Arab-American comedy: Making America laugh again

After struggling to find a venue for its first performance in 2003, group now headlines New York’s top comedy clubs.

Maysoon Zayid on stage [Maysoon Zayid]
Zayid flanked by fellow comedians Dean Obeidallah and Ramy Youseff [Courtesy of Maysoon Zayid]

When the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival was founded in 2003, it was no easy feat, but not for the reasons you might think.

“The first year was the most difficult and it wasn’t even a race thing or a bigotry thing,” Maysoon Zayid, festival cofounder, told Al Jazeera.

“Comedy club owners just didn’t think that Arab Americans would draw a crowd.”

Zayid, the Palestinian-American comedian and actress, said clubs in New York City simply did not want to take a risk on them.

“We found one club that did, which was called New York Comedy Club, and we sold out in like minutes. So now the comedy club supports us because they know that we draw a good crowd.”

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Now in its 13th year, the festival, which runs from September 29 to October 1, and features more than 20 comedians, is an overwhelming success, Zayid said.

“It’s not just like Arabs coming to laugh with Arabs. It’s not comedy that only an Arab person can get, these are amazing professional comedians. And some of these guys and gals have been doing this for a decade with us. So we’re like a family reunion and I think the audience senses the love.”

Zayid, who gained international prominence in 2014 with her very popular TED talk about, among other things, living with cerebral palsy, is constantly tackling stereotypes through her humour.

She said the main idea behind the festival was to highlight Arab-American talent – from actors to writers, comedians to filmmakers.

Zayid gained international prominence in 2014 with a TED talk appearance that went viral [Courtesy of Maysoon Zayid]
Zayid gained international prominence in 2014 with a TED talk appearance that went viral [Courtesy of Maysoon Zayid]

Still, these are challenging times for Arab Americans, a community that has had to endure a rising tide of xenophobia.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, had also suggested banning Muslims from entering the United States.

“Arab Americans and Muslim Americans, they needed this laugh this year,” she says.

“To laugh at everything, from the ridiculousness of Trump, to the fact that every Muslim in America is consistently forced to apologise for the random acts of one out of a billion of us.”

Comedy: ‘An agent for change’

This year’s festival, entitled Make America Laugh Again, is not shying away from the toxic political climate in the US.

Its logo even features a mascot that bears more than a passing resemblance to Trump, a camel named Jamal D Hump.

“Last year when we had the festival we were gonna do a Trump camel,” Zayid said.

“And both Dean Obeidallah, my partner and co-producer in the festival, and I said: ‘No, let’s not do it. By the time the festival happens, Trump won’t even be relevant.’

“So we couldn’t believe that a year later we were still talking about Trump.”

Zayid said this year’s batch of performers aren’t just joking about politics; they are also talking about family and sharing far more personal, albeit humorous, experiences and anecdotes.

She said she is proud not just of them but also of what the festival’s success signifies.

“It’s proof that we’re good,” Zayid said, “that we get to headline two of the most important clubs in New York City.”

She said that their success “is proof that we’re not just Arabs trying to be funny – we are professional, hilarious comedians”.

Source: Al Jazeera