Magazine article Tikkun

The Axis of Evil Walks into a Bar

Magazine article Tikkun

The Axis of Evil Walks into a Bar

Article excerpt


The AXIS OF EVIL COMEDY TOUR, Comedy Central, March 2007. Commentary by Paul Lewis

ACCORDING TO AHMED, a member of the Axis of Evil Comedy troupe, deciding which terrorist organization to join can be difficult. "There's so many ... out there-Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda. ... Is it like rushing a fraternity?" Presenting this as a question defines the spirit of this humor: why would anyone assume that an Arab or Muslim American would know anything about what it's like to become a terrorist?

By transmuting pain and insult into laughter, Ahmed, Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader, and Dean Obeidallah perform emotional alchemy. Just as jokes about the stupidity of stereotypes and the strength of in-group affiliation have served Jewish and African American comics and their audiences, so these performers work from the perspective of another misunderstood minority.

Obeidallah: I'm from Eastern Palestine-also known as New Jersey.

Jobrani: I tell my American friends I'm Iranian. They go, "Oh, so you're an Arab." And I go, "No, we're actually different. We're not Arab, but you know we're similar. We're all getting shot at."

Kader: Growing up Palestinian, people would be like, "What are you? Greek? Italian? Jewish? What are you?" "Palestinian." "Pakistilian? What the hell is Pakistilian? That sounds made up."

For these performers, 9/11 was transformative: it shifted them into a world in which, as Obeidallah says, "Middle Easterners became the new blacks" and people who look like them are subjected to racial profiling. To both underscore and undermine a key moment of their discomfort, each of the comics walks on stage by passing through a security checkpoint womaned by a large African-American guard who gives them the hairy eyeball, threatens to do more than ask probing questions, and then lets them through, shouting "He's clear" in each case. But so much of the humor here turns on the suspicion the comics have endured that one gets the sense that they are never in the clear. As Obeidallah says, "Most people would rather fly with snakes on a plane than with Middle Easterners."

Of the four, Öbeidallah is the sharpest writer, evidenced by the books he imagines Al Qaeda members borrowing from the "Holy War" section of the public library, including Chicken Soup for the Terrorist Soul and I'm Al Qaeda; You're Al Qaeda. Ahmed, who also performs with Rabbi Bob Alper as half of "Comedy's Odd Couple," jokes about having given up an acting career in which he was called upon to play parts like Terrorist # 4: "And the movie was about a bunch of terrorists who hijack an airplane. Imagine that." Kader's routine about visiting a relative in Amman, Jordan strikes a deep, complex note. In it, the relative drives him around town railing against America as a "paper tiger" but also craving American products, including Babe Ruth bars and Starbucks coffee. Jobrani demonstrates his command of both dramatic tone and body language. After saying that he would prefer it if terrorists would put ecstasy, not anthrax, in the water supply, he does a hilarious impersonation of a flipped-out dancer.

Considering the volatility of this material, the jokes here are tame. Even so, hostility or, perhaps, exclusivity rears its ugly head once near the opening of Ahmed's routine when he asks if there are any Jews in the audience. After a few seconds pass during which no one applauds, the crowd breaks out into loud, celebratory clapping. Though Ahmed laughs this off in a series of jokes about how Jews and Arabs are similar, members of the otherwise attractive audience have shared in the guilty pleasure of being in a Jew-free zone. …

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