Performing Arts

Muslim Comedian Aims at Breaking Stereotypes

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Dean Obeidallah, an Arab-American comedian, talks about how he's using his comedy to break stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs in America.


We've been talking about the political tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Now, we're going to shift gears a little to talk about how these tensions sometimes play out closer to home here in the U.S.

It's no secret that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, Arabs and Muslims have not always felt as comfortable in the U.S. and many non-Muslim Americans are more suspicious of their Muslim and Arab neighbors. What can you do about that? Some argue, nothing you can do but laugh.

(Soundbite of documentary "Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age")

Mr. DEAN OBEIDALLAH (Stand-Up Comedian): I really wish that a drug company in America would have come out with a medication for us, like our own Paxil or Zoloft.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: (As Himself) I could turn on the TV and it's like, hello, are you depressed because no one who wants to fly in the same plane as you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Are you anxious because you resemble several people on the government's most-wanted list?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Are you angry because every time you go to the airport you are randomly selected for extra screening?

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Well, you need (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That was Dean Obeidallah, a comedian featured in a documentary, "Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age." The documentary follows several Muslim and Arab American comedians as they perform.

Dean Obeidallah joins us now on the line from New York. Dean, hi.

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: Now, Dean, your father is Palestinian, as I understand it, your mother is Sicilian.


MARTIN: So, why are you in this documentary? You're not Muslim.

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: I'm not. Well, my father is Muslim and I was raised - exposed to the religion. But in today's world people just lump together - Muslim, Arab, Iranian. If you're Middle Eastern, we're all the same to many people and we suffer a lot of the same fate, in that we live in a world where we're viewed sometimes as being less American or being suspicious simply because of our heritage.


Mr. OBEIDALLAH: We share that.

MARTIN: You share that. Did you start working in stand-up before or after 9/11?

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Before, about five or six years before 9/11 I first started doing stand-up comedy.

MARTIN: Is it different now?

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Well, it's much different. I mean, for me, pre-9/11 I barely mentioned being of Arab heritage in my act. I did one joke literally about my dream of starting an Arab boy-band called SKB - Shish Ka Bob, and it wasn't very political and was very insightful. It was just a joke. Quite frankly, before 9/11, I didn't really identify that strongly as being Arab American. I mean, certainly my father is from the Middle East and has an accent, and my cousins came over. But for me it was like the world was changed.

And I even talk about how on September 10th I went to bed a white guy; September 11th, I woke up an Arab. And that's how the world has changed for all of us. And my act has changed a great deal as a result and become much more political, much more talking about the race and religious issues that the people of Middle Eastern heritage face in this new post-9/11 world.

MARTIN: Let's here another clip from the film about that.

(Soundbite of documentary "Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age")

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: (As Himself) People have been conditioned to be afraid of us. I can do an experiment, even you guys. I can say the same thing with or without a Middle Eastern accent, it can change the whole meaning. Watch my (unintelligible), hey, wait until Friday night. We've been planning this for months. People will be talking about this for years. It could be a party, right. If I say wait until Friday night.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: We've been planning this for months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: People will be talking about this for years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How did you come up with that?

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: It's just based in reality. I mean, it just - I guess you seen enough movies where the bad guy happens to have a Middle Eastern accent over and over, and you get the sense that people are afraid of people with Middle Eastern accents. Middle Eastern American comics are inspired by people like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock who used race to raise important issues. They used comedy. I mean, the way they…

MARTIN: That's what I was going to ask you. What are you going for? What do you want people to feel when they hear you?

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Well, I mean, first and foremost, we're comedians. We want people to laugh. And we think while people are laughing there's a lot of goodwill that's being developed in the audience. But certainly we want them to see a different side of who we are, a more accurate - sadly for us, you know, we don't get a month that celebrates our heritage in America like a Black History Month. Arabs, we get orange alert. The negative connotations about us define who we are, so we want to redefine ourselves in a much more accurate positive way.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who would argue about legitimate suspicions? I mean, if you look at the recent incident in London where members of the British Health Service are implicated, and members of their own families are saying I had no idea my brother was involved in anything like that. I had no clue. And so what do you say to people who say, look, you know what, my suspicions, my fears are legitimate. Where do you get off making me feel bad about that?

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Well, it's - you know, we're comedians. We're going to challenge your conceptions and we're going to make you sometimes uncomfortable with certain things we're saying. And people might not agree with everything we're saying, we just want to people to think. I mean, certainly I'm not denying there are bad people who happen to be Arab or Muslim or Middle Eastern. Every group suffers that. We just don't want to be defined by those people. Only minorities in America suffer as a group when a few of them do something wrong. And now it's our obligation to get out there and show all Americans a different side of who we are.

MARTIN: Comedians from other ethic groups have also confronted this question, which is that of stereotypes. Is there a line between kind of exploiting a perception for fun and reinforcing a stereotype? Has anyone ever accused you of that? And if they have, how do you respond to that?

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: At this point so much of what we're doing is trying to attack the stereotype and not try to play into it. You know, maybe in time the jokes will become less political and someone could say, you know, you're feeding the beast. But at this point we really haven't heard that. There's not that many of us either. There's about nine or 10 of us in the whole country. So I'm in the top 10 in my field, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: It's a small field. We want more and more people to get involved, and there's been some good developments. We're doing a pilot for Comedy Central called "The Watch List." And I'm producing it with my friend Max Brooks, who's Mel Brooks' son. And if it gets picked up for a series, it will be the first TV series in the history of American television starring all Middle Eastern American comedians. And hopefully that can go a long way to changing our image.

MARTIN: All right. Dean, thank you so much.

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Comedian Dean Obeidallah is featured in a new documentary, "Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age." He joined us by phone from New York. Dean, thanks so much and good luck.

Mr. OBEIDALLAH: Thank you very much.

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