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Arab American Comedy Festival Opens

The Times Square bomb attempt will not be a focus of the jokes at this year's Arab American Comedy Festival.

But the festival's co-founder, Dean Obeidallah, says many of the comedians in the festival had the same thought about the suspect right after the incident.

"When we first heard he was white, I can tell you sincerely we were like 'Yay, he's white! I'm so happy. Thank god. We made it. Crazy white guy!'" Obeidallah said. "And then, two days later, he's Pakistani and we're like, 'Oh. Not good. I'm back to being Italian again.'"

Obeidallah is, in fact, the son of a Sicilian mother and a Palestinian father. He co-founded the festival in 2003, with the comedian Maysoon Zayid. She says that the festival gives Arab Americans a platform to respond immediately when there's an incident like the failed terror attempt.

"At the comedy festival we get to come out and immediately tell jokes that distance us. Immediately get to say, 'I've got nothing to do with that,'" Zayid said. "We've got nothing to do with every maniac on the street."

The festival has expanded this year to include a late night "Haram" show, which will feature raunchier content than most of the acts in the festival. And, for the first time, the festival will present a night of stand-up in Arabic, with comics from the Middle East and the U.S.

Obeidallah just got back from touring in the Middle East, where, he said, the scene for stand-up comedy is growing.

"They've learned the American tradition of stand-up comedy from watching clips on YouTube," Obeidallah says. "They love Chris Rock. They love Jeff Dunham, with the puppet "Ahmed the dead terrorist," they love that! They're not offended at all."

The festival has brought Arab and Arab-American comedians out of the woodwork, Zayid and Obeidallah say, and this year, for the first time, they had to turn away applicants for their sketch-comedy nights. The festival has also become a clearinghouse for casting directors seeking to fill roles in movies and television.

Obeidallah says that the festival has changed a lot since it kicked off seven years ago. "We're much more confident. We can celebrate our heritage unapologetically now. Even though there maybe things that go on like Times Square, we're still going to celebrate who we are." Obeidallah says. "We're comfortable that we're American and we can show the full range of our heritage, not just in English, but in Arabic as well."

The festival runs at 3LD Art and Technology Center through Saturday night.

Arab humor hits NYC

It's a joke, guys. Relax. This is what the annual "New York Arab-American Comedy Festival" (NYAACF) is all about: Laughing at the ridiculous negative stereotypes and proving, through laughter, that we're not all terrorists. 

But, instead of me trying to be funny, I'm going to let the funny man himself, Dean Obeidallah, tell you about one of his precious comedy babies - the "NYAACF" - which is in its seventh year.

Before we get to the funny stuff, however, it's important to realize that Obeidallah, and co-founder, Maysoon Zayid, are making comedy history through a series of "Comedy Firsts."

For starters, their festival is the only one in US history to host the first Arabic stand-up. The show is appropriately called "Stand Up in Arabic," - hey, I said they were funny, not imaginative.

Abbas Nory Abood, a well-known comedic actor, will be making history as one of the first comedic actors from Iraq to perform solely in Arabic in the US.

"For the first time in our seven-year history, we are featuring Arab comics from the Middle East," explains Obeidallah. "This year we have comedians from Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in addition to the ones from US and Canada."

The festival also premieres two special features this year: "The Harem Show" - a daring, one-of-a-kind 'Dirty' Arab comedy show (for an 18+ audience) and "Arabian Idol" - a free stand-up workshop and audition for the chance to win a spot in the festival's "New Faces of Arab Comedy Show."

"The Arab world has not only embraced American stand-up comedy," reveals Maysoon Zayid, a co-producer and comedian. "Now, there are stand-up comedians emerging from the Middle East who perform in both English and Arabic and are very funny... In a way, it's like globalization through comedy as we're bringing the world together one laugh at a time."

Zayid's statements are clearly supported by the fact that the festival is rapidly gaining a huge following. Since its inception in 2003, the festival has evolved into a five-night extravaganza, starring over 50 Arab-American comedians from all over the world. The "NYAACF" also produces the "Amman Stand-up Comedy Festival" in Amman, Jordan, which is the first stand-up comedy festival in the Middle East.

Arab News got a chance to catch up with Obeidallah, a former attorney turned stand-up comedian - see, this guy is breaking stereotypes left and right! - to find out more about the comedy festival and to prove "laughter is the best medicine." Here are the excerpts:

Why did you feel it was important to do the inverse of recent trends and bring Arab talent to the United States? 

We want to show Americans first-hand that Arabs can be funny. I think over the last few years, we have succeeded in showing to Americans that Arab-Americans are funny though our festival and TV appearances. But, frankly, Americans never get a chance to see Arabs from the Arab world being funny. I can't think of a time when I have seen an image of an Arab from the Middle East laughing on American TV - other than maybe when playing a terrorist laughing devilishly at his maniacal plans! Plus, to be honest, the comedians in the Middle East have developed over the last few years and became very funny at a professional level. I hope the Arab comedians can serve as comedy ambassadors to the US. If this works out, I hope we can do a tour in the US featuring a mix of Arab-American and Arab comedians.

There were three Arab comedians coming to the US for the festival. All three performed last December at the second annual "Amman Stand-up Comedy Festival" and I was confident after watching how well they did there that they would be great in NYC. We have Nemr Abou Nassar from Lebanon who is known as Lebanon's top comedian, Fahad Albutairi from Saudi Arabia and Mohamed Salem from Egypt. The first two comedians will perform in English while Salem will perform in Arabic in our all-Arabic stand up shows. This marks the first time in US history that any US festival will present comedians from the Arab world.

Would you tell us more about the Arabic stand-up show? 

This is truly experimental. It is the first stand-up show in the US to be performed only in Arabic. We were inspired to do this after seeing how well the Arabic stand-up shows worked in the last two "Amman Stand-up Comedy Festivals." More and more young people in the Middle East are performing stand-up in Arabic and it worked out very well. We wanted to give it a try to see if Arab-Americans would enjoy the shows, so we'll have to wait and see.

Also on a bigger level, this show represents that comedy in the Middle East is affecting our shows here in the US. About three years ago, it was just a group of Arab-American comedians going to the Middle East and inspiring people there to do comedy - basically we were just influencing them. Now, after a few years, comedy in the Middle East is influencing us, here in the US. This can be seen from the addition of the Arabic show as well as by bringing Arab comedians to NYC for the festival. I'm truly very happy that this has happened.

As a seasoned comedian, how do you feel the talent from the Middle East stacks up? I'm continually impressed by how quickly the comedians in the Middle East have developed in such a short time. I performed in April in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and in both places, we had comedy workshops and mini-auditions –the young people there really understand comedy well. Now, it's just a matter of them performing as much as possible to hone their material and performance skills. But, I can tell you that I have no doubt that in the near future, comedians from the Arab world will start doing their own big tours in the region. Also, I have no doubt that some will end up being on TV and in films and become stars.

Is there an evident difference in the comedic style or even content from the Arab-Americans? The difference is more generational - the younger comedians in the US and Middle East talk more about things that relate to their experiences at their age - such as Facebook and music videos. The older ones talk more about marriage and political issues. Of course, some talk about everything regardless of age. Since stand-up comedy is truly an American entertainment form, the styles are basically similar in both the US and Middle East.

Lastly, can you explain what is "Arab Idol?"

We have about 11 Arab-American comedians auditioning in NYC and we will pick two to do short spots in our festival. I'm very committed to fostering new talent: both Arab-American talent in the US and talent in the Arab world. That is why when I perform in the Middle East, I always insist on the promoter to add a free stand-up workshop where I can teach (usually with the other comedians in the show) the local people who want to learn about comedy. I've joked that I feel like a comedy missionary when I go to the Middle East, teaching people about comedy. I really love stand-up and I think we need more Arab-Americans and Arabs in the entertainment field, which is why I do whatever I can to help encourage more of them to think about comedy and the arts as a career. The arts are a great way to teach non-Arabs about who we really are, so we need more of us in the field!

The seventh annual "New York Arab American Comedy Festival" will take place from May 5 to 9 at the 3LD Theatre in New York, NY.

To purchase tickets visit: and for more information on the festival visit:


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