Originally published in Time Out New York, August 25, 2006.
In its fourth year, the Arab-American Comedy Festival will do anything but bomb.
“On September 10, I went to bed a white guy,” says comedian Dean Obeidallah, “and woke up the next morning an Arab.” Obeidallah is a coproducer of the fourth annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, whose biggest year yet kicks off Tuesday 14, lasting for six nights.
These days, Arab-American comics are popping up all over the country, using humor to highlight the discrimination that has emerged since September 11, 2001. In Obeidallah’s sets he jokes about the idea that Arabs are the new blacks. “When I first heard that, I was like, ‘Yeah we’re cool,’ ” he says. He goes on to imagine suburban white kids trading in their baggy jeans for kaffiyehs, in order to “act Arab” with their friends, and “going around saying, ‘What up, Mustafa? Where my Arabs at? Arab, pleeeeease!’ ”
In 2003, along with comedian and actor Maysoon Zayid, Obeidallah founded the festival under the belief that showcasing Arab-American comics together is the best way to challenge stereotypes and get attention—and not just from the government. The three components to this year’s event—stand-up at the Gotham Comedy Club, sketch comedy at Theater for the New City and film screenings at Two Boots Pioneer Theater—are designed, as in past fests, to be a blend of culture and politics. “We’re holding up a mirror to what American pop culture is,” he says. You’ll see a commercial parody about Army recruiters trying to enlist Arabs (promoting a “free trip to your homeland”) and an infomercial on “how to be a real American,” which instructs Arabs to watch shows like Dancing with the Stars and learn words like iPod.
Prior to 9/11, Obeidallah, whose father is Palestinian and mother is Sicilian, included only a sprinkling of Arab-American jokes in his routine. In the months immediately following the attacks, he dropped such humor from his act and began appearing under the stage name Dean Joseph. But with time, he realized that no one was standing up for Arabs, so he decided to do his part through comedy. “If we have more Arabs in movies as actors, and behind the scenes as producers, directors and screenwriters, then we have an impact,” he says. “It’s human dynamics.”
Besides organizing the festival, Obeidallah is also coproducing The Watch List with Max Brooks (son of Mel) for Comedy Central’s Internet channel MotherLoad. It’s a mix of stand-up and sketch comedy based on the work of Middle Eastern performers, and it’s garnering a lot of attention. “It’s good to finally read stories about Arabs being funny, not militant,” he says.
The Arab-American fete also marks a wider trend: It’s just one of three comedy festivals in New York this week, all of which are relatively new. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is producing the first annual Best Comedy in the Universe Festival now through November 18, and the third annual New York Comedy Festival features heavy-hitters such as Dane Cook, Denis Leary and Robert Smigel in its six-day event, taking place through Sunday 12. While Obeidallah believes that all three fests are equally invested in eliciting serious bouts of laughter, he promises that only at his will those laughs come from Arabs, progressive white people and the FBI.