Vol. 26, No.3

“Persian Like The Cat”: Crossing Borders with The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour

Tamara L. Smith/

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, Americans of Middle Eastern heritage experienced a sudden and dramatic change in how their ethnicities were perceived. As comedian and activist Dean Obeidallah explained, “On September 10, I went to bed white, and woke up Arab.”[1] Once comfortable in their American identities, they now had to contend with new cultural forces that configured them as dangerous outsiders. In the months and years that followed, the supposed existence of a so-called “Axis of Evil” of dangerous, anti-American regimes became the justification for expanding military operations abroad, while domestically it fed into a growing Orientalist sentiment that continues to configure Americans of Middle Eastern descent as potentially dangerous outsiders. In 2005, a group of United States comedians of Middle Eastern heritage adopted the alarmist moniker as a tongue-in-cheek title for their stand-up comedy performances. Part commiseration and part public relations, the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour served both as an expression of solidarity between Middle Eastern-Americans and as an act of cultural diplomacy, recasting Middle Eastern ethnic identities as familiar, patriotic, and safe.

In this article, I look back to a 2006 performance by the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour in Santa Ana, California, including sets by tour members Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani, and Aron Kader as well as their guest, New York Arab-American Comedy Festival founder Dean Obeidallah. Capturing a moment in which the performers were still reeling from their abrupt expulsion from mainstream American identity, the comics used the intimacy of stand-up comedy, the fluidity of their identities, and their ability to address a dual audience to reinsert themselves into what it means to be “American” in a post 9/11 world. Their performance of liminality is particularly prominent in their use of accents, which they deployed at turns to emphasize their simultaneous access to Middle Eastern and American identity positions, and to disrupt the distinctions between them. By creating a feeling of cross-border intimacy between themselves and their non-Middle Eastern audiences, and by positioning themselves as a friendly and authoritative intermediary, the comics lay the groundwork for a humanizing familiarity to develop. Once this relationship was established, the comics deployed comic inversions and juxtapositions to defuse the dominant culture’s fears of violence and fanaticism and disrupt stereotypes, while at the same time configuring themselves and others who shared their ethnicities as safe, good-humored, and—perhaps most importantly—American.

Aron Kader, Maz Jobrani, and Ahmed Ahmed first came together at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, where they began staging “Arabian Nights” in 2000.[2] In 2005 they began touring to other venues, and decided to change their name to the edgier “Axis of Evil.”[3] While in interviews they cite factual accuracy as the primary motive for the name change (Jobrani, who was born in Iran, is ethnically Persian rather than Arab) the choice of this provocative, topical name was inescapably a political statement that marked the group’s comedy as a reaction to the pervasive hostility towards people of Middle Eastern descent in the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11. With their tour performances selling out, the comics put on a promotional performance and invited television producers to come see their work. The result was a partnership with Levity Productions to film a one hour special for Comedy Central. In 2006, Arab-American comic and activist Dean Obeidallah joined them in Santa Ana to film the performance, which aired on Comedy Central on 10 March 2007.[4]

Although this performance was recorded and distributed both on air and on DVD, it nonetheless operates primarily as an archive of a live performance rather than as a film. Some of the techniques used to record the performance—the use of close-ups, for example—are undoubtedly filmic, but the show itself was one of a series that played out in real time before substantial live audiences. The arrangement of the space serves as a visual cue that the performance operated primarily as a live theatrical event. The OC Pavilion Theatre in Santa Ana, CA is regularly used as a live performance venue, and features a raked auditorium with fixed seating and a raised not-quite-proscenium stage. Furthermore, since the television special came into being only after the tour had become successful, the live audiences must have been the ones that the comics had in mind when they devised their sets. Most importantly, the presence of an audience is central to understanding how this performance operated. The spectators’ responses and apparent demographics, as well as how the comics addressed and referred to them during their sets were key elements in how the comics intervened in the perception of their ethnicities.

The version of the show that was recorded for Comedy Central is divided into four sets, each of which is about fifteen minutes long and is performed by a single comedian. Emphasizing the increased scrutiny that people of Middle Eastern heritage have experienced since the attacks of 9/11, each of the comics begins his set by entering the stage through an airport-style metal detector, and engages in a brief skit with an ignorant and obnoxious TSA agent, played by African-American actor and comedian Loni Love. During each of their sets, the comics address the same basic question: what is it like to be an American of Middle Eastern heritage in a post-9/11 world. There is, consequently, considerable overlap in the content of the sets, as each comic offers his own take on several subjects, including terrorism, the absurdity of racial stereotypes, frustration with negative media portrayals of the Middle East and its people, and the ubiquity of racial profiling at airport security. While all of the sets present variations of the same general theme, each of the comics has a unique style and presents his set with a slightly different focus. Throughout the performance, race remains in the foreground as all of the comics self-identify by ethnicity, and each asks at least one group within the audience to do the same.

Opening the show is Dean Obeidallah, a half-Arab/half-Italian from New Jersey who identifies primarily as Palestinian. Performing his set with a quiet geniality, Obeidallah’s focus is on encouraging his audience to think critically about race, racism, and the erosion of civil liberties. The second comic to perform is Egyptian-born Arab, Ahmed Ahmed. Ahmed’s comedy is more acerbic and cutting than Obeidallah’s, and he skewers the racism of the TSA and Hollywood (including his own complicity as an actor) with unflinching directness. Aron Kader performs the third set. The American-born son of a Palestinian father and white Mormon mother, Kader’s comedy focuses on his simultaneous access to, and discomfort with, the two sides of his ethnic identity. Closing out the show is Iranian Maz Jobrani. Performing with a warm and easy affect, Jobrabni is a master of the ridiculous. His high energy comedy often hinges on proposing an absurd scenario, and then acting it out to highlight its impossibility, a technique he applies with equal abandon whether imitating a terrorist who (having dialed the wrong number) accidentally tips him off to an attack, or children playing hide and seek with a young Osama bin Laden.

Although the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was unquestionably intended to entertain, the comics have also expressed the hope that their performance would serve a larger, more progressive purpose. In a March 2007 interview with the New York Times, the comics explained that they saw their work as an extension of a tradition of minority comedy in the United States, by which Jewish, black, and LGBT comedians used their craft to fight discrimination.[5] Elaborating on their desire to address negative attitudes towards Americans of Middle Eastern heritage, Obeidallah remarked that “There’s a sense of activism [in the show.] We want to show the talent and try to do something for positive coverage in the mainstream media.”[6] Indeed, the desire to foster understanding and counter negative stereotypes was a pervasive theme during the 2006 performance. During a period when the dominant image of Middle Eastern men was, as it continues to be, that of the terrorist—a role both Jobrani and Ahmed have played in order to make a living as actors—the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was, as Jobrani explained “about putting out the positive and expressing that we can come together and laugh.”[7]

This desire to “come together and laugh” echoes what sociologist Muchait Bilici argues is the central project of contemporary Muslim ethnic comedy: the desire “to bridge the divide that separates Muslims from the rest of American society by reaffirming both sides’ common humanity.”[8] While Bilici frames this process as a multilateral exchange (and, indeed the comics’ subsequent tours to the Middle East have made explicit efforts towards this kind of mutual understanding) this particular performance is focused on one side of the equation: rehabilitating the image of Muslim and ethnically Middle Eastern-Americans in the eyes of the wider US population. As Obeidallah later explained in a 2010 interview:

Of course if all you see on TV is that Muslims are dusty dudes walking around with AK47’s in some kind of formation, that’s what you are going to think of Muslims. But, if you are given competing examples, like Muslims who are nice and fluffy adorable comedians running around the country, bowling with people, then I think that will change what you are going to think of Muslims.[9]

The comics in this performance are working towards the expressed aim of communicating what it is to be Arab/Persian/Muslim in a way that is intelligible and accessible to the wider American population. It is the humanity of Middle Eastern-Americans that has been called into question and that needs to be reaffirmed; consequently, it is the wider US community whose perceptions the comics are out to change.

This focus on changing outsider perceptions does not, however, mean comics are dismissive of those members of the audience who do share their ethnic background. To some extent, the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour is at least partly concerned with engendering a feeling of shared experience and common identity among its Middle Eastern-American audience members. The comics frequently address the audience in a way that presupposes a shared heritage. At the beginning of the show, for example, Dean Obeidallah introduces the performance by saying: “Let me ask: how many people are of Middle Eastern heritage here tonight? [Most of the audience cheers].” Similarly, Jobrani begins his set with a chant of “doo du doo doo IRAN!” that would be immediately intelligible primarily to people familiar with Iranian soccer matches. Later, he addresses his Arab audience members with the comment “We [Arabs and Persians] are very similar [. . . ] I get stupid questions, I know you do too.” Clearly differentiating between Middle Eastern insiders and the wider dominant USA culture, these moments do privilege Middle Eastern audience members.

But while this type of insider reference may mark a portion of the audience as “outsiders,” it does not seek to exclude them. Instead, the comics in this performance make specific and deliberate attempts to reach out to those audience members who do not identify as Arab or Persian Americans, inviting them to view the border between their identities and the performers’ as permeable. The comics make their comedy accessible to a wider audience by frequently framing their insider comments with explanations for outsiders. Jobrani, for example, explains that “doo du doo doo IRAN!” is shouted at soccer games, and Ahmed clarifies that “haraam” means “against God,” explanations that would be unnecessary when addressing an audience comprised entirely of insiders. By granting those audience members who do not share their insider knowledge access to these references, the comics invite their understanding and, by extension, empathy. At the same time, the comics use these moments to establish their role as emissaries, performing both their status as an insider who can speak with authority on behalf of their group, and their willingness to share their knowledge with those outside it. When the portion of the audience that does share the comics’ heritage laughs at these references, they signal their agreement with the perspective that the comics express, lending further weight to their claims. In effect, by addressing multiple audiences simultaneously and by alternating between inside references and outreach, the comics reinscribe “Middle Eastern-American” as a cohesive community, while at the same time rebranding it as open and accessible to outsiders. As Ahmed puts it when addressing the white people in the audience, “welcome to our meeting.”

Dean Obeidallah makes use of his position as emissary in a bit he performs part way through his set, mocking a list of offensive comments people have made about his ethnicity. Speaking conversationally, Obeidallah sets up the bit by emphasizing that the stories he is about to tell are true. He explains, “I think the best way to explain what it’s like to be Arab-American now is to share with you some of the comments people have said to me about my own heritage to my face. And I’ve actually written them down in this notebook.” Pulling a notepad from his pocket, Obeidallah provides physical evidence that the material he is about to deliver comes from his own lived experience. As he flips through the notepad, he further emphasizes this point: “But these are actual—I’m not exaggerating—these are actual comments that people have said when I tell them I’m Arab.” Framing his narrative as an explanation for presumably sympathetic non-Middle Eastern audience members, Obeidallah positions them as allies. By laughing at the racist comments other people have made, these audience members perform their acceptance of this role.

These invitations extended to the wider population are even more effective because they take place in a performative context that depends on creating a sense of personal connection between audience and performer. Folklorist Ian Brodie describes this aspect of stand-up in his 2008 article, “Stand-up Comedy as Genre of Intimacy.” Brodie theorizes that stand-up comedy is “predicated on the illusion of intimacy” between audience and performer, an illusion it cultivates in two ways. First, the performance’s use of artificial amplification allows the performer to speak in a natural, conversational tone. Second, the performers incorporate personal statements and descriptions of their lived experiences into the comic narrative, typically framing these revelations as true.[10] In this respect, stand-up comedy is predisposed towards fostering an illusion that the audience has come to know the performer personally. According to Brodie, the result of this illusion of intimacy is that stand-up takes on the folkloric character of legend: it becomes a dialogic, interpersonal mode of communication in which one party communicates a worldview through a story told as true, and the other is expected to signal their agreement (through laughter, in the case of comedy).[11] In this construction, the seemingly intimate nature of the performance encourages the audience to empathise with the performer, to embrace their perspective and to perform their assent through laughter.

Having emphasized that he is about to share a personal narrative, Obeidallah deploys his lived experience in a dialogic format that encourages the audience to perform their agreement with his perspective. “Oh, you’re Arab,” he begins. “Wow, I love hummus.” After a brief pause, he continues, often using facial expressions of pain or embarrassment to signal the effect that these comments have had on him. “‘Oh, you’re Arab. Oooh-kay.’ Nothing more. ‘Oh, you’re Arab. But you seem so nice.’” Implicit in his narrative is the argument that these views of his ethnicity are both pervasive and so blatantly false as to be worthy of ridicule. He pauses briefly between each example, signaling to the audience that he expects them to signal their agreement through laughter. The segment operates dialogically, and its success depends on Obeidallah’s ability to effectively address his dual audience. For those audience members who share the comic’s Middle Eastern heritage, it serves as an act of solidarity as well as a cathartic repudiation of the ignorance of the wider US population. At the same time, their presence and laughter serve to confirm to those outsiders present that Obeidallah’s narrative represents a collective truth. For those audience members who do not share his identity position, the segment serves to model the rejection of these microagressions.

Much as Obeidallah appeals to his dual audience in order to engender empathy, Kader deploys a similar technique to undermine a pervasive fear of Middle Eastern hostility by demonstrating a shared sense of humor. As Bilici notes, “humor usually stands for humanity. If someone has a sense of humor, then he is just like us: likeable.”[12] Thus, content aside, the mere act of appearing in a comedy show as a Muslim or Middle Eastern-American is an act of ethnic/religious rebranding. Kader acknowledges as much early in his set when he jokes,

Usually Arabs don’t come to a comedy show. . . . In the past, Arabs would come to a comedy show but they’d sit in the back in the dark and go [folds arms and assumes an Arab accent and a serious tone] “yeah, that was good. That was funny; I like that. . . . You can almost hear me laugh. . . . Anyone who thinks Arabs don’t have a sense of humor I will kill you and burn your flag. We have a very good sense of humor.”

Performing the humorless Arab in the context of his own comedy show, Kader creates comic dissonance that highlights the distance between the humorless stereotype and his own humorous reality. By laughing at the joke, the Middle Eastern members of the audience perform the falseness of the stereotype en masse, amplifying the dissonance that Kader created and engaging in their own act of collective outreach.

The subtext of this joke goes beyond suggesting that Middle Easterners are human because they can laugh; like many moments in the show, it directly confronts the dominant culture’s fears that people of Middle Eastern extraction are religiously fanatical and violent. The Arab that Kader performs does not merely fail to laugh; he threatens violence, saying he will “kill you and burn your flag.” In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler theorizes that most comedy stems from what he terms “an aggressive-defensive tendency.” That is to say, most comedy is an expression—however indirect or subtle—of a desire to either exert one’s superiority over, or to defend oneself from, something or someone deemed threatening. Illustrating this second type, Koestler explains that “one of the typical situations in which laughter occurs is the sudden cessation of danger, real or imagined.”[13] In this vein, much of the comedy of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour stems from invoking the fear that people from the Middle East are dangerous, and rebranding them as safe and likeable.

This particular thrust of rebranding comedy is especially prominent in Jobrani’s lovable Persian character, which uses comic incongruity to defuse fears of Iranian hostility. Describing Persians as a group, Jobrani smiles, leans backwards, and repeatedly opens his arms in a welcoming gesture. Adopting a Persian accent, he explains “Iranians don’t even say we’re Iranian. We say we’re Persian. You know, it sounds nicer, friendlier . . . I am not dangerous; I am Persian. I am Persian, like the cat. Meow!” This bit is not without irony: underlying the lovable Persian character is the implication that Iran, as a country, actually is dangerous (Jobrani describes Iran’s “peaceful nuclear program,” for example, as “first we blow you up, then we hug you”). But while the humor depends on an acknowledgement of Iran’s danger as a state, it contrasts this against the outgoing affability of Persians as a people, and suggests resistance to the country’s aggressive international stance.

Later, Jobrani frames the perception that people from the Middle East are violent as the product of selective representations in popular media. “Just once,” he laments,

I wish they would show us doing something positive. Just once, right? . . . Show us doing something good, like, you know, like baking a cookie or something. Right? ‘Cause I’ve been to Iran; we have cookies. Just once I want CNN to be like “now we’re going to go to Mohammad in Iran.” They go to some guy who’s like [switches to Middle Eastern accent] “Hello, I’m Mohammad. And I’m just baking a cookie. I swear to God, no bombs, no flags, nothing. Back to you Bob.”

Recasting the supposedly violent Iranian as a nice guy who likes to bake, Jobrani sheds light on the discriminatory incompleteness of media portrayals, inviting the audience to repudiate it through recognition and laughter. At the same time, his comedy allows for a comedic release of tension for both those who have been afraid of Middle Eastern violence, and those who have been burdened with the stereotype. Addressing both sides of his audience simultaneously, Jobrani momentarily brings together his Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern spectators by undermining the power of the fear that separates them.

Jobrani’s use of accents in this bit serves to further emphasize the ease with which he can slip between identity positions, a strategy that is particularly common among comics of Middle Eastern heritage. As Bilici notes, “These cultural entrepreneurs claim knowledge of both worlds: ethnic and mainstream,” an intermediary position Bilici claims is “best illustrated in their ability to go back and forth between accented and normal speech.”[14] Occupying a liminal space between minority and majoritarian culture, Bilici explains, the Muslim comic “stands uneasily on the fault line, yet by standing there he becomes a sort of stitch that holds together the two sides of the cultural rift.”[15] While I would question Bilici’s designation of an American accent as “normal speech,” he makes the apt observation that the fluid transition between deliberately accented English and their own habitual North American speech patterns serves to mark the comic as a go between with access to two distinct cultural identities.

This function of the comic’s fluid use of accents is particularly apparent in the work of Maz Jobrani. Early in his set, after first introducing himself as “the Iranian of the group” in an American accent, Jobrani slips into a Persian accent to chant “Doo du doo doo IRAN!” By transitioning smoothly between American and Persian accents, and by first introducing his Persian accent in the context of an expression of national pride—a soccer chant—Jobrani establishes his insider status in both groups: he is proud of his Persian heritage, but this identity is in no way incompatible with his identity as an American. Later in his set, Jobrani does an extended bit in which he performs and describes the difference between Persian and Arab accents. Where his soccer chant seemed to be directed primarily to those audience members who shared his ethnic identity (and who would, therefore, be more likely to recognize and appreciate the chant), his discussion of different Middle Eastern accents is directed to both Middle Eastern and Non-Middle Eastern Americans. For the former, his gentle mockery of Persian and Arab accents makes an appeal to familiarity, confirming a shared cultural knowledge between Jobrani and those audience members already acquainted with the accents in question and the differences between the two. For those audience members who are less familiar with the accents, Jobrani’s description serves a different purpose: it positions Jobrani as an inside informant who can provide his non-Middle Eastern audience with access to unfamiliar cultural groups.

But while the comics’ use of Arab and Persian accents does often work to establish their simultaneous access to and knowledge of multiple groups, the choice to use an accent that reads as foreign can also serve to differentiate between their own American identities and characters who cannot as easily lay claim to insider status in the United States—the foreigner, the recent immigrant, and the terrorist. Obeidallah and Kader, for example, each transition into Middle Eastern accents when representing their foreign or immigrant relatives. Obeidallah uses a Palestinian accent to perform his father as an innocent and befuddled immigrant who does not understand American idioms. When his Jersey friends ask his father “‘Yo, Mr. Obeidallah! What’s goin’ on? How you doin’? What’s goin’ on,” Dean Obeidallah explains, his father would reply, “I don’t know what is going on! My wife tells me nothing. Dean, what is it? Are things going down? Please somebody tell me what it is.” Similarly, when the elder Obeidallah takes communion at his wife’s Catholic church, he remarks that the wafer “needs more salt. . . . Why it does not taste better, I do not get. Ok? You can’t have like a nacho flavor, or a baklava, something fun for everybody?” By gently mocking his father’s bewilderment and pairing it with a foreign accent, Obeidallah contrasts his father’s status as an immigrant and outsider with his own insider status as a native-born American.

Kader’s accented performance of his America-hating cousin serves a similar purpose. Adopting a thick Arab accent, Kader embarks on a monologue depicting his Jordanian cousin who complains continuously about “you son of a bitch bastard United States,” but who embraces Burger King and Starbucks. By positioning himself in contrast to his foreign cousin, Kader establishes himself and other Americans of Middle Eastern heritage as Americans first and foremost. In the middle of his cousin’s rant about American imperialism and his hopes for the empire’s collapse, Kader explains, he interrupted and said “Listen, Fayed, if America goes down, we’re taking Snickers and Coke and Pepsi and Twix—you know we’re not leaving a McNugget behind.” Here, Kader makes his Americanness and allegiance to American cultural interests explicit. Although Kader is critical of the United States’ tendency to “dominate with products,” he is nonetheless defensive in the face of his foreign cousin’s anti-American diatribe.

Like Kader’s representation of his cousin, Ahmed’s performance of Arab speech patterns serves to underscore his own Americanness as well as his allegiance to the USA in its interests abroad. He claims to love watching news reports from the Middle East because

all Middle Eastern people always start each sentence with [clicks tongue] ehhhhhhhhhhhhh. [Clicks tongue] Ehhhhhhhhhhhh [continues for three seconds, then begins speaking in a heavy Arab accent], The damned United States of America, they come into our country and they bomb our, ehhhhhhhhh. . . . [switching to North American accent] Just finish the sentence, Mustafa!

Performing the resident of a Middle Eastern country as a bumbling half-wit who can barely speak (rather than an educated polyglot searching for the right words in his second language), Ahmed distances Americans of Middle Eastern descent from foreign Arabs and Muslims on the receiving end of United States military action. Ahmed’s self-identification as Egyptian at the beginning of his set softens the representation by implying an element of self-mockery, but by performing the foreign Arab as heavily accented and blundering, Ahmed implies that he has more in common, linguistically and culturally, with the Americans doing the bombing than the intellectually inferior, and potentially enemy, Arab “Mustafa.” While the performances of foreign relatives are mitigated by the performer’s affection—however frustrated—for the character he portrays, Ahmed’s performance seems less forgiving. In contrast to Kader and Obeidallah whose mockery can be characterized as the familial teasing of a specific relative’s quirks, Ahmed’s representation is targeted at a broad foreign type. In this respect, his portrayal of the foreign “Mustafa” has more in common with the other performers’ enactment of the terrorist archetype, and risks reinforcing prejudices against Middle Easterners abroad.

In this respect, the comics tread a dangerous line between defusing and merely displacing such prejudices in their performances of Middle Eastern terrorists. In the course of the hour long show, each of the performers evokes the specter of Middle Eastern terrorism in two ways: commenting on the effects that Middle Eastern terrorism has had on them as Americans of Middle Eastern descent; and presenting stylized representations of terrorist figures. When performing a terrorist character, the comic almost invariably signals the transition from his own persona to the character by switching to a thick Middle Eastern accent. Ahmed, for example, uses an Arab accent to portray a terrorist, somewhere in the Middle East, who shares his name. Jobrani uses an Iranian accent to depict a terrorist who, having dialed the wrong number, tips him off to an impending attack in a midnight phone call. In his critique of the Patriot Act, Obeidallah imitates an Arab terrorist seeking information from an American library. In a thick accent, he asks the imagined librarian: “Do you have a book on, how you say, waging a Jihad against the infidel dog?”

This exaggerated performance serves a dual function. On one level, by enacting the caricature of the Muslim as America-hating Jihadist, Obeidallah exposes the inherent contradiction of the stereotype used to justify the Patriot Act’s erosion of intellectual freedoms: Muslims are configured both as perpetual foreigners who cannot fully integrate into the culture of the United States, and as sneaky infiltrators who could pass unnoticed if not for government surveillance. But although Obeidallah is critical of the stereotype as a whole, by juxtaposing his own New Jersey speech patterns with implicitly foreign accent and phrasing (“how you say…”), he also highlights the distance between foreign terrorists and native-born Americans of Middle Eastern heritage. In sum, Obeidallah both calls the stereotype into question as incongruous, and illustrates that—even if it were an accurate representation of someone—it does not represent him. Moments such as these in which the comics use foreign-sounding accents to differentiate between the American of Middle Eastern heritage and the foreign terrorist are troubling: at the same time that they make Arab and Persian-Americans seem less threatening by emphasizing their Americanness, they run the risk of reinforcing prejudices directed at foreigners.

But while such moments may be problematic, the comics counterbalance them with segments in which they deliberately question and destabilize the Orientalist assumptions that “foreign” accents can evoke. Obeidallah, for example, openly challenges the audience’s perception of Middle Eastern speech patterns, explaining to them that, “you’ve been conditioned by the media to be afraid of people with accents. And I can show you; I can say the same thing with or without a Middle Eastern accent; it can change the whole meaning.” He proceeds to illustrate his point by repeating the line “Hey, wait ‘till Friday night: we’ve been planning this for months. People will be talking about this for years,” first with an American accent and subsequently with an Arab accent. As the audience laughs, he reproaches them “Scary right? It’s scary because, sadly, you’re all racists.” While other moments in the show might use accents to differentiate between the Middle Eastern foreigner and the Middle Eastern American, Obeidallah’s commentary on how these accents are received calls on the audience to re-examine their assumptions.

Jobrani executes a similar disruption through his imitation of his ethnically East Indian wife. Following this impersonation—of which a key feature is a heavy Indian accent—he reverts to his natural speaking voice and reveals that “she doesn’t sound like that. She was born here.” This is a moment of disruptive finesse. From the beginning of this bit, he was open that he was performing a stereotype—differentiating between East Indians and American Indians, he clarifies that his wife is “the computer kind” and not “the casino kind”—an example of his usual technique of repeating stereotypes so brazenly that they seem shockingly absurd. But his subsequent revelation that his wife does not, in fact, have a foreign accent packs a subtle double punch. On one hand, it marks the preceding imitation as a fabrication, reiterating that the generalization that Indians are good with computers is suspect. At the same time, the revelation also addresses those in the audience to whom the heavy accent seemed natural, and destabilizes the assumption that this woman who identifies as East Indian is necessarily foreign. This moment in which he reveals that he has been performing a stereotype rather than a person destabilizes every racial enactment he engages in throughout the set—from his wife, to the racist white Texan, to the generic Middle Eastern terrorist, to the lovable Persian—as well as those enacted by his fellow comedians in the rest of the show.

In their 2006 performance in Santa Ana California, the comics of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour used their liminal positions and the intimacy of stand-up comedy to combat prejudice and create positive representations of people of Middle Eastern heritage in the United States. In their subsequent work, they have broadened their diplomatic mission, using the same techniques to foster mutual understanding between residents of both regions. In 2007, Jobrani, Ahmed, and Kader took the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour to the Middle East, performing twenty-seven shows in five countries. In the years since the tour disbanded, all of the comics have continued various acts of political and cultural outreach, both in the United States and abroad. In 2009 Ahmed founded Cross-Cultural Productions, with the expressed purpose of using comedy to create cross-cultural dialogue and understanding. For the company’s inaugural project, eleven American comedians—including Ahmed and Jobrani—went on a tour of the Middle East, a diplomatic project they chronicled in the 2010 film Just Like Us.[16] In 2012, Obeidallah and Kader also toured in the Middle East. Like Ahmed and Jobrani, their recent work has been characterized by a shift towards reciprocity. As Daily News Egypt reported when discussing Kader and Obeidallah’s visit to Egypt, “Building bridges is a two-way street. While these comedians are challenging the status quo of Middle Eastern misconceptions in America, they are also winning hearts and minds in the Middle East.”[17] Throughout this work, their dual identities as Middle Eastern-Americans have allowed them to serve as intermediaries. As Kader notes, “in America I feel obligated to inform an audience about the Middle East and there I am an American with an obligation to describe what Americans are feeling.”[18] In this sense, their work continues to depend on their liminal identities, and their ability to cross between a dominant culture and a feared Other through their simultaneous status as insider and outsider.

This shift in the work of these comics is in keeping with changes in how United States audiences perceive the Middle East. In the years since they performed in Santa Ana, the political landscape has shifted somewhat, allowing a more nuanced popular view of the Middle East to emerge. Osama Bin Laden is dead. While the region remains unstable, the United States has withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hawkish representations of the terrorist threat, though still present, have consequently become less urgent and less monolithic in US media. At the same time, internal conflicts within Middle Eastern countries have changed how people within the United States see the citizens of those countries. Uprisings such as the protests following the disputed 2009 elections in Iran, the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and the ongoing civil war and humanitarian crisis in Syria have allowed a more nuanced image of their populations to emerge: although images of people in the Middle East as America-hating terrorists have by no means disappeared, they are now mitigated by narratives of the people of that region as human beings who can suffer and resist, and with whom dialogue is possible and desirable.

In this sense, the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour stands as both a record of its historical moment, and as a starting point for the comedians’ future acts of cultural diplomacy. By destabilizing the border between Middle Eastern-American and broader USA identities, and by positioning themselves as emissaries who could bring the two groups together, the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour sought to improve perceptions of a mistrusted ethnic group through strategies that extend well beyond presenting positive images. This is not to say that the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was entirely unproblematic: at times, it ran the risk of displacing problematic stereotypes onto a more distant foreign Other rather than disrupting them, and the comics’ insistence on their own patriotism had the potential to lend unintended support to the same national hegemony their comedy critiqued. Despite these pitfalls, however, the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour stands as an example of how stand-up comedy can be used as a response to prejudice, and points to its potential as a humanizing expression of multi-ethnic connectivity.


Tamara Smith holds a PhD in Theatre History and Criticism from the University of Texas at Austin. An independent scholar whose research focuses on expressions of identity in popular performance, she has presented at SETC, MATC, ASTR and ATHE, and has published in JADT and Ecumenica. She currently lives in Halifax, Canada.


[1] Maz Jobrani, et al., The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, directed by Michael Simon (Los Angeles, CA: Levity Entertainment Group, 2008), DVD.

[2] Felicia R. Lee, “Comedians as Activists, Challenging Prejudice,” New York Times (via Maz Jobrani’s Press Kit), 10 March 2007, B7.

[3] Paul McLoughlin, “Home-Grown Comedy,” in Y: Pulse of the New Generation, 20 April 2010, 27.

[4] Betsy Rothstein, “Laughing with the Axis of Evil,” The Hill (via Maz Jobrani’s Press Kit). 2007;Lee, “Comedians as Activists,” B7.

[5] Qtd. in Lee, “Comedians as Activists,” B7.

[6] Qtd. in ibid.

[7] Jobrani et al., “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.”

[8] Mucahit Bilici, “Muslim Ethnic Comedy: Inversions of Islamophobia,” in Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend, ed. Andrew Shyrock (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 196.

[9] Natasha Baker. “The Muslims are Coming! U.S. Comedy Duo Combats Islamophobia.” Interview with Negin Farsad and Dean Obeidallah. Al Arabiya, 17 September 2013.

[10] Ian Brodie, “Stand-up Comedy as a Genre of Intimacy,” Ethnologies 30, no. 2 (2008): 170.

[11] Ibid., 162.

[12] Bilici, “Muslim Ethnic Comedy,” 195.

[13] Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (London: Arkana, 1989), 54.

[14] Bilici, “Muslim Ethnic Comedy,” 196.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada,“My Name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I am Just Like You.” Interview with Ahmed Ahmed, Magazine Intercultures, Centre for Intercultural Learning, http://www.international.gc.ca/cfsi-icse/cil-cai/magazine/v07n02/1-3-eng.asp (accessed 10 March 2014).

[17] Sadia Ashraf. “Mideastern US Comedians Combat Politics with Humor,” Daily News Egypt, 9 April 2012, 3.

[18] Ibid.

 


Logo_Publications

“Persian Like The Cat”: Crossing Borders with “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” by Tamara L. Smith

ISNN 2376-4236

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 26, Number 3 (Fall 2014)
©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Editorial Board:

Co-Editors: Naomi J. Stubbs and James F. Wilson
Advisory Editor: David Savran
Founding Editors: Vera Mowry Roberts and Walter Meserve

Editorial Staff:

Managing Editor: Phoebe Rumsey
Editorial Assistant: Fabian Escalona

Advisory Board:

Bill Demastes
Amy E. Hughes
Jorge Huerta
Esther Kim Lee
Kim Marra
Beth Osborne
Robert Vorlicky
Maurya Wickstrom
Stacy Wolf
Esther Kim Lee

Table of Contents:

  • Ida Wells-Barnett and Chicago’s Pekin Theatre by Karen Bowdre
  • History is Distance: Metaphor, Meaning, and Performance in Serenade/The Proposition by Ariel Nereson
  • Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Histories, Futures, and Queer Lives by Vanessa Campagna
  • “Persian Like The Cat”: Crossing Borders with “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” by Tamara L. Smith

www.jadtjournal.org
jadt@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director
Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications
Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2014 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate Center CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10016

 

 

 

 

 

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