'Axis of Evil' Comedy, on Tour Three stand-up comedians with roots in the Middle East are performing across America on the "Axis of Evil Comedy Tour." Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader talk to Robert Siegel about the challenges of humor during times of war -- and their favorite air marshal joke.

'Axis of Evil' Comedy, on Tour

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


I'm Robert Siegel.

And here is a new twist on an old joke. We're going to hear some jokes because we have some comedians visiting. Three guys walk into a radio station. One is an Iranian American.

Mr. MAZ JOBRANI (Comedian, Axis of Evil Comedy Tour): Hi, I'm Maz Jobrani.

SIEGEL: One is an Egyptian American.

Mr. AHMED AHMED (Comedian, Axis of Evil Comedy Tour): Hi, my name is Ahmed Ahmed.

SIEGEL: And one is a Palestinian American.

Mr. ARON KADER (Comedian, Axis of Evil Comedy Tour): Hello, Aron Kader.

SIEGEL: And together the three of you are the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

Essentially three comedians with one foot figuratively in the borscht belt and the other in the falafel bowl - and the headlines, I might add. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOBRANI: Thanks for having us.

SIEGEL: Let's just acknowledge. There's just terrible news every day coming out of the Middle East, wars, sectarian strife. It seems like a tough time to be making jokes about being the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, Maz. But you managed to do this.

Mr. JOBRANI: Yeah, we managed to do it. Because a lot of our stuff, we make fun of our own situation and the things that we have to go through. We never make fun of the victims. We make fun of the people that say and do things that don't make sense.

SIEGEL: So Maz Jobrani. Ahmed Ahmed, you're an Egyptian American.

Mr. AHMED: That's right.

SIEGEL: And there is any special humor in being named Ahmed Ahmed or Ahmed Ahmed nowadays?

Mr. AHMED: Yeah. My name is on the FBI's Most Wanted list and it's on the No Fly list. Luckily, now I've been able to find humor out of that and stretch it into my act.

SIEGEL: Humor of being on the various lists.

Mr. AHMED: Just, you know, going to the airport extra early. Having to show up - I do a joke where I say now I just show up in a G-string.

SIEGEL: You're going to get stripped searched anyway.

Mr. AHMED: I'm going to get strip searched anyway so I might as well save everybody some time. I always know who the air marshal is on the plane. It's always the guy who's reading the People magazine upside down, looking right at me.

SIEGEL: Aron Kader, is there humor in being a Palestinian American standup comic?

Mr. KADER: Well, I try to find humor in the situations. Growing up Palestinian, you kind of learn that I'm going to be people's only Palestinian friend. For the most part, they're going to have a negative opinion about you. So I think my struggle was to mostly to just kind of humanize the situation as the enemy and put a different face and a different voice to it that's more American.

SIEGEL: Two of you are Arab American and, Maz, you are Iranian American -

Mr. JOBRANI: Thank you for knowing that. A lot of people don't know that.

SIEGEL: You haven't rounded out a full Axis of Evil cast here though.

Mr. AHMED: We need a North Korean.

SIEGEL: You need a North Korean. When you perform, when you do the Axis of Evil tour, are there some things that just don't work?

Mr. KADER: It's funny enough, I have an old bit that never worked and maybe I could bring it back now. But I think it was too close to 9/11, where I talked about the al-Qaida camps and I tried to make it like it was a regular camp. You know, they played Kick the Oil Can and Capture and Burn the Flag.

Mr. JOBRANI: Capture and Burn.

Mr. KADER: And when their parents dropped them off, they didn't want to go, but when their parents came to pick them up, they didn't want to go home. You know, and they cried and wrote letters home. And it just didn't go anywhere for about six months. I just gave up on it.

Mr. JOBRANI: But, you know, also it depends on the crowd. Like when it's a crowd that doesn't really know you, you really got to massage them into it. But when it's a crowd - like when we do our Axis of Evil comedy shows, it's like 60 percent Middle Eastern, 40 percent just American. But a lot of them know us and they're there to see us. And it's like a rock concert.

Mr. KADER: Yeah. It's more like we're preaching to the choir and we can get right into the material without trying to massage them.

Mr. AHMED: But also, too, a lot of people that are non-Arab and non-Middle Eastern who come to our shows and have never seen us, they're always curious and they want to hear a voice from that region of the world. It's like finally we've been able to have that voice. And Middle Easterners and non-Middle Easterners are laughing with us because it's a breath of fresh air. They've never heard it.

SIEGEL: When you're performing, the crowd that's coming to hear you is probably suspicious or dissenting from U.S. policy in the region and in Iraq.

Mr. JOBRANI: I think we have that a lot but we also, you know, we've done shows down at La Hoya, at the Comedy Store in La Hoya, which is Camp Pendleton and you get Marines there. And we had a show where there was a soldier that just had come back from Iraq and he came up to me afterwards and he was just saying, you know, I'm so happy I came out and was able to laugh. I could see the guy had been traumatized, obviously.

So we do have people who you would think are not going to go with you. And all of the sudden, they're coming up to you afterwards, going like, that was great.

Mr. KADER: I've always been surprised with the troops down in San Diego.

SIEGEL: Do you ever look at the paper in the morning or listen to the radio, for that matter, and say, the news is too bad today. This is really going to be rough. Aron, you're shaking your head.

Mr. KADER: Well, other comedy troupes or tours or whatever may not be as affected by the news as we are. And so there are challenges that come along with our show. We really do need to acknowledge them because I don't think a lot of other political comedians out there can do it the way we can.

SIEGEL: Now where you make much of your families' origins in doing the Axis of Evil comedy tour, but in fact, whether you're of Iranian or Palestinian or Egyptian extraction, the standup comedy you do, this is a very American thing that you do. I assume that you've taken a lot of inspiration from American standup comedy.

Mr. KADER: Sure.

Mr. JOBRANI: Absolutely.

Mr. AHMED: You can't go to the Middle East and find the Ha Ha Café. You're not going to find the Comedy Stop in Iraq.

Mr. KADER: We all have our favorite comedians that we grew up to and were influenced by.

Mr. JOBRANI: Yeah. There's no Iranian Richard Pryor.

Mr. KADER: Yeah, exactly. I always do the joke, like, oh, it's good to see Arabs here. Usually when you come, you sit in the back in the dark and go, yeah, that was funny. I like that joke. That's hilarious. You can almost hear me laugh. It's that funny, my friend. Yes, yes.

Mr. AHMED: Or they don't laugh at all. Because that's not funny.

Mr. KADER: And then who says Arabs don't have sense of humor, I will kill you and burn your flag.

SIEGEL: That's Aron Kader. Have you encountered any backlash to doing this?

Mr. AHMED: This is Ahmed here. The only backlash that I get personally are from really, really conservative Muslims who come up to me after my shows and say, I don't appreciate what you said. That is not funny. You have no right to talk about the Islam. And it is wrong, okay? Now give me a Heineken.

It's like they say all this stuff that you're not supposed to do and then they're having a drink. It's like make up your mind, buddy.

Mr. KADER: I've gotten hecklers just recently. I was just kind of warming them up, doing some crowd work. And then I finally go, well, I'm Palestinian, and this big voice right in the middle of the crowd, where is Palestine? Show me on the map where is Palestine. And I'm like, okay. That never happens. A big Israeli right in the middle. And he says, where is Palestine? Show me on a map. And all I could do was point to my head, point to my heart. It's all in here.

Mr. JOBRANI: That same night I was talking about - that's when they had gotten al-Zarqawi and the reward for al-Zarqawi. And then I said the reward the for Osama, and then all of the sudden I hear a drunk White lady from the back going, what's your reward? And then she started talking and then I go, are you guys Bush supporters? And then they go, woo.

And then finally, then she got up and left and I made the point that the reason I criticize the government here is because we can. You know, that's why my family came from Iran to America, so that we can do that. We have freedom of speech. I could not make fun of the president of Iran in Iran. You know, you would say, hey, that was a great show. When's the next show? I'd say there are no more shows.

SIEGEL: Yes. I think you would have a short career.

Mr. JOBRANI: Yeah, yeah, exactly. One show. One night only, literally.

Mr. KADER: The minister of no shows.

Mr. JOBRANI: The minister of no shows showed up and I'm done.

SIEGEL: Well, Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader and Maz Jobrani, thank you all very much.

Mr. AHMED: Our pleasure. Thank you so much for having us on.

SIEGEL: We've been talking with these three gentlemen who are members of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

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