x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

These guys take a wry look at Arab life in America, a fine example of stand-up diplomacy.

Kader is an Arab American with a Palestinian father and a Mormon mother from Utah.
Kader is an Arab American with a Palestinian father and a Mormon mother from Utah.

If comedy is all about the timing, then it's about time we had some Middle Eastern comedy. The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which has won them fans all over the world, started life in 2005 taking its name from George W Bush's famous term for rogue states, but the tour has a lot more to offer than Bush gags. It is witty, intelligent and can cut brutally close to the bone. Their success in the West makes for a refreshing change of pace from Hollywood portrayals of Arabs as either terrorists or oil-rich sheikhs.

The Axis of Evil is made up of Ahmed Ahmed, Aaron Kader, Maz Jobrani and guest star Dean Obeidallah. They are all American comedians of part Middle Eastern descent. The comedy troupe focuses on life in America for people of Middle Eastern background post-September 11. Aeroplane jokes do feature strongly and each comedian starts his set by walking through a metal detector and being mildly harassed by a security guard. Obeidallah goes on to quip that "most people would rather fly with snakes on a plane than Middle Easterners". This may be painfully true, but jokes such as these go a long way to combating prejudices, however hidden and underlying they are. Clearly, all these men are used to a certain amount of hostility and as a result they broach difficult subjects with the skills of a diplomat.

It has certainly paid off in the US, where they've been featured on CNN and NPR, had their own special on the TV channel Comedy Central and been featured in Time magazine. It's all a far cry from when Obeidallah was forced to perform under the name Dean Joseph for the months following September 11. The production doesn't give any hint of hostility towards the acts from the Washington, DC, audience. Two thirds of the crowd is of Middle Eastern origin, the rest is "white" as Ahmed puts it with a smattering of Asian faces. In fact, the main weakness of the DVD is the annoying production values, with the camera clunkily picking out people of various ethnicities, trying to make the point of how multicultural the audience is.

Their main strength, as Ahmed goes on to say, is that "we have to laugh at ourselves". Certainly comedy about the Middle East by people of Middle Eastern origin is refreshing and really is an exciting new way of attacking the stereotypes that are so prevalent in the West. Time described the act as "stand-up diplomacy", and where they are most successful is, as Kader puts it, when they "let the audience know they understand the stereotype of the Middle East". This means that through their humour they can gently and painlessly shame people out of their prejudices. In fact it's just possible that The Axis of Evil can rebuild some of the bridges between East and West (and I bet you thought you would never hear that).