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American Comedians in the Middle East

posted on: Jan 7, 2010

A group of American stand-up comedians have wrapped up a memorable week of performances in the Middle East, before what might seem like some pretty tough crowds. Their venue was the American Stand-Up Comedy Festival in Amman, Jordan [December 4 to 10]. The comedians weren’t there just to make people laugh, but also to lead a series of workshops and seminars on stand-up comedy and, more importantly, to bridge some cultural gaps.

Arab-Italian-American comedian Dean Obeidallah is executive producer for the American Standup Comedy Festival, now in its second year. Obeidallah says the success of last year’s festival encouraged them to do it again – and to expand the program. This year, more than 25 comedians joined the festival.

“Last year, the comedians were mostly Middle Eastern Americans with a few Arab comics,” he says. “This year, it’s much more diverse. We still have comics of Arab heritage, of Middle Eastern-American heritage and Arab comics from the region. We also have a Greek-American and comics from an Indian-American background. So it’s really a diverse group of comedians.”

Different Strategies to Make People Laugh

Obeidallah notes that each comedian has a distinctive style and a different approach to making audiences laugh. Pakistani-Canadian Ali Hassan is an example.

“What I do is create common things that we can all laugh at,” Hassan explains. “I can laugh at myself, then if I go somewhere else and laugh at something else, people will go with me like we go together on this journey. It’s so incredibly rewarding, being able to make jokes for people who are so appreciative and some of them are in need of this kind of escape. It really does something good to my soul.”

Comedians Connecting with Audiences

Comedian and festival producer Obeidallah says the Arab audiences have been very receptive to the American comics. That’s one of the reasons he believes the festival has been such a hit.

“The audience doesn’t like stupid jokes. It doesn’t have to be serious or political, but it’s got to be intelligent. They laughed at the same jokes Americans laugh at. That’s been really thrilling. But, there are certain limitations. They really want to stay away from cursing and sexual material. They really do not want us doing jokes that make fun of anyone’s religion, making fun of, like Christians or Muslims or Jews. They don’t want jokes demeaning religions in any way. In some places they don’t want you to make fun of leaders, in other places they don’t care as much.”

Even the American comedians with no Middle East family ties had fun connecting with the Arab audiences, Obeidallah recalls.

“Just for example, this year we had a comic who is now in the United States – she is from the United Kingdom originally – named Sherry Davey. Sherry was especially concerned, being a woman, how she would be accepted. She was really nervous. She went on the first two nights and she did great. The audience loved her.”

Laughing at Women’s Challenges

“I do believe that laughter is a way to bridge the gap culturally because if we can laugh together, we can live together,” says Ms. Davey. The British-American comedian adds it wasn’t hard to find common ground with her audience.

“Even though there might be a slight cultural difference between us and I’m not Muslim,” she explains, “I really learned from my trip to Jordan that the Jordanian women and Muslim women are just as dissatisfied with their husbands and overworked as the American women.”

Stand-Up Comedians Speaking the Same Language

Davey says she had a chance at the Amman comedy festival to meet with some of the Arab stand-up comics as well.

“I asked one of the gals, Maysoon (Zayid) – she is a Palestinian comedian – to do her act for me in her language,” Davey recalls. “It was incredible because even though we don’t speak the same language, I know the body language pattern of a joke. I know when somebody is setting up a joke and when the punch line is coming. I still see myself laughing – even though I didn’t know the joke – because her body language was indicating that the joke was coming.”

U.S. Comics Play New Role as Two-Way Cultural Ambassadors

The festival is not only about making people laugh, comedian Dean Obeidallah reminds. It is also about mixing pleasure with business:

“We have a free comedy workshop here,” he says. “We have another workshop on how to break into the TV business. We have executives from the TV networks in the region come and speak to young people about how to get into television.”

Obeidallah says the festival also offered the American comedians a new role to play.

“I think the comedians from the United States, if they are of Arab origins or not, are ambassadors in two ways,” he says. “They come here and are showing the Arab world a good face of Americans. They are here to entertain, to have fun with them. They appreciate being here. They love the audiences and in return they love the hospitality of the Arabs. The hospitality is amazing. People get invited to people’s houses for lunch and dinner, people they don’t even know. At the same time, when the American comedians return home, they tell Americans about their experiences here and how nice the audiences were around the region. So, they again are the ambassadors for the Arab world.”

American comedian Dean Obeidallah says he hopes the American Standup Comedy Festival in Amman will continue to grow every year, and that its central message – that people of different backgrounds can laugh and live together – will keep winning grateful applause.

Voice of America