The comedian who made his name on the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” made one thing clear when he opened a recent set at Michigan State University: “Tonight, it’s not Islam 101.”
For every joke Dean Obeidallah made about his Arabic heritage or Muslim faith, there were others about student loans, Asian-American basketball phenom Jeremy Lin, the presidential race and full-body scans at airports.
The last topic might seem like fertile ground for a Muslim comic, but the punch line goes to another time-honored funny topic: male anatomy.
“They’re looking at my image on the monitor,” he said. “All I can think of is, ‘please don’t laugh, please don’t laugh.'”
Arab-Muslim stand-up comedy is flourishing more than a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While comics like Obeidallah, Ahmed Ahmed and Amer Zahr differ on approach — and there are disagreements among some— they’re all trying to do more than just lampoon themselves or their people for easy laughs.
“I think our own community pushed us a little bit. They were tired of hearing jokes about … having problems at the airport. … They wanted a more nuanced approach to comedy,” Obeidallah said during a multi-city swing through Michigan.
For example, he drew big laughs for a joke about the U.S. media’s current obsession with Lin: “He’s a testament to all of us. If you work hard, believe in yourself and graduate from Harvard, anything can happen.” Later, he poked fun at many Americans’ blissful ignorance of the world beyond its borders: “We don’t know much about other countries. … We’re busy— we have to keep up with the Kardashians. That takes up a lot of time.”
Muslim and Arab humor didn’t begin with 9/11, but it marks an important turning point for the way many Muslims looked at themselves as Americans and how they joked about it with others.