As the 7th New York Arab-American Comedy Festival draws to a close, The Global Herald caught up with its co-founder and producer, Dean Obeidallah. Here, the comedian describes his work in the United States and the Middle East, as well as what it means to be Arab in post-9/11 America.
How did the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival go?
This year’s 7th annual Festival was actually our best attended ever – we had almost 2,000 people attend the 9 shows over 5 nights. All the shows were well attended with many selling out in advance.
It was especially exciting this year because we had over 50 Arab performers in our sketch comedy and stand up shows. We even had comedians fly in from Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to perform in the Festival marking the first time in US history that comedians from the Middle East performed in the US. We want Americans to see that Arabs are funny and this year’s Festival let us do that first hand
This year we also presented the first ever stand up show all in Arabic as well as “The Haram show” – a “dirty” show with sexual material that was very well received. (All the rest of our shows are family friendly).
The over 50 Arab performers who performed in this past NY Arab-American Comedy festival all volunteer their time – including me as the co- producer. To us, the Festival is not just about making people laugh, but it’s part of our common desire to show our fellow Americans a different, funny side to Arabs that they rarely -if ever -see on US television. This–coupled with the support of the Arab-American and now Arab community – is what inspires us to keep doing these festivals and shows. My hope is that the next step will be that in the US there will finally be movies and TV shows which depict Arabs in a positive, funny and accurate light.
Will you be organizing another NYAACF for next year?
We will be holding the 8th annual NY Arab-American Comedy Festival in May 2011. Hopefully we can present even more comedians and shows.
You have performed throughout the Middle East. Do you speak fluent Arabic?
My Arabic is very limited. The shows I perform in the Middle East are in English and are advertised as such. I perform most of the same jokes I perform in the US in the Middle East and they are thankfully well received. I also perform more jokes there about being in the Middle East and being Arab that the crowds truly enjoy. Most non-Arabs are unaware of what a great sense of humor Arabs have and that they not only don’t have a problem laughing at themselves, they LOVE jokes about Arab culture and habits.
How does the stand-up scene in the Middle East compare?
It is still in its infancy but growing very fast. It started about 3 plus years ago – but the young people have really taken to it. Every time I perform in the Middle East I will teach a free stand up comedy workshop the day before my show to give local Arabs a chance to learn more about the craft. Plus we have auditions and try to add some local comics to the shows. I feel like a comedy missionary as we are bringing comedy to the Middle East. The comedians in the Middle East who started three years ago have really developed well which is why we were able to invite them to our NY Festival because now they are funny enough to be in a professional level festival.
Stand up comedy has grown so much in the region – the shows there keep getting bigger and bigger – for instance this past March I co-headlined two shows in Cairo which were attended by 5,000 people.
There is even a stand up comedy Festival in the Middle East – The Amman Stand up Comedy Festival which will hold it’s 3rd annual Festival this December. The Amman festival is the first and only annual stand up comedy Festival in the Middle East and it’s produced by the City of Amman in association with the NY Arab-American Comedy Festival – I serve as the Executive Producer of the Amman Festival. The comedians in the Amman Festival are not all Arab – last year we also had comedians of Hispanic, Greek, British, Indian, Canadian and American heritages in the Festival.
What did you make of the countries you have visited in the Middle East? Are there any places you would return to?
I can say without any hesitation that the crowds in the Middle East are amazingly supportive – better than most crowds in the US to be honest. They understand and greatly appreciate smart stand up comedy. I have performed all over the region from Egypt to Oman and recently performed for the first time in Saudi Arabia – over 1300 people came to the show and they were a great crowd. I sincerely have enjoyed all my shows in the Middle East and look forward to returning, especially for the 3rd annual Amman Stand up Comedy Festival in December.
If you could go back in time would you skip your legal training and go straight to comedy?
No, I think a law degree is a good thing to have and helps me with my writing. Plus knowing the law helps me with contract issues with my career.
Describe your first gig
It was a funniest lawyer show when I was still a lawyer. I had no idea what I was doing but I do recall getting a few laughs. It was a blur though – when you are a new comedian you don’t know why the jokes work or don’t work and when you are on stage everything goes very fast.
Have you visited your parent’s ancestral homes?
I have visited both [Sicily and Palestine] and I even performed in Ramallah a few years ago. (I hope to do a show in Ramallah again this year.) My cultural heritage on both sides of my family has been with me growing up in America through my family so there was nothing I witnessed that was too foreign to me or unexpected.
You featured on the Fahrenheit 9/11 bonus DVD – did you get to meet Michael Moore?
I only met him for a second at a special screening of the movie right before it opened. He was not at the shooting of the footage that ended up on the bonus feature. I certainly have a great deal of respect for his work and his use of film to try to raise important issues in the hopes of effectuating positive change.
Have you worked in Europe yet?
I have travelled to Europe many times but only performed there once-in 2008 in London at a private event for a Palestinian organization that raises money for Palestinians to go to medical school. The audience was primarily people of Arab heritage and it was a fun event for a great cause. I truly hope to do more shows there in the near future.
What gigs and projects do you have coming up this year?
In addition to producing the 3rd annual Amman Stand up Comedy Festival this December, I’ll be touring the US this fall as a co-headliner in the “Arabs Gone Wild” Comedy Tour with my friends Maysoon Zayid and Aron Kader. We hope to bring the tour to the UK in late 2010 or early 2011.
In addition, I co-wrote a comedy screenplay entitled “Falafel A Go Go” about an Arab cousin from Jordan who comes to live with his Arab-American cousin in NYC – we recently attached a well established comedy director and are in the process of attaching a Hollywood producer who is interested – hopefully (“Inshallah” as Arabs say) it will be made and it will show even more people that Arabs are funny!
Dean has appeared on numerous US news and chat shows.