Fighting Islamophobia With Comedy

Maz Jobrani is challenging extremist ideology and Muslim stereotypes, one punchline at a time.

Maz Jobrani performing at the TEDxSummit stage in Doha (YouTube/The Atlantic.)

Maz Jobrani caught the acting bug playing Li'l Abner in a junior high school play. Eddie Murphy made him fall in love with comedy. Jobrani tried a conventional career path, studying political science at Berkeley and starting a Ph.D. at UCLA. He even joined a fraternity. He eventually chucked it all to perform.

The snag was that he is Muslim. And born in Iran.

Jobrani’s journey reflects both the problems and the potential in using comedy to bridge the cultural chasm produced by Islamic extremism. In growing numbers, America’s Muslim comedians are using a sassy brand of humor to reach across the abyss. In the United States, their shticks both ridicule extremism within their own faith and challenge American stereotypes of Muslims.

They’re also exporting stand-up, a distinctly American form of comedy, back to the Islamic world. They perform. But they’re also teaching it. Comedy turns out to be a sly way of challenging autocratic rule and a potent antidote to the sophisticated social media campaigns of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Jobrani recounts the emergence of America’s Muslim comedians in his new book I’m Not a Terrorist But I’ve Played One on TV. He’s also taken the story on a nation-wide comedy tour. (He performs this weekend at the Warner Theater in Washington and at Caroline’s on Broadway in New York.)

Jobrani’s earliest role was playing a terrorist, complete with turban, in a Chuck Norris movie. He portrayed a physicist working for an Osama bin Laden-type who plotted to blow up buildings in Chicago, but instead got knocked off by Norris.

And this, he notes, was before 9/11.

Humiliated, Jobrani writes in his book, he turned to stand-up to confront stereotypes. Part of his routine is about being “Muslim-ish” in the United States, including the fear of security at airports. To avoid being confused with a low-life terrorist, Jobrani tells audiences, he over-enunciates with TSA security agents.

“Hell-oh my fell-oh American! I am just here to board the air-o-plane! Carry-ons? Just this American flag. That is ALL I am carrying-on!”

His sketches mock terrorists too. I saw him on tour in Washington D.C. a few years ago. He lambasted the 2009 Christmas Day bomber who tried to blow up a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, noting that the bomb carried in his underwear was proof that the guy was an idiot. Jobrani imagined the final conversation between the hijacker and his terror-masters.

“Ah, excuse me. I have one, ah, one last question for you,” the terrorist says. “You say my reward in heaven will be seventy-two virgins. So do you think, maybe, we could put the bomb somewhere else? I mean, I really think I’m going to need my penis.”

The crowd roared.

Comedy has long been a route for minorities to go mainstream. The Yiddish-accented parodies of Fanny Brice, the bawdy jokes of Lenny Bruce, and the political humor of Mort Sahl helped bring American Jews in from the margins. The angry satire of Dick Gregory and confrontational humor of Richard Pryor helped African Americans move beyond the racial divide of segregation. George Lopez has done the same for Latinos, Margaret Cho for Asians.

America’s Muslim comedians gained momentum after the September 11 attacks in the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (which ended up as a special on Comedy Central) and the Allah Made Me Funny troupe. In 2012, the “Muslims Are Coming” spoof filmed seven comedians performing free public skits—“Bowl with a Muslim,” “Ask a Muslim Booth,” and “Hug a Muslim” stand—in heartland cities where public fear of Islam runs deepest.

President Obama appealed to Muslim leaders last month to do more to discredit the idea of an “inherent clash in civilizations.” He called for greater global cooperation among politicians, religious figures, educators and law enforcement to stem the extremist tide. Maybe comedians should be added to the list. They have large audiences. The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour’s first performance, in 2005, was a sell-out at a 1,400-seat theater in Washington D.C., a half-dozen blocks from the White House. The tour also played to several sold-out crowds at the Nokia Theater on Broadway.

Jobrani and other Muslim comedians take their mission as seriously as their craft. “For us,” Jobrani once told me, “the goal is not simply to make people laugh. It’s also to have people, when they leave the show, go, ‘Wow, that guy was funny, and he was Middle Eastern, and he didn’t try to kidnap or hijack us.”

Jobrani’s family fled Iran during the 1979 revolution. He was six at the time. One of his early jokes was about how difficult it was as a child to invite other kids over to spend the night because their parents were concerned they’d be taken hostage in an Iranian household, even if it was in California.

“Comedy comes from tragedy, and being Iranian in America from 1979 on had been quite tragic,” Jobrani wrote in his book. “In stand-up comedy, I was able to take the reality and exaggerate it.”

He almost gave up after 9/11. “Not because I was of Middle Eastern descent, but because of the sadness that consumed me,” he wrote. His younger brother worked near the World Trade Center. “How could anything ever be funny again? Life seemed very tragic.” He also feared for his life. He’s received more than one death threat.

Comedy was therapy for both Muslim performers and non-Muslim audiences. “As the weeks went on, I realized there was an important role comedy would play in healing the tragedies of September 11. Comedy can help people cope,” he wrote, “and many people were coming to the clubs to laugh out the stress.” Comedy brought back “a voice of reason to an irrational time.”

Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed joined Jobrani on the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which is still available on Netflix. Ahmed opened his act with a tale of being on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. “Twice!” he told audiences. He was detained in London and Montreal and spent twelve hours in a Las Vegas jail on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. Someone with the same name was a bin Laden cohort.

“Now I get to the airport six weeks before my flight,” he told the crowd.

And, he said, he wears only a thong. Laughter took the sting out of unspoken tensions.

America’s Muslim comedians made the transition from the margins with a major boost from their Jewish peers. Jobrani credits Mitzi Shore, the Jewish founder of the Comedy Store in Los Angles and the mother of comedian Paul Shore, for launching his solo tours—“Brown and Friendly” and “I Come in Peace.”

The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was also Shore’s brainchild. Under her tutelage, a quartet of Muslims comedians—Jobrani, Ahmed, Dean Obeidallah and Aron Kader—banded together first as the Arabian Knights. They changed their name to the Axis of Evil Comedy tour after President George W. Bush used the term in his 2002 State of the Union address.*

In 2007, Obeidallah and his friend Max Brooks, son of Jewish comedian Mel Brooks, co-created The Watch List, a series with an all-Muslim cast that played on Comedy Central’s Internet channel Motherload. Obeidallah now has a weekly show on Sirius Radio.

“We’re converting people, one laugh at a time,” Obeidallah told me.

In 2008, Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid, both of Palestinian descent, took their tours—and messages—to the Middle East. They launched the Arab Comedy Festival in Jordan.

“Comedy in the Middle East is just as much about giving people a voice as giving the audience a laugh,” Zayid once told me. “I do jokes about the Palestinian Authority being criminal and Hamas being the worst thing that has happened to us,” she said. “These are the things they need to talk about. And in many of these places, comedy is the best—or only—way to do it.”

Jobrani joined them to hold workshops for aspiring comedians, even in rigid Saudi Arabia. In 2010, Obeidallah mobilized young Saudi comedians to perform with the “Arabs Gone Wild” crew in the desert kingdom. One of the emerging Saudi comedians was Fahad Albutairi, who called himself the Jerry Seinfeld of Saudi Arabia.

Jobrani has been to Mecca and performed for the king of Jordan. But he’s also been to the Vatican and performed at bar mitzvahs. When he’s not on tour, he occasionally guest stars on television, although no longer as a terrorist. He’s been on Curb Your Enthusiasm, 24, and Malcolm in the Middle. He was a cast member—playing an Indian cabbie—on the short-lived Knights of Prosperity, with the then little-known Sofia Vergara. He’s gone on The Tonight Show and The Colbert Report. And he’s now a regular on NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me.”

Jobrani also once had a role on The West Wing. But, as wrote in his memoir, he is so mainstream these days that he and his wife have also been to the real White House—as guests of the president.

* This article originally stated that President Bush first used the phrase "axis of evil" in his 2001 inaugural address. We regret the error.