Comedy Troupe Mines the Humor in Islam

The Muslim trio Allah Made Me Funny tickles the collective funny bone by breaking stereotypes and pushing the envelope. Member Azhar Usman reveals that even the prophet Mohammed loved jokes.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Proof once again you can find anything on the Internet.

To set up our next guest, we needed a joke, a joke about Muslims. Dangerous territory for anybody. So we found a Muslim community comment section on the site islamcan.com, a site for and by Muslims, with guidelines about the faith.

Here's the joke from the site.

A man walking in Central Park sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull. He runs over, starts fighting with the dog, kills it, saves the girl's life. A police officer walks over and says, you're a hero. Tomorrow, you can read about it in all the newspapers: "Brave New Yorker Saves the Life of Little Girl."

The man says, but I am not a New Yorker.

Oh, then it'll say: "Brave American Saves the Life of a little Girl," says the policeman.

The guy says again, but I'm not an American.

Okay, what are you then? says the officer.

The man says, I'm a Saudi.

The next day, the newspaper says: "Islamic Extremist Kills Innocent American Dog."

All right. Can fatwa be funny? Is some imam going open up a can of whoop-ass on me for reading that? Well, if he is, I won't likely be first in line. Our next guest might be in line in front of me.

There's a group of Muslim-American comedians out there walking the minefield of faith-based jokes. They're called Allah Made Me Funny.

Here's a few clips from their promotional DVD.

(Soundbite of DVD, "Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour")

Mr. AZHAR USMAN (Comedian, Allah Made Me Funny Comedy Tour): Barack Hussein Obama. His first name rhymes with The Rock. His middle name is Hussein. His last name is almost Osama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. USMAN: Saying, hey, what's your name? (unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. USMAN: But you can call me Mike.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. USMAN: I grew up in Skokie, Illinois. Does anybody know what that means? I'm practically an honorary Jew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. USMAN: I got so many Jewish friends I grew up with. Now we're all grown up, I have to tell them, look, I ended up more Jewish than half you guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. USMAN: I got the beard going, I keep strictly kosher, and I went to law school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Currently on tour in Scotland, Mohammed Amer, part of the Allah Made Me Funny tour.

Good morning - or good afternoon where you are. Hi.

Mr. MOHAMMED AMER (Comedian, Allah Made Me Funny Comedy Tour): Good morning, good afternoon…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMER: …whichever you'd like.

I speak with so many different people around the world, that I don't even know what time it is today.

STEWART: We don't need it. We don't need to worry ourselves with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So when you identify yourself, are you a comic? Are you a Muslim comic? Are you both?

Mr. AMER: Here's the thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMER: Well, of course. Here's the way I like to put it. I'm a stand-up comedian. I mean, I started out in the raw comedy club - smoky, grimy environment. I'm a stand-up comedian that just happens to be Muslim. And the times that we live in today, you know, kind of needs me to be in the forefront with this great group of guys called Allah Made Me Funny.

And, by the way, I wanted to say, we don't make jokes about Islam. We need to make that clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Yes. No.

Mr. AMER: We - yeah, we absolutely do. We actually, you know, we talk about different agendas that are going on in the world, and we absolutely stay within our boundaries.

STEWART: I don't want to assume anything, but I'm not really sensing there's a whole giant wave of Muslim comedy going on.

Mr. AMER: Right.

STEWART: Is there a void for it? And why, if there is?

Mr. AMER: Unbelievable, because, you know, we need Muslim expression.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. AMER: It's very important that we express ourselves and we make everything clear. And, as far as is there a market for it, is it needed? I mean, we've been to South Africa and sold out shows in the Nelson Mandela Theater in Johannesburg. We've sold out shows in Durban. We've sold out shows in Cape Town. We've sold out shows in Australia. And now, we're currently selling out shows in Holland, the U.K., Scotland, Ireland - I mean, Canada.

It just - it's been an unbelievable ride, and it continues to do so. I mean, it's just - the demand is so up there, because we need funny comedians. We need Muslims - we need to show Muslims in a different light. I mean, we're being shown as almost dehumanized on television. It's very important to show us with a sense of humor. And it's a very dangerous territory when we get into, do Muslims laugh? Do they have a sense of humor? Do they eat food?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMER: Do they breathe our oxygen? Do they live on Mars? I saw a Muslim live on Mars, people. You know, it's just - it's getting out of hand. So it's very important.

STEWART: Why do you think that? Why do you think people are so sort of ignorant about being able to think of Muslims as fully three-dimensional people?

Mr. AMER: Well, I definitely - that's a funny way to put it. I would - the way I would put it is, you know, it's what's being portrayed on television is definitely a big thing. I mean, there's been some trauma to the non-Muslim community. And when you have that kind of trauma, and also when you have Muslims being dehumanized on a regular basis on television, that interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim becomes - you know, just - it doesn't exist.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. AMER: People are afraid to walk up to an imam with a beard and speak to him because they automatically have these assumptions about him. So I think that's a huge part of it. It's our interaction. It's our need for a dialogue that's not there because of what's being portrayed on television, because of what people's assumptions are about Islam and the people who believe in Islam.

STEWART: We're talking to comedian Mohammed Amer. And, you know, there's an old saying about comedy: Comedy equals tragedy plus time.

Mr. AMER: Mm.

STEWART: So we had this huge tragedy, a terrorist attack, plus some time - six years now. And all that's happened…

Mr. AMER: Mm.

STEWART: …in between. I do want to play this clip from the DVD of "Allah Made Me Funny," the movie, about a common post-9/11 stereotype. Let's play that clip.

(Soundbite of DVD, "Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour")

Mr. USMAN: I told you that the least favorite thing about all the travel is the moment I have to walk into the airport. There's only one thing worse than that: the moment I have to get on the plane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. USMAN: People are in shock.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. USMAN: During the middle of conversations. They're like, so where are you from?

(Soundbite of gasping)

Mr. USMAN: Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. USMAN: Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. USMAN: I'm going to die.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Mr. USMAN: He's so hairy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: So, very funny, but there's a point you're making with your humor there.

Mr. AMER: That's actually Azhar, my colleague on the tour.

STEWART: He's your colleague, I'm sorry, yeah.

Mr. AMER: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: And there's a point in that humor though.

Mr. AMER: Absolutely. I mean, what he's obviously trying to say is, is that, you know, I mean, look at me. What - is this a disguise that I'd really want to go with if I was trying to do something outrageous? I mean, let's get past it. Let's laugh at it. Not laugh at the actual tragedy, but just laugh about that, you know, the actual environment that we live in. It's just pointing out how people are still paranoid, when you can easily approach Azhar, for example, a bearded hairy man…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMER: …you know, who happens to be Muslim. You know, he's a very approachable person. As a matter of fact, I've told him several times - because he has three kids, right? And we've been on tour for about 30 days, and a couple of days back, when we were in Cardiff, we walked around in the mall and he saw this baby. And his baby just took his first steps, and he stopped in front of this family. And I said, you're six-foot-three, your beard and everything else and then, don't walk up to people and just look at them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AMER: But he doesn't see that, you know?

STEWART: Right.

Mr. AMER He should have see that.

STEWART: He's just who he is, doing what he does.

Mr. AMER: Exactly.

STEWART: Hey, Mohammed Amer, part of the Allah Made Me Funny tour. Thanks for taking the time out. Sounds like you guys are busy. We appreciate it.

Mr. AMER: Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, musician Sondre Lerche, living in the two worlds: indie cred, and then the whole Hollywood thing because he scored the new movie, "Dan in Real Life."

We'll talk to him. He'll play for us on NPR News, THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

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