An Arab spin on ethnic humor
Ethnic humor, no matter the ethnicity, is about making fun of the obvious, so there's nothing about "The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour" that comes totally out of the blue. The question isn't whether four comedians of Middle Eastern heritage will poke fun at terrorists, ethnic profiling, and airport security checks. The only question is how.
In the case of tonight's Comedy Central stand-up special, the shtick is obvious, but cute. Each comic starts by walking through a fake airport metal detector to encounter a sassy TSA agent (who conjures an entirely different set of ethnic jokes). The humor ranges from flat-out mockery of President Bush to the indignities of ethnic profiling: Maz Jobrani, an Iranian-American comic, tells of e-mailing his friend a terrorism joke and finding his Hotmail account shut down.
"I put 'Ha Ha!' " he complains. "I put 'Ha Ha!' Al Qaeda doesn't put 'Ha Ha!' "
This is amusing stuff, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. But it's also surprisingly safe, perhaps because of its main, inarguable message that not all Middle Easterners are dangerous. For all of the jokes about evil -- the logo looks like a warhead -- this is really a rant of frustration from some guys who have been suddenly perceived as the enemy. And really, they just want to be loved.
"I go to bed September 10 white, wake up September 11 and I'm Arab," comedian Dean Obeidallah complains at one point. The audience, largely filled with fellow Middle Easterners, howls in appreciation and palpable relief.
The clash of cultures that has followed is, of course, good comic fodder. Obeidallah, a half-Palestinian, half-Italian from New Jersey, jokes about people greeting him with, "Oh, you're Arab. Wow, I love hummus."
And Aron Kader -- who is half Palestinian, half Mormon, and has the sarcastic demeanor of Matthew Perry -- does an extended riff on a cousin in Jordan, cursing America in English ("They won't do it in Arabic, because then God could hear them") while singing the praises of
Perhaps the edgiest moment comes when Ahmed Ahmed , an Egyptian-American comic, asks how many Jews are in the audience. Silence, and then a broad laugh, and Ahmed looks out in mock dismay. "Shhh! The producers are Jews," he says. "You're going to get me fired!" Good. But now say something that really makes me squirm.
Comedy Central hasn't been shy about dabbling in oh-no-he-didn't-say-that humor . "Chappelle's Show' was the recent gold standard, and "The Sarah Silverman Program" does the same with gender issues: treading the boundaries of good taste, with terrific comic payoff.
In this case, though, the comics are almost too sweet, too non threatening, to completely satisfy. Maybe this is a true sign of the times. We can make fun of ourselves, whoever we are. But not everyone can go there yet.