This story appeared in the April 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe to read the full issue online.
Muslim American comics are busy dispelling the notion that Islam is no fun.
The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour brought a Muslim comic sensibility to a series of live shows and a 2007 Comedy Central TV special. Now the stars of that irreverent show have branched out.
The comedians—Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani, and Dean Obeidallah—are caught in the crossfire between Islamic extremists and Western rightwingers. “Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. That’s why I’m bipolar,” quips Ahmed.
Ahmed was born in Egypt but grew up in Riverside, California. A fixture at SoCal comedy clubs, Ahmed’s credits include Iron Man and the Adam Sandler comedy You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.
“In this world of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, there’s no way I can please everybody, so I’ve got to do what I love doing: being funny,” says Jobrani. “I really don’t pay attention to what the extremes are saying.”
Jobrani’s credits include Curb Your Enthusiasm, Showtime’s Shameless, and recurring roles in The Knights of Prosperity and Better Off Ted, but he may be best known for his role opposite Ice Cube as the affable owner of the Holy Moly Donut Shop in the 2002 movie Friday After Next. The “Persian Pink Panther” is currently on a standup comedy tour tied to his new book.
“It’s unlike any time we ever had in America right now—worse than after 9/11,” says Obeidallah. “After 9/11 people were in shock and didn’t know much about Muslims, so they’d ask you lots of questions. Now, there’s the drumbeat of negative images by ISIS and Al Qaeda. Then add to that professional anti-Muslim bigots, who literally make a living selling books, giving lectures, to scare you about Muslims. Then you have Republican elected officials and a few voices on the Left—Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris—continuing this drumbeat: ‘Don’t trust Muslims; they’re not like us; they don’t share our values.’ ”
Obeidallah is a standup comedian, Daily Beast writer, and Sirius XM radio show host born and raised in New Jersey. His West Bank-born father is a Palestinian who came to America in 1957, while his U.S.-born mother is of Sicilian heritage. Obeidallah appeared in and co-directed (with Max Brooks, Mel’s son) the ComedyCentral.com 2007 web series The Watch List and is in the 2013 comedy performance film The Muslims Are Coming! He has also been a commentator on many news programs, including The Ed Show, The Situation Room, The Young Turks, and Democracy Now, as well as The View.
Obeidallah recently met with President Obama as part of a group of Muslim-American leaders.
“I’ve never seen more anti-Muslim rhetoric spewed, from Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, saying Muslims want to create ‘no-go zones’ in America where only Muslims can go or impose Shariah law, which is absolute fabrication, to state representatives in Oklahoma saying, ‘Muslim Americans are a threat, should be cut out like a cancer,’ to representatives in Congress and other Republican officials saying horrible things,” he says. “And there’s no pushback by Democrats at all. We need Democrats to help us, to counter anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Obeidallah is concerned that anti-Muslim violence is building: “I made that very point to the President.” A week later, three Muslims were murdered in North Carolina.
After the killings in Paris and Copenhagen, the comics are worried both about violence against artists and an increasingly negative perception of Muslims. Ahmed was on the bill with comedy legends Dick Gregory, Tom Smothers, and Lewis Black at a February 28 Washington, D.C., benefit concert to support the Bill of Rights.
“They’re finding out more about the guy who did the [Copenhagen] shooting, and it turns out he’d been in gangs, had a violent past,” says Jobrani, who says that he isn’t that religious himself. “These are crimes, criminals, they should be called that, even though they might be getting manipulated by people using the Islamic faith.”
But is one person’s freedom of expression another’s hate speech?
“My job is to be funny—not to offend,” explains Jobrani. “Sometimes some comedians and artists think: ‘I should offend.’ Then you need to be ready for the repercussions. That doesn’t mean anybody should be killed, but the marketplace should dictate what you do.”
“I’ve seen white comedians try to use the ‘N word’ in a bit and it bombed terribly; other white comedians use it, and it was hilarious and black people were laughing,” he adds. “It depends on your intention. I’m not a big supporter of offending to offend. That’s not comedy or art to me. That’s just pushing the envelope that doesn’t have to be pushed.”
Ahmed directed 2010’s Just Like Us. In the documentary, a group of comics living in the West, including Whitney Cummings (2 Broke Girls), Ahmed, and Jobrani, go on the road to perform at Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon to “tell the story of how comedy does exist in the Middle East but the rest of the world hasn’t been exposed to it,” says Ahmed. The title refers to the notion “that they laugh just like us over there.”
There are, he notes, different standards regarding doing standup at the Sunset Strip’s Comedy Store or Laugh Factory and onstage in venues families attend in the Middle East, “where this is a new format of comedy. Just being present is edgy and dangerous already,” says Ahmed. So, comic routines have to be tailored to be more family friendly and G-rated, Ahmed notes. Political considerations have to be taken, too—especially in Egypt, where “God forbid, you poke fun at a politician, you’re subject to prison,” he says.
On the other hand, in Beirut, he says, “The promoter said, ‘Say whatever the fuck you want.’ ”
“The first time we went out with the Axis of Evil to the Middle East, promoters would tell us: ‘Stay away from sex, politics, and religion,’ ” says Jobrani. “And we’d jokingly say: ‘OK. Hello and good night.’ ”
Jobrani likens the region’s emerging comedy circuit to America “in the ’50s—Lenny Bruce was being arrested for things he was saying. So you’re gonna have that now in the Middle East; it takes time to catch up and have more freedom of speech onstage.”
The globetrotting comic has entertained in seven Middle Eastern countries plus Malaysia, but never in his native Iran, which Maz’s family fled after the revolution. “I’ve done jokes about the leadership and also hosted human rights events, so I have a feeling if I went to Iran I’d get in trouble,” Jobrani confesses.
Obeidallah has performed widely in the Middle East, including the West Bank, and from 2008 to 2010 produced the Amman Comedy Festival in Jordan. Did he alter his comedy while performing there?
“In almost every country, you did,” he answers. “There were limits on jokes about the leadership, internal politics, you couldn’t talk about sex and no jokes about religion.”
“It’s not based on Islamic values, it’s just keeping control of people,” he adds. “The limits of political dissent are not based on the Koran, it’s based on people who want to stay in power.”
The Muslims Are Coming! chronicles interactions between American audiences and Obeidallah and other Muslim-American comics, including Palestinians Maysoon Zayid and Aron Kader, as they stage free, live comedy shows in southern and western states. Notables who agreed to be interviewed for the film include Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Rachel Maddow, Janeane Garofalo, Russell Simmons, Cenk Uygur, and Congressman Keith Ellison. They are the talking heads between the comedy bits.
Ahmed maintains his career in Hollywood has been restricted because of his background.
“There aren’t any roles out there for Middle Eastern guys portrayed positively,” he says. “Hollywood isn’t ready to make an Arab-American actor a hero.”
Ahmed believes his acting career suffered because he didn’t change his name. And, he says, an alleged terrorist with a similar moniker keeps him on the no-fly list.
Jobrani, whose new book is titled I’m Not a Terrorist But I’ve Played One on TV, says, “I don’t judge other actors who take the terrorist parts because people have mortgages and kids to feed—that’s just the reality of the world we live in in Hollywood.”
In his memoir, Jobrani recounts his losing battle when he tried to “humanize” the Afghan terrorist he was cast to play in a 2002 made-for-TV Chuck Norris flick. He balked at wearing a turban, arguing this would hardly make his nefarious character inconspicuous in the U.S.-set thriller.
“I decided not to do any more terrorist parts, but then the TV show 24 came calling and said, ‘We have a terrorist role’—and I said, ‘No thank you,’ ” he recalls. “And they said, ‘But he changes his mind halfway through the mission.’ I said, ‘Ooh, the ambivalent terrorist; that sounds interesting.’ So I played one more terrorist. That was it, and I haven’t done any more since.”
Jobrani points out another factor: “The truth is, in America, the first time I did a TV appearance with my standup, on Premium Blend, I had to submit my set, and I mentioned a few products, Mercedes Benz, 7-Eleven, and they said: ‘You can’t mention these products. You can change it to another product, but not these, because they may be sponsors.’ So I quickly realized that in the Middle East, God is God, and in the West, Mercedes, a product, is God. I’ve experienced different kinds of censorship.”
He also experienced some moments of overwhelming irony during the Bush Administration. A heckler shouted at him: “ ‘You can’t make fun of our President during a time of war, he’s our commander-in-chief!’ ”
“I was like, ‘Really? Supposedly that’s the reason why we’re in Iraq—to bring democracy,” he recalls. “And you’re saying I can’t have freedom of speech?”
When the Axis of Evil wanted to entertain at USO shows, troupe members were told jokes about the war and the Bush regime were prohibited. So they decided to skip it.
Ahmed avoids taking “cheap shots at the underdog,” avoiding jokes about “the handicapped, cancer, rape; I know religion is supersensitive among Muslims so I don’t reference the Prophet.” But in America, he says, “I’ve had people come up to me after my shows—during my shows—literally try to pick fights with me or heckle me during my set or say racial slurs.”
Currently, Ahmed is developing a London-shot comedy special titled Ahmedica and a feature called Comedy of Errors, which Bassem Youssef, the so-called “Jon Stewart of the Middle East” and Rima Fakih, the ex-Miss USA of Lebanese descent, are involved, too.
Jobrani says he sees an evolving comedy scene in his travels to the Middle East over the last several years.
Ahmed credits the messenger of Islam.
“The Prophet was a very funny storyteller and would include humor in his preaching and conversations,” he says.
As humorless fanatics in both hemispheres escalate the “culture war,” maybe a sense of humor can help chill things out.
Ed Rampell, The Progressive’s Man in Hollywood, co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.
Image: Maz Jobrani (Kebbar Derian)