With FBI boost, they push their point by pushing the envelope
The trio of comedian-actors -- Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani, joined by guest performer Dean Obeidallah -- brought their iconoclastic routines to the annual convention of the Washington-based American-Arab Antidiscrimination Conference (ADC) June 9. The ADC, which describes itself as the country’s biggest Arab-Americans civil rights group, was founded in 1980 by former Senator James Abourezk, the first Arab American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Adding another wrinkle to the situation, the comedy group’s convention show managed, at the same time that it skewered anti-Muslim prejudice, to call into question the stereotype of the FBI as zealously humorless: It was the FBI that sponsored the group's performance.
The agency paid $10,000 for the privilege as part of a campaign to enhance its post-September 11 image with Arab Americans and to boost recruitment of Muslims and Arab speakers, now in short supply in the FBI.
All the comics directed humorous barbs at the bureau presence. “It’s so nice to be standing in front of the FBI and not be handcuffed,” Ahmed said. Jobrani aimed his digital camera at two tables reserved for FBI agents in a turnabout-is-fair-play gesture, explaining, “I just want to take a picture of you.”
Earlier in the day, the comics had taken part in a
panel discussion that focused on their backgrounds, their path to onstage
activism and their show-business aspirations.
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Ahmed explained that the trio, who started as “The Arabian Knights” at Hollywood’s Comedy Store in 2000, soon changed the group's name to “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” in line with the appellation President Bush applied to Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
“Honestly, we’re still looking for a North Korean. We need somebody immediately. We’ll take a Pakistani at this point,” Ahmed joked.
(In reality, the group also lacks an Iraqi: Jobrani is an Iranian American; Ahmed was brought to the United States from Egypt when he was 1-month-old; Kader and Obeidallah, both U.S.-born, have Palestinian fathers.)
Obeidallah, who once was a practicing attorney, recalled that he moved into comedy 12 years ago, when others in his law firm encouraged him to enter a “funniest lawyer” contest. “Either they thought I was really funny or I really sucked at being a lawyer,” he said.
While he started his new career for the potential fun of it, his approach soon evolved “from simply being entertainment to also a form of activism,” Obeidallah said. “After 9/11 the world changed and my comedy changed with it, and it became relevant and newsworthy what we were doing,” he added.
When critical issues arise, Obeidallah says, “You can give a speech about it or you can tell a joke about it, mocking it and show it the light of day. That’s what’s great about comedy. You can make people laugh at issues that are truly serious. … There might be things about people saying things about Arabs, or about Muslims, or Middle Easterners, and then you try to turn it around… and try to break it down at the same time.”
Obeidallah also helped create “The Watch List,” a series of stand-up and sketch snippets produced for the cable channel Comedy Central, and the four-year-old New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. (See related article.)
His colleagues have followed largely similar paths, from their disparate starting points, to activism via comedy.
Ahmed says he began in show business 15 years ago, playing “terrorists and cab drivers and, like, the sleazy Arab stereotype.” When he became frustrated by that typecasting, he says, he asked his agent whether he could “go out and read for parts for just a guy who has brown hair.”
The agent’s response that he was stuck with such parts so long as his name was Ahmed prompted him to shift course and try stand-up comedy -- after an intervening stint of waiting tables, joining forces with fellow aspiring comedians Jobrani and Kader.
Jobrani had a similar evolution. He says he previously played terrorists, but “I stopped taking those parts and I stopped taking those auditions.”
Seeking support in Hollywood, Ahmed says, the group encountered responses that boiled down to, “There’s nothing funny about you guys from the Middle East. Who wants to laugh with the enemy?” So they took their show on the road, renting theaters and playing to largely Arab-American and Persian-American audiences, to demonstrate the availability of a ready ethnic audience.
A high point was an appearance in July 2006 before 1,800 people at Washington’s Warner Theater, he says, noting, “That’s the only reason we got a Comedy Central [television] special” this past March.
Now, he says, the Axis trio has achieved a wider audience: “We’ve had such a great crossover ... 30-40 percent are white. … So thank you, white people.”
“Yes, we want to play to Middle East people and sure, we want to represent our voice, but we also want to get the silent majority of America,” Ahmed says. “If they laugh with us, then the rest of the world will laugh with us, hopefully.”
“Laughter is universal. It’s like food or music. Everybody likes to laugh,” he says.
For more stories on the influence of artists in society, see The Arts.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)
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