4:01pm

Tue December 14, 2010
Middle East

But Seriously Folks, The Arab World Is A Funny Place

From Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Jordan, huge audiences turn out to laugh at American comedians and at themselves.

American-style stand-up comedy, it turns out, is a new funny business in the Middle East.

"I went over to do a show and it turned into comedy missionary work," says Dean Obeidallah, now the king of Middle East stand-up.

The Arab-American from Lodi, N.J., a lawyer by training, is one of the pioneers. He featured in the first stand-up comedy festival in Amman, Jordan, four years ago. This year, the Amman comedy event was the largest yet: eight shows over seven nights featuring stand-up comedians in Arabic along with the English-language imports.

"I'm really proud to be a part of this movement," Obeidallah says. "It's been exciting to see the young people in the region take to it. It wasn't intended to be a movement. It was a show. I went over to do a show."

This comedy movement changed his career. Obeidallah quit his staff job at Saturday Night Live in 2008 when stand-up gigs in the Middle East became his full-time occupation.

"It was time to take a chance," he says.

'Arabs Laughing At Themselves'

His appearances led to stand-up workshops across the region. Obeidallah says he is the Christopher Columbus of comedy, discovering new jokes.

"Jokes about Arabs being late, or smoking cigarettes, or fighting over the check -- like these typical Arab things -- get the biggest laughs in the show," says Obeidallah.

He has learned what makes Arab audiences laugh over the past few years, and it turns out it's material that is not all that different from the jokes that work with American audiences -- although the language is cleaner and the political jokes aren't directed at the kings and presidents of the Arab world.

It's a simple formula, explains Obeidallah: Mock social conventions and the crowds come back for more.

"Which is something that Americans never see: Arabs laughing at themselves. And they demand you make fun of them," he says.

Obeidallah gives the audience just what they want. Take this joke, for example, from last year's show in Amman.

"How about an Arab Muslim vampire? Instead of being afraid of a cross, he's afraid of pork. You hold it up. Haram. Bacon. Haram," using the Arabic term for forbidden.

It's hard to explain why stand-up comedy has taken off in just a few short years. Perhaps it is seen as a new form of self-expression for a young generation. The Arab world has a youth bulge -- 60 percent of the population is under 30 -- and, unlike their parents, many of them have grown up with the Internet, which puts them in touch with the wider world.

"YouTube should get a Nobel Peace Prize," Obeidallah says. "YouTube has unintentionally brought the Middle East and the U.S. together. They can see the stand-up comedy. ... They get to know you."

Young Arab audiences want to see their favorites -- for example, Jeff Dunham, one of the most well-known and well-paid comics in America. Dunham is a ventriloquist who speaks through politically incorrect dolls.

"They love Jeff Dunham, who has the little talking doll. He has 'Ahmed the Dead Terrorist,' they love that. And he's like, 'I'll kill you, I'll kill you,' and Arabs love it. They want him so much to come over and perform. I think there might be a slight concern by him that it's a one-way ticket thing. It's not. They really want to see him and laugh with him," Obeidallah says.

Younger Generation Making Its Mark

On his breaks from stand-up comedy shows in the Middle East, Obeidallah polishes his material at the Broadway Comedy Club in New York. He takes a sheet of paper on stage with rough notes and works out his show on the international audiences who comes to these New York clubs.

As he exits the stage, Obeidallah talks to a young Saudi student who has come to see the show. Ahmed Al Omran became a fan through YouTube and then he saw a live performance in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Al Omran is a graduate student in New York. His master's thesis is on stand-up comedy in the Middle East.

"Each generation wants to do something that is their mark," says Al Omran, explaining the popularity of stand-up. "Older people don't get it."

Obeidallah agrees. One of the shows he did in Saudi Arabia was at the invitation of a royal prince and the audience was mixed. While young Saudis laughed at his humor, the older generation was mostly silent.

"They thought I was a magician and they were waiting for me to do something," he says, "Some of them get it, but others say, 'You were very funny, I laughed two times.' They didn't realize I want them to laugh."

Omrani adds his analysis:

"This whole notion of having someone who is just like you and making fun of himself and of you as well is liberating in a sense. We are not used to someone making fun of us and that's why it gets the most laughs," he says.

Americans are familiar with the faces and sounds of Arab anger.

That is not what Obeidallah sees when he looks out at the audiences in the Middle East. This is an American export the people want. The packed audiences show that comedy concerts are just what the region needs.

"I was just in Egypt a few months ago, and 5,000 people came out for the two shows. And it grows and grows. And the only reason I think it will sustain itself is because the young people are doing it there," he says. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.