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Stand Up: Muslim American Comics Come of Age on PBS May 11th

posted on: May 2, 2008

10pm Sunday May 11th on Detroit Public Television Channel 56

Breaking down stereotypes one joke at a time…

It’s an age-old American tradition: immigrant groups take up comedy to fight against discrimination. One path to understanding is to make people laugh. Now Muslim-Americans have come forward to help dismantle the stereotypes and hatred that have surged since September 11, 2001.

STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age is the story of five comedians: Ahmed Ahmed, Tissa Hami, Dean Obeidallah, Azhar Usman and Maysoon Zayid.

Each of these artists felt the aftershock of 9/11 personally. At a time when people of Middle Eastern origin were advised to lay low, they all chose to stand up — and tell jokes. This film explores how they are responding to 9/11, each in a different way, but all using humor to define who they are.

STAND UP is the story of Ahmed’s battle to get beyond playing “Terrorist No. 4.” It’s about Obeidallah’s journey to discover his Arab heritage. It’s about Zayid’s resolve to turn being “a Palestinian Muslim woman virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey” into a career asset. It’s about Usman’s quest to become the Muslim comedy role model he himself never found. It’s about Hami’s determination to challenge American conceptions about Muslim women.

From false arrests to death threats, these comics face challenges from both mainstream America and within the Muslim community. All are at critical points in their careers, each evolving differently as a comic. But they are all striving for one thing: to break through the typecasting and achieve mainstream comedy success.

Following in the footsteps of comics such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Lopez, and Margaret Cho, they are using stand-up comedy to make the case for Arab and Muslim inclusion in the American “public square.”

Above all, STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age is an American story. Which means almost anything is fair game for a laugh.

STAND UP: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age explores the emergence of Muslim- and Arab-American comedians in the wake of 9/11, showing how they use humor to take on stereotypes about their religion and their politics. The film highlights five performers, their comedy and the way everyday tribulations shape their art. Some of these comics are Arab, some are Muslim, and some are both. All are Americans, and this is the story of how each of these men and women felt the aftershock of 9/11 personally. At a time when people of Middle Eastern origin were advised to lay low, they all chose to stand up…and crack jokes. STAND UP: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age airs nationally on PBS Sunday, May 11 at 10 p.m. EDT (check local listings).

Most Americans might view the phrase “Muslim comics” as an oxymoron. But these five artists ─ Ahmed Ahmed, Tissa Hami, Dean Obeidallah, Azhar Usman and Maysoon Zayid ─ succeed in cutting through the fear, loathing and misunderstanding to accurately convey the vibrant Muslim-American community in America. Their tool is laughter. But there is much more than humor in their motivation. As Ahmed says, “We can’t define who we are on a serious note because nobody will listen. So the only way to do it is to be funny about it.”

And funny they are. To wit:

Dean Obeidallah, welcoming the crowd to the Arab American Comedy Festival: “How many people are white people here? Look at this; that’s great. Scared?”

Azhar Usman, on his recent trip to Britain: “It’s a totally different vibe over there, man. . . .I’m just so used to people hating me for being a Muslim. It was nice to finally be hated just for being an American.”

Ahmed Ahmed: “I actually read a statistic that said right after 9/11, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims went up 1,000 percent, which still puts us in fourth place behind blacks, gays and Jews. We’re still in fourth place. . . . So what do we have to do?”

If it is true that the secret of comedy is genuine insight, it is not surprising that these artists represent an emerging pool of superb comedic talent. Behind their comedy is genuine wisdom. “No one wants to laugh with the enemy,” Ahmed says in the film. “They want to look for an excuse to hate you.”

The comics all take pride in their ability to make people laugh, but hold equal pride in their dual heritage as Muslims and Americans. “We are Muslims; we are Americans; and there is no contradiction,” Usman observes in the documentary. “We are onstage expressing ourselves and there is nothing more quintessentially American than stand-up comedy.”

The five comics viewers meet in Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age represent the diversity of both the American Muslim community and the Muslim world as a whole. Ahmed Ahmed is Egyptian-born and California-raised. An accomplished actor, he has appeared in numerous feature films. One of his challenges is getting beyond playing “terrorist No. 4.” He performs with the hugely successful “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” and won the first Richard Pryor Award for ethnic humor at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in 2004.

Tissa Hami was born in Iran, but grew up near Boston. Hami performs in the traditional hijab worn by Muslim women, and through her comedy seeks to break down stereotypes about women in Islam. She turned to comedy after 9/11, and says her parents are thrilled at the way she is putting her Ivy League degrees to good use.

Dean Obeidallah is a lawyer by training, but a comic by talent and passion. The events of 9/11 led him to explore his Arab heritage. Currently developing a comedy series called The Watch List, he co-founded the Arab American Comedy Festival, the fifth edition of which took place over six nights in New York in January 2008. Scenes from past festivals play a big part in Stand Up. Obeidallah is of Palestinian descent, and has performed across the country and around the world.

Azhar Usman is of Indian descent, and hails from Chicago. He is a comic, lecturer and community activist. Holding both a communications and a law degree, Usman is perhaps the thinking person’s comic. His stand-up career has taken him across America and throughout the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, headlining for “Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour.”

Maysoon Zayid is of Palestinian ancestry, growing up in New Jersey. She and Obeidallah co-founded the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Also an accomplished actress, Zayid was the first comedian to do live stand-up in Palestine, performing throughout the region. She spends three months each year in Palestine, operating art and wellness programs for disabled and wounded refugee children and orphans. Zayid herself has cerebral palsy.

Clearly, this is a diverse group. However, one thread binds them all: the desire to foster an understanding of their culture and their religion through comedy. As with many ethnic groups in the past, humor is often the one way the rest of us will take them seriously. As Tissa Hami says, “I thought maybe I can, through stand-up comedy, use my voice to speak up, speak out, stand up.”

The producer/director of Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age is Glenn Baker, who brings a unique perspective to this project. As the child of U.S. foreign service officers, he spent a number of his formative years in Pakistan, Turkey, India and Tunisia. Baker’s understanding of Muslim culture serves him well in Stand Up. Baker’s co-director is Omar Naim, and the co-producer is Lauren Cardillo. Stand Up is a Potomac Media Works production and a co-production of the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The executive producers for America at a Crossroads are Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan. Series producer is Leo Eaton. Funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age is part of the acclaimed series America at a Crossroads, created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to present an in-depth, provocative series of films exploring the challenges confronting the world post-9/11. CPB developed the initial concept for America at a Crossroads in 2004, with an open call for film projects. More than 400 proposals were submitted from public television stations and independent documentary filmmakers around the world. In 2006, CPB named WETA the producing station to oversee all films throughout production. Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age is part of a series of specials following the premiere week in April 2007. The series has a major interactive Web presence at Funding for the series was provided by CPB.

WETA is the third-largest producing station in the public television system and the flagship public broadcaster in the nation’s capital. WETA productions and co-productions include The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal, Avoiding Armageddon, American Valor, Reporting America at War and documentaries by filmmaker Ken Burns, including, most recently, The War. Sharon Percy Rockefeller is president and CEO of WETA. For more information on WETA and its programs, visit the Web site at

10pm Sunday May 11th on Detroit Public Television Channel 56

Picture caption:
Comedian Dean Obeidallah