Jamil Abu Wardeh
Iranian-American Maz Jobrani does stand-up comedy during his first return visit to the Middle East. "Dubai sold out in two hours," Jobrani says. "There's a hunger for this."
Iranian-American Maz Jobrani does stand-up comedy during his first return visit to the Middle East. "Dubai sold out in two hours," Jobrani says. "There's a hunger for this." Jamil Abu Wardeh
The audience laughs during an Axis of Evil performance at the Sawy Center in Cairo.
Jamil Abu Wardeh
Aron Kader (left) and Jobran pose in front of fans in Cairo.
Aron Kader (left) and Jobran pose in front of fans in Cairo. Jamil Abu Wardeh
Ivan Watson, NPR
Fans line up to get autographs and T-shirts from the Axis of Evil comedians, from left, Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader. Many members of the English-speaking audience in Beirut said they already knew about the comedians from the Internet and from pirate copies of the group's DVD.
Fans line up to get autographs and T-shirts from the Axis of Evil comedians, from left, Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader. Many members of the English-speaking audience in Beirut said they already knew about the comedians from the Internet and from pirate copies of the group's DVD. Ivan Watson, NPR
Ivan Watson, NPR
Posters advertise the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.
Posters advertise the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. Ivan Watson, NPR
It's Thursday night at the Casino du Liban.
The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour is warming up for a performance in Beirut, with a bottle of vodka, ACDC's "Back in Black" blaring from one of the dressing rooms and a cheer dedicated to an old Lebanese man who served the comedians homemade arak earlier in the day.
Tonight's show, like preceding performances in Dubai, Kuwait City and Cairo, is sold out. The latest experiment at selling comedy in a conflict-ridden region like the Middle East is a commercial success. Due to high demand, producers have added shows to the tour at the last minute.
"People are hungry for this," says Maz Jobrani, the Iranian-born member of the Axis of Evil trio. "Dubai sold out in two hours … the tickets were selling for $70 a piece and they went on the black market for $500."
The curtains open and the host of the show, Egyptian-born comedian Ahmed Ahmed, hits the stage dressed in a baseball cap and jeans.
"By the way, guys, if you're from the Middle East, if you're Muslim or Arab … girls want to date you because they think we're dangerous," Ahmed begins to peals of laughter from the audience. "After Sept. 11, I started attracting all these white girls with blond hair and blue eyes who want to piss off their mom and dad. It's the weirdest thing. Arabs, we're the new black. Finally, we get the lack of respect we deserve."
The audience is made up mostly of English-speaking Arabs in their teens and 20s, and includes Jordanians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Egyptians and Saudis.
When a couple tries to sneak in late to their front-row seats, Ahmed scolds them from the stage.
"Uh, excuse me. You're late. We call it AST, Arab Standard Time," he says. The crowd cheers.
Largely because of their mixed heritage, the Axis of Evil comedians can stand in front of an audience of Arabs in a politically and culturally sensitive region, skewer both America and the Middle East, and get away with it.
"Arabs here look at the West and go, 'They don't get us,'" Ahmed explains during a quiet moment backstage. The 37-year-old veteran of the American comedy club circuit was born in Helwan, Egypt, and raised in Riverside, Calif. "For us to come and be a voice for them in a funny way, it's a breath of fresh air for them."
Aron Kader, the third member of the trio, says he had no choice but to become a comedian, because he was the product of a Palestinian father and an American Mormon mother.
Much of his routine focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American foreign policy.
"Have you ever heard an Arab say this phrase?" Kader asks the crowd, with a mock Arabic accent. "'I don't want to talk; I just want to hear what you have to say.'" Audience members double over in laughter.
"That's why you see bad headlines in the paper," Kader continues. "Like 'Israeli Tank Scratched by Rock, Damn Arabs.' 'Palestinian Attacked Bullets with Body, Arab Aggression Condemned.''"
While there is a huge appetite in the Middle East for this type of humor, Kader and his colleagues say they had to censor themselves when it came to other taboo topics, like religion.
In Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, they couldn't make jokes about Islam or about the authoritarian rulers of the host countries.
"We had to negotiate to use the F-word," says Jobrani. In Lebanon, the Iranian-American comic said he avoided some of his repertoire of jokes about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because of the close proximity of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is a close Iranian ally.
At times, the comedians asked themselves how far they should push Mideast taboos.
"Just by being here, we're pushing the envelope," Jobrani says. "Because these people haven't had this kind of a show before."
While on stage, Jobrani sipped from a bottle of Almaza, a Lebanese beer, and joked about going to apply for an artist's work permit at a government office in Beirut and having to wait in line behind a group of Russian prostitutes.
At one stage in the performance, Ahmed concedes he was unable to find a funny North Korean to make up the fourth part of the Axis of Evil. Instead, the group opted for the next best thing.
A short, young Asian man with spiky hair named Wanho Chung steps out onto the stage, smiling and bowing to the audience, while pretending not to speak English. He then surprises the crowd when he begins belting a popular Arabic song — and then breaking into fluent Arabic. Chung's routine mocks Arab stereotypes of Asians, a topic he knows intimately. The young performer is half South Korean, half Vietnamese, born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Jordan.
"Part of the message we're trying to deliver is bridging the gap," Chung says. "I guess I'm a good case study in that respect."
In Beirut, glowing audience members line up after the show for autographs and pose for photos with the American comedians. Many were already familiar with the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour from pirated DVDs and videos on YouTube.
"Tonight made us really proud as Arabs," says Fadhi Badut, a university student. "People in the United States should watch their show a little more and know exactly what kind of people we are. We're more fun than terrorists."
"Stand-up comedy is not quite known around here," says Khalid Abdulhameed, an Egyptian diplomat who brought his wife and children to the show. Abdulhameed says he enjoyed the performance, but he had one complaint — too much swearing.
Throughout the five-city tour, the comedians have been filming a documentary, which they hope to one day broadcast in the West.
"We want to show people back in the West that Arabs do have a sense of humor," Ahmed says. "Because the rest of the world will laugh with us, if we laugh at ourselves first."
The trio has also conducted auditions for local comic talent. Not all the try-outs have gone smoothly. In Dubai, a university student was expelled from school after he took to the stage and began accusing the president of his university of hiring a car and driver to bring his dog to and from work.
"We've been taught one thing in Dubai," Jobrani says. "Don't make fun of the authorities there, because they don't take it too lightly."
In Beirut, one of the Axis of Evil's biggest supporters was a local comedian named Nemr Abou Nassar. This 24-year-old graduate of the American University in Beirut has spent the last few years trying to introduce the deeply divided Lebanese people to the irreverent social commentary of American-style stand-up comedy.
"Nobody's ever gone to the Casino (du Liban) and done a show making fun of the stuff that identifies us as Arabs," Nassar says. "They broke taboos, saying things that were never said in front of a crowd before. … It legitimized stand-up comedy."