humanize Middle Easterners and play those terrorist roles.
ARON: Ahmed and Maz have a more ethnic Middle Eastern look. They get typecast as “bad guy terrorist roles” or “character actor comedic roles.” I end up getting labeled as the “Jewish Kid.” (Laughs.) They have no idea I’m an Arab. They don’t even think it. I mean my name Aron is Harun in Arabic. My grandfather’s name was Musa, which is Moses. There are not a lot of Arabs and Muslims named Aron, but there a lot of Arabs named Moses. But Aron and Moses were brothers, right? So I don’t know why Muslims can be named Moses, but they can’t be named Aron. They see “Musa” (Moses), they say, “Ok!” But then they see Aron and they say, “That’s a Jewish name!” I just let them assume I’m Jewish in the industry. If they ask me, I’m honest, and I tell ‘em I’m Arab, but you never know what they’re thinking.
MAZ: When you first start, you figure it out as you go. Early on, I went to couple of auditions for terrorist parts. I got a couple of the parts. When I did them I just felt bad, I mean I didn’t feel good. Dramatically speaking, they never have a fleshed out character, like “Syriana” was an example that did it well, but most the times it’s like the bad guy has a look in his eye and he says something stupid, [thick Arabic accent] “You will die in the name of Allah!” It’s just cheesy, it’s bad, and I played it in Chuck Norris movie and in “24.” So, I actually said, “No more, just no more.” But there are just a handful of Middle Eastern actors in the industry, so when you go to the auditions, it’s always the same people that you see there. It’s funny, you’re all sitting in the waiting room, “Hey, what’s up Mike? Hey, Jose, sup?” And then, each one of us when we go to the audition room they ask, “Are you ready to do this?” And we all of a sudden go [enraged terrorist-mode], “I will kill you! And you will die! Because I’m a bad guy!” Afterwards, you’re done, you go [amiable and relaxed demeanor] “Hey guys, let’s go get a Starbucks.” It’s very much like that.
All ethnic parents are the same. “Son, become a doctor, engineer, or lawyer!” An artist or comedian is not high on the cultural monetary hierarchy – it’s somewhere between Teacher and glorified bathroom attendant. What was your family and communities’ response to you coming out as a comedian?
DEAN: I was a practicing lawyer. To me, I tell people that [law] was extinguishing the spark in my soul, it was killing me. I mean it is truly uncreative, and I didn’t like it. I only went to law school because I was active in political stuff, and it would be good pedigree to have. It was a secure profession, and my parents were really happy with. As for the comedy, I gradually built up to it. I was a lawyer, and I did a funny lawyer show for my law firm. I did some open mics, and it was more like I was doing comedy as a side gig for fun. As my comedy started to infringe on my legal career, there came the time I had to make the decision. I mean I was hired at Saturday Night Life where I worked for 6 years doing tangentially legal work, but really working on production of the show, so I was able to write jokes for Weekend Update, learn about comedy, and befriend cast members. And it really helped me learn about comedy, it was like going to graduate school for comedy.
My parents got used to it, and they said I can always go back to being a lawyer as a safety net. My mom, I’m not even kidding, just a few months ago said to me, “You know you can still be a lawyer.” I said, “Mom, I know I can be a lawyer, but I chose this.” And, you know God forbid it doesn’t work, I could still be a lawyer I guess.
ARON: I got kicked out of every school I ever went to. My counselor told me I was not college material, and just to rebel, I went to college…and got kicked out. I said to myself, “You know, I got nothing to do so I’m going to move to LA and live with my brothers.” I found this acting department in LA City College. I was afraid to admit that I wanted to be an actor. I was sitting at home in the summer picking my classes out of the fall schedule, and my mom and bro said, “Hey, there’s an acting class! Why don’t you take it?” And I said, “Nah, nah” even though I secretly wanted to. My fear was I didn’t want to admit that I wanted the spotlight on me, you know, it felt selfish. It didn’t feel like a real career you could pursue, it didn’t seem like a reality. My parents said, “You should do it.” My brother goes, “If you don’t do it now, when are you ever going to take an acting class?” I signed up and it led me to a 2 year acting conservatory program, and got me on stage. I got out of there and emerged as an actor. My parents knew that [acting] would fit. You know, it would fit me, fit my personality. They knew it before I did. So they encouraged me.
MAZ: When I was a Junior at Berkeley, my family didn’t want me to go Italy to study abroad. But I went ahead and did it and it was the best year of my life. After a month I was there, my family became very supportive. After I came back, I said I wanted to be a professor. So, this was the second time they said “This guy is losing his mind.” Even a career as a professor, my mom was looking down at it as a bad idea. I started a PhD program in LA, and she had given completely given up by then. One night I had a paper due the next day, a 5 page paper, and I was sitting in front of my computer. At this time, I was doing some plays in the Theatre Department at UCLA, because I had done acting since I was a kid. All of a sudden, I decided this [theater] is really what I should be doing. I turned the computer off and had no interest in finishing the paper. Next day I told my mom I’m going to drop out and pursue acting, and by then she was like, “You’ve lost your mind.”
Her and my grandmother recommended I learn some trade that people need, “Be an auto mechanic. Be a carpenter. Build something!” They thought I was crazy, but whatever, now they’re big fans. They converted when they saw I could make money doing this – that is the biggest concern – can you make a living? My grandmother, who was the biggest TV watcher in our house, she used to joke, “What does J.J. from “Good Times” have that you don’t have?” to encourage me. And now, when she saw me on the TV, she called and left a message saying, “Mr. Bean! Mr. Bean!” And I call back going, “Mr. Bean? What!?” She says, “I was watching T.V., and you were on there” and I guess she knows the name Mr. Bean as a comedian in England, anyway, I couldn’t figure it all out. But she’s like, “I told you, I always told you, ‘What do you have that J.J. doesn’t have?’”
AHMED: People don’t care as long as you’re bringing acclaim, accolades, or money. My parents were very against the entertainment industry, just totally forbade it. My dad wasn’t really kind for about 7 yrs, because he didn’t agree with the whole idea. When I told him I wanted to be an actor, he thought I was gay, or I joined a cult. My mother was worried, she flipped me $20 here and there.
I lived the epitome of the struggling artist lifestyle. I slept on people’s couches, I waited restaurants, I sold woman’s shoes at one point, and I had a lot of side jobs let’s just say. I did a lot that because I was willing to go through the journey. When your heart tells you to do something, you can have a 1000 voices tell you different, but you know what you’re supposed to do in life.
Now, you know, alhamdulilah [praise be to God], finally, I’m successful. My parents are from the old country, so, I mean I could say “Hey, I auditioned for a movie with Jack Nicholson,” and she’d be like, “Oh, that is great habibi [my beloved], but did you pray today?” I mean she is so devout Muslim and by the Quran and the Book that anything outside of Allah is just materialistic. She’s about as Muslim as they come, but in a cute, funny way. Her devotion is adoring. My father now says, “[Arabic accent] I have good joke for you. Try this one on stage.” My parents think Hollywood is like a bubble in the big scheme of life. They’re proud and happy, and they brag to their friends, but they have so much other shit in their lives, that this is secondary. It took me 10 years to convince them, but now they are 100% behind me.
You all make biting commentary on racial profiling experienced by Arabs and Muslims. They call it FWB – flying while brown. How does this not only affect your comedy but also your perception and experience of being an Arab American post 9-11? For what it’s worth you can always go to the airport to feel like a celebrity, right?”
DEAN: Me and Ahmed were at Regan Airport, they picked me for extra screening and not him. And I said to security, “You’re picking me? His name is Ahmed Ahmed!” How can you not pick him?” And the guard says, “Well your last name Obeidallah does mean “Servant of Allah” (Laughs.) I mean with me I think it’s random I get picked [at airports]. Not with Ahmed, it’s not random. Very, very often he gets picked. There’s no randomness. There’s randomness… and then for every Middle Easterner different rules apply.
AHMED: It provides for great comedy fodder. Whenever I have that type of experience, a way for me to exorcise that is to go up on stage and to talk about it on stage. 9 times out of 10 it comes from honest place and you can find some humor in it.
You’re ethnic, you’re Arab, your name sounds Middle Eastern, and you want to be in Hollywood. Seems like a match made in heaven, right? What’s the reality for people of color and specifically Arabs in the industry?
AHMED: It’s sort of like being Rudolph the red nosed reindeer. You feel like your big red nose is a dysfunctional assault and a handicap. Sometimes, I believe God has reason for everything. There is a reason why I came in the world with a name like Ahmed Ahmed, that I’m Egyptian, and that I’m Muslim. That gives me an advantage, because people are more curious and apt to listen to what I’m saying. Rudolph the red nosed reindeer didn’t know what he was good for, because he got mocked and ridiculed. But, every once in a while, if you work for Santa Claus, he asks you to lead his sleigh because of your dysfunction. Mitzi said all this will turn in your favor, just watch. And I said I don’t see how it can. And she said, “You will know when the time is right.” She is like Yoda, our spiritual leader. When you Google my name, my website comes up, and then there’s a link for the FBI’s most wanted. It makes it difficult for me to get around town. (Laughs.)
DEAN: I think there are more and more opportunities, and I think things are changing. There is a sense for responsibility in Hollywood they didn’t have pre 9-11, and I think there are a lot of people – they think its clichéd or boring to portray an Arab guy as a terrorist. I mean so many people have been supporting us, you know like Comedy Central. All the vice presidents and execs are all Jewish, and people are surprised they are our biggest supporters. If I’m in a room with someone who is Jewish, they understand what it means to persecuted simply because of your background. A few years ago no one cared, but as more people get interested, there was lot of sympathy and especially among Jewish industry executives who are some of our biggest fans.
Dean, you have a great quotation where you said “before 9-11…I was White.” What did you learn not only about your “Whiteness” but also your newfound “Exotic Otherness” as an Arab post 9-11?
DEAN: I learned you could lose your White status in America. Many people aren’t aware you could lose it. What I mean by “White” is before 9-11, I viewed myself as part of a White majority, not as a minority. Even though my father is an Arab, he’s Palestinian, he has an accent, you know, we assimilated pretty much, you know I view my cousins as typical Americans. [Dean's mother is Italian–American and Christian.]
After 9-11, a year or two after, I had an understanding that in America only minority groups suffer backlash when a few of them do something wrong. White people don’t. I mean I do a joke about Oklahoma City, there’s no Operation Hillbilly after that, they don’t line up a White guys and question them for the sins of the few. We are not alone. Talk to anyone who is Black or Hispanic or Asian, if someone does something bad, they are all demonized for the sins of a few people.
As I started using comedy to defend who we were, I became more and more in touch with my heritage, then I affirmatively went out and tried to learn more about it. So I became involved with Arab Americans more, which I never did before, and I went to the Middle East and I never had gone before 9-11. My life has changed. Before 9-11, I never dated anyone with Arab heritage, and my girlfriend now is Palestinian. My life has changed on every level: psychologically, socially, emotionally, and educationally. It’s been a struggle at times, but it’s been eye opening. It’s made me see a real bad side to America and also a great side of people who were really supportive of us who didn’t have to be. The transitory anger after 9-11 where people got beat up is gone, but you have this institutionalization in a way, an acceptance of saying negative things like “They’re too many mosques in America.” But what if someone said if there were too many temples, where would he be? Or too many churches? And the guy who said this just got a teeny bit of flak, that’s it – and it’s just unbelievable. There aren’t enough of us in the media yet to defend ourselves. But it’s getting there.
ARON: I grew up in Washington, DC. My dad was an Arab activist, he was chairman of the Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, and he was big in the community. I was constantly surrounded by Middle East issues. We are a political family. That’s all we talked about in my family: politics, culture, social issues, you know? I come from a highly combative, debating family – that’s all we did. I always felt like I was Arab. I never felt ashamed or weird, I always felt that I know the region, the issues, I know the problems and I feel comfortable talking about it. When I did comedy, I felt I have an ability to talk about this and a lot of people may not. Because a) There are not that many Middle Eastern comedians and b) there are lot of comedians who don’t want to talk about it because of fear. And I didn’t have that fear. I said I can do this and be accepted. I was always comfortable with my heritage, either defending or criticizing the situations.
Maz, you joke a lot about the pressure for Iranian-Americans to assimilate and thus refer to themselves as “Persians…like a cat” and not an “Iranian,” especially now with the aggressive rhetoric against Iran and Ahmedenijad. In America, everyone thinks Iranians are out to get us. In the world, everyone thinks America is out to get them. You’re Iranian and American –great timing. What’s it like to be Iranian-American in 2007?
MAZ: Since I came here as a kid in the late 70′s and right after I arrived, the whole hostage thing happened. So, I’ve been dealing with this crap since I was a kid. And then 9-11 happened, and it was reiteration of it all. I just look at the [Bush] Administration and the current politics. The Administration has a lot of hawks who have a lot of plans in the [Middle East] region, and they want excuses, like Iraq, to go to war. The Iranian Administration has a lot of extremist elements, like American politics, that need America as an enemy. Both sides need the enemy so they can mobilize the people, and not make the people worry about stuff they should be worrying about like the economy, or health care. It’s a distraction and it’s a shame that more people don’t call the politicians out on all this crap that we’re in.
AHMED I reconcile it with putting up a mirror to society and saying, “Take a good look at yourselves. This is how society looks through my eyes.” Certainly because of the way I’m treated, but there’s also a big misunderstanding about our culture. It’s been 7 years, and people still haven’t done their homework. “Palestinian? Iranian? Pakistanian? It’s all the same, man!” I mean a lot of people in American have not been outside of America – ever. No one wants to hear key note speakers and preachers anymore. People want to listen to something more palatable and lighthearted. I never had a big picture. My thing was more personal and selfish. I was coming from a place where I wanted to just be in a movie where I was the guy with the brown hair, and not a terrorist. It just happened to coincide with what’s going in on the world, I just happened to catch the wave, it was right there in front of me. I was already prepared [for comedy].
Aron, you are a Mormon and Palestinian with a last name Kader – the comedy writes itself, no?
ARON: When you got Mormons on one side of your family and Muslims on the other side, it is a one way ticket to being a comedian. You just don’t have a lot of choices. You will become an atheist comedian. Go. Do it! With Mormons, I just couldn’t wait not to be involved with them. My parents don’t go church. My mom comes from old Mormon stock, so she wanted my dad to be a part of it, but he made an effort, but they’re not into it.
Most of the time you have to deal with audiences and fellow performers, producers, directors, who are neither Arab nor Muslim. You’re entertaining an audience who generally doesn’t know anything about you and your culture, and what they do know is mostly negative. How do you reconcile making people laugh who might just as well think you’re a terrorist if they saw you on the street?
DEAN: The people who look like me are shocked whenever I tell them I’m Arab. I tell them my last name means “Servant of Allah,” and they think I’m kidding or making it up or something. I don’t think our comedy is done in a shuck and jive type of thing, we are not playing to the White man’s sensibilities. We are challenging the “Man’s” sensibilities and preconceptions about who we are. We are not giving them what they want, we are giving them the opposite. We are making them uncomfortable most the times.
You hope a few people look at you differently after the show or at least finally be presented with a different side than what they see on The Glenn Beck Show or Fox News – just right wing crap that never ends. They always find something… it never ends… I’m surprised Fox News doesn’t give Hurricanes Muslim names at this point just to screw with us even more. Why not? Just pretend. Just blame us for a tornado, “Today they say it’s due to hot and cold air, but I think it’s due to Al Qaeda.”
ARON: I always talked about my heritage, so I knew going in pre-911 that I would have to lay it out in a way that was very strategic: Either it offends everybody or offends nobody. It had to criticize without hurting anybody. Going to acting school, you can learn how to say “Fuck you” without making people even notice you cussed. But you do it another way, and people go “Oh, he was dirty.” It’s about the delivery. It’s performance.
There is a way to get people to laugh and think. Laugh first, think second. Most comics want to be provocative enough that their material will stick with people. I spend a lot of time in my first 2 years in comedy playing in the West and Mid West , and there was no Middle Eastern audience, you know, I mean 1-2 Arabs if we got lucky. Most my audience was Republicans, they were NASCAR, John Q, 6 Pack average American public. So you have to have material that is solid even without all the Middle Eastern stuff.
MAZ: When we do these “Axis of Evil” tours, there a lot of Middle Easterners and lot of Americans, Whites, Blacks, Asians, whatever. These tours are great, I mean, you feel like a rock star. And then you have a generic audience at a comedy store, and I’m pleasantly surprised. You learn as a comedian if the audience isn’t familiar with your background, then you just take an extra line or two to explain it or set it up. But you learn that we all have similar experiences. So, a lot of times the audience is willing to laugh with you. The difference is not an ethnic thing, but almost an age thing. Younger audiences who like Britney Spears might not be into it much. But an aware audience, they’ve all come on board.
AHMED: If they came to the show and bought a ticket, I don’t give a shit, you know? It’s show business. There is a business behind it and we’re not out to educate the world empty handed and do free shows. We definitely have a business side to us. We have people come to our show, buy tickets, and walk out. In D.C., 10 White women walked out saying how dare we say this, and I’m like, well what did you expect? If you come spend on our show, and you don’t like us, then thanks for the $30 and see you next time. The Arabs though have been very supportive for the most part.
Here’s a Barbara Walters question I have to ask, pardon me. For what it’s worth at least I’m not asking you what tree you think you are. Who is your inspiration for your work and how does it reflect on your comedy?
DEAN: Comedians who do things that challenge people. Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor. Even John Stewart, he does serious issues, but he doesn’t trivialize them, but he makes them funny, educational, and entertaining at the same time. I don’t challenge the audience to the point that Hicks and Lenny Bruce used to do. If you watch their old shows, there were nights they didn’t get any laughs and they didn’t care. But I still feel an obligation to get a laugh like Chris Rock or John Stewart. They used comedy to do more…to make people think a little bit, raise issues others do not, and they don’t care if their point of view offends.
A lot of this is for my cousins and my family members. And even for people that I don’t know – whether Arab or Muslim or Middle Eastern, who are dark and have accents. I do this for us, for our career, our community, and for people who don’t get a chance to speak for themselves.
ARON: My dad was a teacher and a professor of Political Science. He wrote his dissertation on terrorism, and I watched him growing up doing a lot of public speaking and teaching. I had the benefit of watching someone else get up on stage and perform. My dad has lot of charisma and he gets laughs and he’s a good speaker. It was instinctual for me, because I watched dad on stage.
I didn’t intend on being a political comedian, but I wanted to talk about social issues because those are the comedians I liked. The comedians who would say something about something – substance. Carlin. I love George Carlin. I like angry and ranting – I like that, I don’t know why. But I also like Booger jokes. I love Eddie Murphy and Cosby. And Pryor – you know, he was almost a social activist.
But when you go out on stage, pre or post 9-11 it doesn’t matter, because when you say you are Palestinian, it’s like you made a political statement. It’s unavoidable. Ahmed doesn’t need to talk about Bush to say he is political comedian, and he’s not. But just because he talks about Middle Easterners, they label him as topical, political, social comedian or whatever. And, he’s just a comic, he talks about family stuff, how it’s difficult to fly, and I mean these are things comics have talked about for years.
I mean we’re just comedians, but once you say you’re Middle Eastern – it’s loaded. People don’t have follow up questions. You talk to an Irish guy you’re like, “Hey , you’re Irish?! You like Whiskey?” You say, “Hey, I’m Palestinian!” And they go, “Oh…(awkward pause). Soooo, what kind of rocks do you like to throw?”
MAZ: As a kid, I was a fan of Eddie Murphy. He ended up on Saturday Night Live at 19, and I wanted to get on SNL at an earlier age. Obviously, it didn’t happen. Later as a comedian, guys like Pryor and Cosby, the fact they tell long stories, keep it funny, and it’s about them. Comedy is a lot like therapy, you talk about yourself, issues on your mind, and if you can bring those issues to the world and make it funny, you’re not just being funny, but you’re being poignant.
If you look at a comedian, and you go, “That’s great,” the first question you should ask is “How long has he been doing it?” Because people who are really great have been doing this for a long time. I’ve been in a game for 9 years and I have a lot to grow still.
AHMED: Muhammad Ali. I approach my comedy seriously and with a boxer’s mentality. It’s an individual sport, and I’m competing with myself and not the audience. I mean they are there, laughing and cheering on, but it’s me who I’m competing with. Muhammad Ali was extremely confident, he used to talk about how he was the Greatest, and he wrote poems and stuff. I liked guys like Steve Martin. Also, international sensations, people who can cross over into international waters, like Ali. He was an all out entertainer. Sinatra, Pryor, you know, certain people who can touch a whole a globe. Several people can touch a community or a small nation, but when people know you all over the globe, you made it. All of us come from scratch, none of us come from royalty. We are entertainers, but if we can cross over with our humor to different pockets in the world, then all the better.
Going off on that, suppose you have a Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim audience reading this piece. How can you convince them and your critics that doing comedy, which is routinely seen as one of the most difficult, arduous, frustrating and least reputable entertainment acts, is a worthwhile profession? And that this profession of comedy actually helps Arabs, Middle Easterners, and Muslims in the post 9-11 world we live in?
DEAN: As we get more successful, I think people see you can make a living at this now. It’s a career alternative, it really is. It’s not a career beneath other careers, I mean you can be an activist and you don’t have to suffer or work in a camp. You can use your comedy, or your art, or your music, poetry, whatever form of art to raise issues that are important. The beauty of standup is that it is a very American invention. So we’re using a very American vehicle to get our message out about us. You can use comedy as a form of activism. If I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t be as committed. We get to do something that helps our career and our community at the same time.
AHMED: First of all, comedians are the highest paid entertainers. Aside from few entertainers like Bono or Sting, most comedians like Seinfeld, Cosby, Letterman, Leno, Carrey, Adam Sandler, they are the top earners. It can be the least reputable in the sense that the journey there is the least reputable, but once you arrive at the mountain, it’s really a sweet ride. I mean in the comedy club for 10 years you can make 100 people laugh for $15 a night, and then 15 yrs later, they can be making $100 million dollars. It’s not a bad journey if you can be patient.
As far as ethnic communities, you know when I first started, people called me and said, (Arabic accent) “We’ll give you $300.” And I said, “I can’t do it for that much.” They replied, “Why? What do you mean? You just go on stage and tell a joke. Ok, we get somebody else.” So, they get someone who is not funny, never done comedy before, and they always call me back saying, [thick Arabic accent] “Ok, Ok. You’re right. It was fucking horrible. We want you.” I said no to a lot of gigs because I had to hold my ground and teach my community that we had to take this shit seriously. I would never go to a doctor’s office and say, “Can I get free brain surgery? Give me discount on my open heart surgery? I know I have I have 4 bad arteries, but only cut out 3 and give me discount.”
You know, if a thousand people can relate to my story, then so be it. I don’t like it when I’m sitting around and I hear people talking about Muslim and Arabs, and I’m in front of them and they think I’m Mexican, so they say it. Lot of people don’t even know that Islam is a faith and way of life, and you don’t “look Muslim.” Sometimes, when I’m standing and I hear some ignorant guys saying, “You know, we should go fuck all the Muslims.” I go and say, “Hey, ignorant guy. I’m Muslim. Why don’t you think about what you’re talking about?” And I always speak up. I say, “You’re dumb. Why don’t you guys go read a book?” But, I don’t want to come across like that. So, comedy allows me to hit people in the back of the head and say, “Hey, stupid! We’re not all like that. Let me show you what most of us are like.” I’m doing it because I’m personally insulted. I care about the religion. So, there’s definitely room for improvement. But, the industry doesn’t care about culture or race or messages. They care about the color green. Money talks and bullshit walks.
MAZ: It’s about pointing out the stupidity if someone makes a comment. I remember I criticized Bush once and the lady got upset and I had to remind her, that’s the beauty of this country, dumbass! That we’re allowed to do this, that’s the whole point, you’re missing the point on your own freedom! You force people to look at the logic.
DEAN: Most Middle Easterners, I think almost everyone, except a few exceptions, most came here for a better life, you know, for an opportunity. My father came here in ’57 to support his family, get enough money to send it back home. America is a great country and I’m grateful forever because it gave my father an opportunity. My grandparents from my mom’s side came from Sicily. America has its faults but it has ideals of tolerance, freedom, and treating people fairly regardless of race or religion. That’s being an American. And I think some guys today like Glenn Beck are un-American, I think its ironic – that these guys – right wing guys, radio guys, they actually advocate an un-American vision, advocating religious intolerance. To me nothing more is un- American than attacking a group of people or demonizing a whole religion for the sins of a few. I defend Islam everyday [chuckle]. I mean my name is “Obeidallah” – the Slave of God. The little servant of Allah, right? I have no choice.
At the end of the day, what do you want Axis of Evil to stand for? When you’re old men and you look back at this, what do you want people to say about its legacy – ideally?”
DEAN: I hope it encourages and inspires more Middle Easterners, Arabs, and Muslims to get involved in the entertainment field, and all forms of media. So often we sit and complain how we are demonized and portrayed horribly, the only ones who will ever clear our name is us. The burden is on us. No one is going to do us a favor. Right now there are like 10 or 12 of us, so I joke, we are in the top 10 of our field [chuckles].
MAZ: I hope it is one of the first programs that helped changed minds about people regarding Middle Easterners. I hope it lasts and that it shows in history.
ARON: We want to represent our culture in a positive way. Through comedy, we can be accepted and be seen for who we really are – regular Americans. I hope one day we look back on these years and are able to say that we opened the door for Middle Eastern people in this business. If I live to be 65, I hope to be able to say that there are more Middle Eastern voices in the mainstream media, and that we may have contributed to that. I hope to see more actors, writers, directors, producers, TV executives, and ultimately, maybe one day we’ll have a network news anchor that can report the 120-year old crisis in the Middle East.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and J.D. graduate, author of “The Domestic Crusaders,” the first major play about Muslim Americans (www.domesticcrusaders.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.