Arab humor


From The Wall Street Journal:

In the end, what mars the Arab-American Comedy Festival is the danger to your health: The laughs come so thick and fast that there’s no chance to breathe for minutes at a time. One shows up wondering, will it be an extended political rant? Will there be too much phoney applause for bad jokes, endless ethnic boosterism or straining for sympathy, a long bemoaning of injustices, all dressed up as humor? Not a bit of it. Instead, the audience gets a splendid, merciless anatomy of the Arab-American experience, so unsparingly self-critical that it goes beyond the politically incorrect to a species of comedy that often shucks off all conventions and nears pure anarchy.

This is a particularly notable achievement considering the political freight the festival implicitly carries. Last week’s was the sixth annual event: seven shows in five nights — this time at Comix, a comedy club in Manhattan. The producers had dreamed up the idea in response to post-9/11 pressures on the Arab-American community. "In 2003," says Dean Obeidallah, the co-founder, a 30-something from New Jersey of Italian-Arab parents, "you couldn’t mention the Arab thing until the last minute or the venue wouldn’t book you — now they’re all delighted to have us. But, of course, attitudes have changed so much in the interim. These days, people are more terrified of sneezing Mexicans than Arabs."

If Mr. Obeidallah, an affable Ken-doll look-alike and the festival’s MC, sounds a mite provocative, he pales in comparison to female co-founder and fellow stand-up comedian Maysoon Zayid. Also from New Jersey, Ms. Maysoon has cerebral palsy and grinds out her remarks through gnashing jaws. "I found my husband in Gaza — the best place for me. They have nowhere to run." Both producers have numerous major showbiz credits to their name — Mr. Obeidallah starred in Comedy Central’s "Axis of Evil" show and took it all over the Middle East. Ms. Zayid has appeared in several movies — as have many of the 50 or so performers. The third producer, Walid Zouaiter, of Lebanese extraction, came on in the second year and has just acted in a George Clooney film.

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