Laughs keep coming for Arab-US comedians
New York City // Dean Obeidallah doesn't look the nervous type. His "Ken-doll" appearance, as it has been described, conveys the vague sense that you have seen him somewhere before, on television perhaps, doing the weather forecast.
But one night last week, Obeidallah, co-founder of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, was getting worried.
The tables and bar stools in the Gotham Comedy Club's small basement theatre filled with people who had come to see the showcase for up-and-coming comedians. The room was almost at capacity and there was the possibility that those who had pre-booked tickets but had not arrived yet might not get in.
"You know Arabs," the comedian deadpanned, before breaking into an imitation accent and having some fun at the expense of Palestinians. "What? First they stole my land, and now they have my ticket!"
The festival, now in its eighth year, has mirrored the evolution of Arab-American comedy over the past decade. The movement began as a reaction to the hostility towards Arabs and Muslims after the September 11 attacks. First- and second-generation Arab-American artists and intellectuals turned to humour as one way to counter the response.
After a couple of initial years of jokes about George W Bush and the new indignities of air travel following the attacks on the World Trade Center, Arab-American comedy has become something much more self-confident, and exceptionally American - a raucously profane, often lewd, often brilliant dissection of the Arab-American experience, of which discrimination is but a small part.
"For a long time Arab-Americans weren't [confident]. It was like, 'Uh, my dad's Arab, but I'm not,'" said Said Durrah, a Washington, DC-based Palestinian-American comic who performed as one of the headliners on the theatre's main stage that night. "Now it's like, 'Yeah, I am [Arab] ... so what?'"
This year's festival featured two nights of sketch comedy and three nights of stand-up performances, including a "haram show" of explicit jokes - though it was unclear how things could get any more "haram" than what was on display on Wednesday.
That night, the first show, in front of 75 people, featured lesser-known comics who had been selected by Obeidallah and co-founder Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American actress and comedian. The second show, in the main theatre in front of nearly 300, featured established comics, many of whom have major industry credits to their names.
Both shows threw into relief the contradictions, confusions, and unique pleasures of growing up both Arab and American.
Ramy Youssef, the festival's Egyptian-American artistic director and a sketch comedian, performed his debut stand-up routine at the fresh-faces showcase. The mop-haired 19-year-old drew some of the biggest laughs.
Talking about hijabi, the slang term used to label a woman who wears the veil, he said: "You know how to make a hijabi so hot? You go up to her and say: 'Hey, can I have your dad's number?'"
Another popular comic in the fresh-faces showcase was one of the few Arab performers. Adi Khalefa, an actor and comedian from Nazareth performing in English for the first time, explored the Palestinian condition and managed to skewer both Israeli hypocrisy and the conservatism of West Bank society.
Khalefa said that he had been kicked out of comedy clubs in Tel Aviv, where he attended university, and engaged in heated debates with Palestinian crowds in Ramallah after supporting gay rights in his routine.
"The Palestinian guy cracked me up," said one audience member, Cass Alexander, 40. "He had the worst English but was the best comic. How can you transfer that laugh? That's what comedy is about."
If Twitter and Facebook were a catalyst of the Arab Spring, social networking media is being exploited by young Arabs such as Youssef and Khalefa to spark a comedy revolution.
"It's not a geographic thing, it's a generational thing," said Obeidallah, of the symbiosis between the growing Arab stand-up scenes in the Middle East and the US. Youssef hopes to bring Arab sketch comedians together to quickly respond through satire to political events and post the videos on his website, insidejokefilms.com, and YouTube.
"Comedy, at its root, is a kind of philosophy," says Youssef. "When you make people laugh, they're more likely to think seriously about politics and the world, it holds a mirror up to their face."
Khalefa, for his part, follows Arab-American comics on YouTube and also posts his own performances for instant feedback from across the world. He also says he spends hours every day studying videos of his favourite comedians, from Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle and Louis CK.
Upstairs, a packed house of ethnically diverse 20- and 30-somethings barely had time to breathe between laughs as the headliners shed every last vestige of political correctness.
"Black people should get rid of Black History Month and just celebrate 9/11 every year. There's a new public enemy number one in town," joked Jordanian-American Mike Batayeh, a successful comedian and actor who stars on the hit TV drama Breaking Bad.
While the festival has reflected the growth of Arab comedy, it is also responsible for some of that success. It has served as an incubator for talent and launched careers.
Eman Morgan, an Egyptian-American born and raised in Los Angeles, said the festival "opened everything for me. I'm in a Showtime special because of this. It makes careers".
But beyond that, it has created a national, even an international, community that never existed before.
"It's like family," said Durrah, the Palestinian-American comedian. "We use names now like verbs, 'You're going to Dean that'. It's so tight-knit. That's why people come from all over every year. Business is just a by-product."
The festival also reflects the new-found self-confidence of Arab America.
"More of a spine has grown," said Durrah. "For a long time we were OK with them fearing us and not understanding. Not any more."
Updated: October 2, 2011 04:00 AM