Arab-American Comics Use Laughter To Build Bridges
Fourth annual New York comedy festival enjoys success
 
gotham New York -- The writer Oscar Wilde once said that "laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship," and a group of Arab-American writers, actors and comedians are living that adage at the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival by combining their talents to entertain as well as foster understanding.
 

The festival "was never intended to be an annual event, but just a way to showcase artists and try to do something that gave a positive image of Arab Americans in America" in 2003, said co-founder Dean Obeidallah at a press conference prior to the opening. "We chose to foster understanding, dispel stereotypes, make people understand who we are a little, and define us in a much more accurate way."

But the festival has continued, enjoying a five-night, sell-out stint in 2005. While very popular among Arab-Americans, each festival has attracted more and more Americans of other ethnic backgrounds -- and even casting agents, directors, and producers. The 2006 edition was expanded to six nights -- from November 14 to November 19, moved to the larger Gotham Comedy Club and had three parts: sketch comedy nights (comedic theater), stand-up comedy nights and a night of short comedic films.

Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and co-founder of the festival, said the performers are from a variety of countries and of different religions. "The one thing that unites us is that we are Arab American. It's about us being Americans first and being Arab by heritage," she said.

Obeidallah added that "stand-up is truly an American invention. So as Americans we're certainly proud of our heritage of being Arab; as Americans we use what we know to relate to other Americans."

"The thing we don't have in common that makes us more unique -- we also want to change the world. And that's our goal through comedy. We want to change people's perception of Arabs, who we are in America and that we're a force to understand," he said.

 

CAN ARABS BE FUNNY?

Waleed Zuaiter, an actor and co-producer who was born in the United States and grew up in Kuwait, said that the goal is to "show the world how funny Arabs can be, because nobody really looks at us as funny."

"Can Arabs be funny? I hope so," Obeidallah said.

"Certainly people laughing in an audience . . . makes it more difficult for them to be angry at you," he said.

"I always believe that if they're laughing, they're agreeing with you. I may be delusional, but that's what I feel. If they can laugh with you why can't we get along?" Obeidallah asked.

The performers are reaching out and bringing their culture and talents into the American mainstream as other ethnic groups have done by playing up idiosyncrasies, showing off writing skills and performance techniques.

 
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The festival's content has evolved, Obeidallah said, "from being under siege to affirmatively defining who we are and not being afraid of making fun of American policies or American pop culture."

"Just as any other comic makes fun of American pop culture or American policy, we don't feel we should be deprived of that opportunity because of our heritage,” he said.

 

MAKING FUN OF POP CULTURE

The routines at the first festivals centered on "we're Arabs, we're like you, we don't want any problem; we want to get along in this country," Obeidallah said.

In 2005, they turned the spotlight on themselves, he said. "We felt … people are a little bit more understanding and that transitory anger had passed."

"This year, for the first time, we're more focused on making fun of American pop culture and certain American issues that are in the world today," he said.

"Comedy is not just to make people laugh. It certainly is political in nature and we want to have fun and we want people to think at the same time," Obeidallah said.

In 2006, one comedy sketch is a parody of an Army recruiting ad entitled "we're looking for a few good Arabs." Another teaches Arabs how to be a real American in five easy lessons that include learning words such as iPod. There are many jokes about President Bush.

"It is going to be politically charged, it's still going to be funny. We're not giving speeches. It's always going to be funny. That is the goal," Obeidallah said.

The performers all are professional comedians, actors and writers and were selected through auditions. "This isn't a hometown play," said Zayid. The festival is a nonprofit organization. No performer is paid for his or her appearance. Money earned through ticket sales will be used to produce next year's festival.

Obeidallah is a former attorney turned stand-up comic. He currently is co-producing a new comedy show entitled The Watch List for Comedy Central's Internet channel. The show, which is slated to begin in December, is the first produced by a major entertainment company that stars all Middle Eastern-American performers. Obeidallah also has performed comedy in Beirut, Lebanon; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Haifa, Israel and Ramallah on the West Bank.

Zayid is an actress and professional comedian who has performed in top New York clubs and toured extensively in the United States and abroad. She writes a biweekly column, The Palestinian American Princess' Guide to NYC, for The Key newspaper and was the first comedian to perform stand-up live in the Palestinian Territories.

By Judy Aita
USINFO Staff Writer

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