Muslim Comedians in the U.S.: A PBS Special

This week on PBS, “STAND UP: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age” premiered as part of the ongoing “America at a Crossroads” series. Five comedians are profiled in this documentary special: Ahmed Ahmed, Tissa Hami, Dean Obeidallah, Azhar Usman and Maysoon Zayid.

ahmed ahmed

Each comedian profiled has their own angle on both the entertainment business and the experiences of Muslims in the United States. Maysoon Zayid talks about being a Palestinian-American Muslim woman who doesn’t cover her hair, a virgin, and a disabled person aspiring to become an actress.

Dean Obeidallah shares the story of how he initially stopped using his Arab last name when performing in the aftermath of 9/11, then had a change of heart and a change of direction.

Azhar Usman, who is shown praying in his dressing room at one point, discusses going through a conservative phase before realizing that his path in life ultimately lay elsewhere.

azher usman smiles

Many viewers will relate to Ahmed Ahmed’s anxiety in regards to air travel, except that in Ahmed Ahmed’s case there is the added “bonus” of traveling while Muslim and enduring extreme suspicion. And Tissa Hami’s account of enduring prejudice both from non-Muslims and Muslims (some of whom have told her that she is “going to hell”) is not exactly a laughing matter.

Yet, staying true to its subject matter, the special manages to be light-hearted as well. The featured jokes could probably make even David Horowitz laugh, or so I’d like to believe.

Prior to the premiere, I was given an opportunity to interview several of the comedians, and here is what we talked about:

Natalia: Can you tell me more about the PBS special?

Dean Obeidallah: The one-hour special is the brainchild of producer Glenn Baker who first approached us almost four years ago with the idea of shooting a documentary about Muslim and Arab-American comedians. The documentary begins with us performing before any of us had appeared on any major US TV networks. However, by the end of the documentary many of us had appeared on Comedy Central, ABC, CNN, NBC and on numerous other TV networks, so viewers get a chance to watch us move up the entertainment ladder.

Maysoon Zayid: I am so blessed to be involved in this project with such extraordinary talent, including my brother from another mother, Dean Obeidallah. Glen and Omar [Naim – the co-director] were invisible. They made it so easy for us. I’m amazed with the end product. Omar is truly genius. It’s funny. And no one gets shot. AND you get to see my Dad. That alone is worth TiVo-ing.

Natalia: What’s it like to be a Muslim American working in the entertainment industry in the year 2008?

Dean Obeidallah: The entertainment industry is very competitive and is a struggle for everyone, regardless of race or religion. [Being] an Arab-American comedian who talks about my heritage in my act, has set me apart from many other typical comedians because I have a point of view that has not been heard from too often in the past. In the last few years, the entertainment industry has increasingly been supportive of our comedy.

dean obeidallah

Maysoon Zayid: I don’t know. No, just kidding, I do. I find it very difficult not only being a Muslim but a disabled female Muslim who doesn’t fit the stereotype shown by mainstream media of what a Muslim woman should look and sound like. Nearly all of my experience comes from the entertainment side and I found that, once someone takes a chance on casting me, its been a great opportunity for people who know very little about my culture to learn. In those instances I’ve had a wonderful reception from the majority of my colleagues as well as the Muslim community itself. Oh and the Italian Christians love me too.

Natalia: What are your audiences like nowadays, do lots of Muslims come to see your shows? Are there Jews in the audience?

Dean Obeidallah: When I’m not traveling for shows, I’m in NYC performing nightly at the major comedy clubs so the audiences are a cross section of every race and religion. When we do the Middle Eastern themed shows then the audience is probably 60% Middle Eastern. I am fortunate to have supporters of all different backgrounds

Maysoon Zayid: I don’t make it a policy to check what religion my audience members are, so I cant answer that. Because its not really something I think about nor do I care. Religion is personal. It doesn’t matter to me what religion anyone in my audience is.

I do know for a fact however that I’ve had a Mormon in the audience because she happened to be my best friend.

Natalia: This is just a stab in the dark, but, as an American, I get the impression that there is this sense of discomfort between Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans, and I see comedy as something that has the long-term potential to repair this situation. Am I naive to think this way?

Maysoon Zayid: Please don’t use the word “stab” in the same sentence as “Muslim Americans” and “Jewish Americans.”

Dean Obeidallah: I truly believe that comedy can be used to foster understating between Jews, Muslims, Arabs, and [people of] all different backgrounds. In fact, I have toured colleges for four years in a show I co-created called “Stand up for Peace” with Jewish comedian Scott Blakeman. Our shows are generally co-sponsored by Arab, Jewish, and Muslim student groups.

The goal is to bring together people of different backgrounds and religions (especially Arabs/Muslims and Jewish-Americans), to foster understanding through laughter as well as to attract support for a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the Middle East conflict. I can promise you that our show is much more fun than the events featuring speakers on the extreme right who appear on college campuses with the goal of dividing people through their hate-filled rhetoric.

Natalia: “Axis of Evil” was a success in the Middle East . Would you say that this success is indicative of the way that Muslim American comedians are perceived in Muslim majority nations overall?

Dean Obeidallah: I actually didn’t go with the Axis guys for that tour. However, I have performed in the Middle East before on my own and am returning for shows in late May/early June with Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani.

Comedy does not have geographic barriers. The Internet, TV shows and films have brought the world closer together. I can also tell you that I learned that we have one big thing in common: Jokes about President Bush get big laughs both in the US and in the Middle East!

Maysoon Zayid: Whether you’re part of the Muslim community or not, if you appreciate good comedy, you’re gonna love our shows. I’ve done shows in Beirut, and I’ve done shows in Tennessee, and I can honestly say the audiences I’ve encountered have been equally enthusiastic on both sides of the globe. Masha’allah.

maysoon zayid stand-up

Natalia: I recently interviewed a Muslim American author, Dilara Hafiz, and one of the most interesting things we talked about was her idea that Islam has a great future in the United States, because it can thrive more alongside democracy. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Maysoon Zayid: First of all, I want to give respect to Dilara Hafiz. I think what she did is such a cool idea and I love the fact that she collaborated on it with her own children. That being said, I heartily disagree.

Being Muslim in America, I feel put in jeopardy. Growing up in Cliffside Park, New Jersey I never felt as if I was an “other,” and I definitely was never attacked for my religious beliefs. But, during the George W. Bush Presidency, I, as well as my nieces and nephews, started to feel overwhelmed by the pushing of his distortion of Christianity on our daily lives. I started feeling a lot less comfortable in my own country, because of this.

If, by the grace of God and the Diebold machines, we get a Democrat in office, Islam may have a slim chance of thriving, but if we end up with that dude McCain, I got two words for my fellow Muslims: “Move to Canada”. OK, sorry, that’s three words.

Natalia: Would you like to share more thoughts on this year’s election?

Maysoon Zayid: I am super-proud to say that I am actually going to be ATTENDING the Democratic National Convention, as both a delegate from the great state of New Jersey and a performer with my arab-boy-comic-harem, aka “Axis of Evil” and Dean Obeidallah.

I am so excited for this election because it means no more Dick and Bush (forgive me for not being halal, but those are their names), and I’m thrilled at the prospect of having either Hilary or Barack Obama for president (as long as Hilary shuts it about obliterating Iran).

Ideally I’d like to see them on the same ticket. But more than anything else, I want Bill back! I know he’s itchin’ to get back in the Middle East peace process/ circus. The one other thing I will say, is Michele Obama is frickin’ awesome.

Dean Obeidallah: This election has both inspired and distressed me. I have been inspired by that fact both a woman and an African-American have a realistic chance of being the next President. I am personally supporting Senator Obama, but I am confident that Senator Clinton would still be a far better president that John McCain.

I have been distressed by some people’s use of Barack Obama’s middle name “Hussein” and the word Muslim as a slur in this campaign. I believe strongly that most Americans will reject these attacks – which I view as not anti-Muslim, but as anti-American, since our country was founded on the principles of religious tolerance. Let’s hope that these haters’ voices will be drowned out by the voices of mainstream America.

Natalia: I have to ask, what’s the most ridiculous thing that’s anybody ever said to you in regards to your brand of comedy?

Tissa Hami: “Are you only doing this to get a husband?”

Tissa Hami performs

Dean Obeidallah: I have been asked several times: “Are you really Arab?” As if I’m going to make up an ethnic background.

Maysoon Zayid: People call me anti-Semitic all the time which is completely ludicrous, because first and foremost I am a Semite and definitely not self-hating. Also, of you look at my catalog of work I defy anyone to find an anti-Jewish comment. They don’t exist.

A funnier misconception that always shocks me is when people accuse me of pretending to be disabled. All I can think is wow. I must be the best actor ever, because I have never broken character, EVER. I always get a kick out of that one.

Natalia: And what’s the best thing?

Maysoon Zayid: The best comment I’ve ever gotten was when a really well known actress came up to me at the end of my show, and said “I never knew Palestinians had children!”… In that moment, I had introduced humanity to a people who often see Palestinians as being very far from human. So that moment really validated me.

I also absolutely love it when [people with cerebral palsy] come up to me and are like, this is dope. I can totally do whatever it is they were dreaming of, that they didn’t think they could do. That gives me the warm fuzzies except for when I remember that 98% of them wont make it.

Dean Obeidallah: By far the best comment I have heard is from people – and it’s usually from Middle Eastern-Americans and Muslim-Americans – who after a show, or in an email, say: “Thank you for doing the type of comedy that you do.” I like this so much because it means they appreciate that my comedy is not just intended to make people laugh, but also intended to challenge the way we are often defined in mainstream media and present us in a positive, likable, and accurate light. The support of our community has inspired all of us to continue talking about these issues.

Tissa Hami: When a young boy came up to me after a show and said, “You were the best comedian on the show, by far.” He didn’t tell me that I was the best female comedian on the show, or the best ethnic comedian, or the best female ethnic comedian, if you see what I mean. He just saw me as a comedian.

On a related note, check out my interview with “The Axis of Evil” comedians in Dubai. For more, please read the interview with Maysoon Zayid and Tissa Hami at Muslimah Media Watch.

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  1. Daniel
    Posted May 13, 2008 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Great interview, Natalia, and a great special, at least the part I caught (was running all over the place when it aired on Sunday).

    Really appreciate Dean’s point that while the acts are supposed to be funny, the humor is only a means to achieve a bigger end.

    Anyone know if PBS plans to air it again? I sure hope so – would like to sit down and get to really watch it.

  2. Vladimir Antonov
    Posted May 14, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Great interview Natalia !!!
    Good luck !!!

  3. Dennett Edwards
    Posted June 11, 2009 at 2:38 am | Permalink

    Great PBS Special!!! I am watching right now and this is an excellent show. Call me crazy, but I never even considered if there were even Muslim Comedians. Please stick to your craft. I am an African American woman and I truly understand the role comedy can play in liberation, and increasing awareness and understanding.