In the 2006 film Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Albert Brooks plays an American sent by his government to find out what makes Muslims in South Asia laugh. Brooks’ character was woefully unsuccessful, but the growing popularity of a comedy festival in Amman, Jordan, would indicate that maybe he was just looking in the wrong place.
The Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, which just completed its second run in December, featured comedians performing in both English and Arabic, though most of the talent came from Western countries.
Comedy, of course, is not new to the Middle East, despite the pervasive stereotype of a humorless people. Traditionally, Arab comedy has taken the form of sketch shows or theatrical performances, especially popular on television during the holy month of Ramadan, the Middle East’s equivalent to sweeps week. “We’re not taking credit for comedy or a sense of humor,” says Dean Obeidallah, executive producer of the Amman festival and co-creator of the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
Stand-up comedy, however, is new to the region, and wildly popular with young audiences. In its first year, the four-night festival sold out so quickly, organizers added a fifth night. The 2009 festival sold out all of its seven nights, and Obeidallah says Amman’s mayor, Omar Maani, is now considering doubling the event’s length and moving the festival to a warmer month to take advantage of larger outdoor venues.
The Amman series came about after Maani approached Obeidallah about creating an event similar to the New York festival. The New Jersey native says the show works for both Arab and non-Arab audiences: “It’s great for the community and it’s great to show … we’ve got a sense of humor.”
As common comedic topics like sex and politics would seem to be off limits in the Middle East, the obvious question is: What are Arabs laughing at? Obeidallah says that although comics who perform clean material are more likely to be successful in the more reserved culture, there are no specific objections to types of jokes. Performers adopt a common-sense strategy to political material, he says: “Don’t make fun of the leaders by name, but make a broad-stroke joke.” (Unless you’re making fun of American policies; Bush was a very popular subject, Obeidallah notes.)
As the festival grows, Obeidallah hopes it will mature into an educational project for getting people on stage and into comedy productions: “So much of the goal of the festival is beyond entertainment,” he says. “It’s education about the business.” The festival featured daytime stand-up workshops.
To encourage local talent, organizers auditioned 20 performers for spots in the festival, eventually offering three spots in the show. Of the festival’s seven nights, two featured Arabic-speaking comedians and seemed to draw an older, more conservative crowd – though Obeidallah says audience members laughed as hard as audiences on the English-only nights.
Obeidallah became an Arab-American comedy emissary by accident. The New Jersey product of a Palestinian father and Sicilian mother, he never thought of himself as Arab until after 9/11. A trained lawyer who had planned on going into public service, Obeidallah finds comedy more satisfying. “The beauty of comedy is you’re sort of a politician in a way, in a good sense. [But] with us it’s much more pure, our motivations aren’t questioned in the same way. And [this is] much more fulfilling than regular stand-up; if I were just talking about dating and Starbucks, I’d be losing my mind.”
Comedian Maysoon Zayid, the other co-creator of the New York festival, has similar dual intentions. A Palestinian with cerebral palsy, she jokes that she is the “most oppressed person on earth,” but her comedy work significantly funds her charity, Maysoon’s Kids, which pays for education and accessibility equipment for disabled children in Palestine. She performed in Amman in both English and Arabic, and credits her ability to flawlessly switch between the two for her success with both audiences.
Asked how the patriarchal Middle East reacts to her performance, she says, “The world of comedy is machismo. Regardless of where they are in the world, women are the underdog. The assumption is, women aren’t as funny. I think I’m blessed as an Arab comic, because I’m the only one who can do what I do.”
The challenge of switching between the languages is not about the content of jokes, Zayid says, but the pace of their delivery. “I would much rather do stand-up in Arabic because of the musicality of the language. It’s a much faster clip than English,” she says. “I’m setting them up and knocking them down. What takes me five minutes in English takes me two in Arabic.”
So, what does make Arabs laugh? “Family material,” Zayid say. “Talking about my dad kills, kills, kills!”
Obeidallah believes the Middle East will eventually become just another place for comedians to include on tours. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been approached by comics who want to be considered for the festival. People that go there and perform come back and tell [other comedians] how great it is.”