EAST LANSING, Mich. — The comedian who made his name on the "Axis of Evil Comedy Tour" made one thing clear when he opened a recent set at Michigan State University: "Tonight, it's not Islam 101."
For every joke Dean Obeidallah made about his Arabic heritage or Muslim faith, there were others about student loans, Asian-American basketball phenom Jeremy Lin, the presidential race and full-body scans at airports.
The last topic might seem like fertile ground for a Muslim comic, but the punch line goes to another time-honored funny topic: male anatomy.
"They're looking at my image on the monitor," he said. "All I can think of is, 'please don't laugh, please don't laugh.'"
Arab-Muslim stand-up comedy is flourishing more than a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While comics like Obeidallah, Ahmed Ahmed and Amer Zahr differ on approach — and there are disagreements among some— they're all trying to do more than just lampoon themselves or their people for easy laughs.
"I think our own community pushed us a little bit. They were tired of hearing jokes about ... having problems at the airport. ... They wanted a more nuanced approach to comedy," Obeidallah said during a multi-city swing through Michigan.
"You want to be dynamic. The same act, it's boring. People will not come back to see you a second or third time."
For example, he drew big laughs for a joke about the U.S. media's current obsession with Lin: "He's a testament to all of us. If you work hard, believe in yourself and graduate from Harvard, anything can happen." Later, he poked fun at many Americans' blissful ignorance of the world beyond its borders: "We don't know much about other countries. ... We're busy— we have to keep up with the Kardashians. That takes up a lot of time."
Muslim and Arab humor didn't begin with 9/11, but it marks an important turning point for the way many Muslims looked at themselves as Americans and how they joked about it with others, said Mucahit Bilici, an assistant professor of sociology at New York's John Jay College.
"The discrimination, prejudices and stereotypes from which other Muslims suffer are a godsend for the Muslim comedian," Bilici wrote in a chapter he contributed to the book "Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend."
Obeidallah, 42, a New Yorker who started in comedy a few years before 9/11 while working as a lawyer, said most U.S. Arabs — himself included — "just thought they were white people" before 9/11. He said some in society thought differently afterward.
"Our comedy reflected that abrupt realization that our world has changed around us, even though we had nothing to do with 9/11," said Obeidallah, who is of Palestinian and Sicilian ancestry and said he has embraced the Islamic side of his heritage in recent years as a tribute to his late father.
"People began to treat me differently after 9/11, even friends. Not in a bad way, but more were asking me questions about Arabs, and they never asked me questions before about that topic. So I started to talk about that in my comedy."
Obeidallah, who calls himself a "political comedian" and envisions entering politics, said he has seen the rise of Arab and Muslim comics since 9/11 through his work with the Arab American Comedy Festival. He said it was a small pool in the early years but the New York festival has added nights and turned people away.
Amer Zahr, also originally a lawyer, began stand-up shortly after the attacks. The 34-year-old of Palestinian heritage grew up in the Philadelphia area in a Christian-Muslim household. He was in his first year of law school in 2002 at University of Michigan when a group of Arab comedians including Obeidallah came to campus.
"At that point the shows were so small, so (someone asked), 'Is there anybody who wants to get on stage to ... fill some time?'" he said. Now he tours internationally and lives in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn and performs March 9 at the Arab American National Museum.
"I told a couple stories about my Dad, and everyone loved it," he said. "So I thought, 'OK, this is kind of cool.'"
Zahr said his evolution since 9/11 hasn't been about going beyond culture and religion so much as refining it: moving past "my Dad says funny things" and "we smell like garlic" to talking about the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslims and his encounters with Israeli soldiers.
"In the beginning it was just, 'Let me be very vanilla. We're in the spotlight and people want to hear about us,'" he said. "Later on, I was getting into really making people think twice ... about how they feel about us."
Ahmed Ahmed, 41, a comic and actor who launched what would become the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, was born in Egypt and moved to southern California shortly after birth. He found a champion fairly early on in Mitzi Shore, who ran the influential The Comedy Store in Hollywood. He recalls some prescient conversations with Shore.
"Before 9/11 I had been doing comedy for about 7 years and the year before 9/11 was when Mitzi hired me," Ahmed said. "She had an epiphany that there would be a war between America and the Middle East. ... She said, 'Arab comics are going to be necessary in the world to break down misconceptions and stereotypes.'"
Ahmed said Shore told him she wanted him to open her club's show four days after 9/11. He resisted, but she told him, "You need to go up there and get it out of the way — you'll know what to do."
He obeyed and set about entertaining "a very somber" audience of about 40 people. He asked for a moment of silence for the victims and families, then: "For the record my name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I had nothing to do with it. I'm just saying that so nobody follows me out to the car after the show."
"We sort of broke the chain of hesitation of what was OK, what was not OK to speak about," he said.
Over the decade, he saw Arab comics "come out of the woodwork," which he considers a mixed blessing. Ahmed said it "started becoming watered-down and competitive," and "ugliness" emerged within the growing community of comics.
Some are "using religion as a platform for recognition," says Ahmed, who had a strict Muslim upbringing and considers himself one "on my good days." He said he has had disagreements with a few other Arab comics, including Obeidallah.Comment on this story
Of course, disputes among comedians are nothing new. Bill Cosby has berated other black comics for using the N-word. He twice turned down the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor before accepting it in 2009 because he said he was disgusted with that and other profanity thrown around by performers honoring Richard Pryor, the award's first recipient in 1998.
If that's progress, it's the kind Ahmed could do without — or find much humor in.
"It's disappointing when it's Arab or Muslim comedians ... because we're such a new sort of novelty," he said. "You would think that one would wait for several years until we've had a real voice as a comedy community."
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