By Daniel Petrino
With its largest roster yet and a week’s worth of killer shows scheduled, this formerly one-time-only event has turned into one of the most anticipated yearly comedy showcases. PunchlineMagazine.com talks to festival co-founder and comedian Dean Obeidallah.
With the 5th Annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival set for Jan. 18-23, PunchlineMagazine.com had the chance to chat with comedian and co-founder of the festival, Dean Obeidallah (comedian Maysoon Zayid is the other founder), about everything from his comedy style to growing up in New Jersey to how the Arab-American Comedy Festival went from three shows to a week-long celebration of comedians of Middle-Eastern descent.
What can we expect from this year’s festival?
The comedy in the upcoming festival is not all about being Arab-American or Middle Eastern-American; that’s certainly a big part of it, but the issues are filtered through our point of view. There’ll be a lot of stuff having to do with politics, especially because it’s an election year. We love politics. I think it’s genetic in people of Middle-Eastern descent.
There’s gonna be a lot of stuff about the presidential candidates, and President Bush is always a big star. We’re not inventing any new wheel; we’re just inserting our own voice into the wheel that’s been invented before us by comics that talked about issues of race and religion. Sometimes it’s very cute slice-of-life things, and other times it’s challenging political things. What makes our festival unique is that it’s a very distinct point of view; it’s inherently political and it’s really for people who like comedy that’s going to make you think.
We’re doing the same thing that Richard Pryor did, that Jewish comedians did in the early days when they used comedy to raise issues about feeling like outsiders or being persecuted. Lenny Bruce did it more with political issues than he did with ethnic background. Those comics have dealt with serious issues. Jon Stewart does the same thing on The Daily Show; he deals with real and important issues and he doesn’t trivialize them. He makes them funny, but he’s also educating his audience. You’re learning something by watching those kinds of comics.
Besides entertaining crowds, what are the larger goals of the festival?
There are two goals for the festival. One is to create a professional showcase for Arab-American comedians. We want more Arab-American comedians and every minority group to get active in the entertainment industry and in the media because that’s the only way they’ll be able to correct their images to their fellow Americans. You always hear minority groups saying, “In the media we’re represented badly. In the movies we’re always playing the murderer or the thief or the drug dealer.” The only way to change that is to get involved. That’s our second goal.
How has the Arab-American Comedy Festival changed over the years?
The festival began in 2003. Back then we were just trying to do something to show people in New York that Arabs can be funny and that we’re all not scary and that we’re just like everybody else. Obviously, we also wanted to showcase talented people. But there was definitely a goal of fostering understanding. It was never intended to be annual. It grew from three shows the first year to this year where we’re doing six nights with more than one show a night many of the nights.
We’re at our biggest venue at the Zipper Theatre, and it’s growing every year. It’s been a fun ride. It’s been challenging at times and frustrating, but so rewarding. The people in our community are so supportive of us. That’s really inspired us because they understand it’s not just comedy.
What was it like growing up Middle Eastern in North Jersey?
I grew up in Lodi, where everyone was either Italian or they were my father. I do material about that, but it’s really very truthful. People were so intrigued by my dad to the point where in third grade my teacher had me bring my father in for “Show and Tell.” She meant it in a good way, like to teach the kids about an Arab-Muslim man.
So I brought him into school and some kids had a pet and another kid had a model rocket ship and I’m, like, “This is Abdul Obeidallah, he’s an Arab-Muslim guy. People asked questions, and it was fun. I mean, at that time, it was purely intriguing. It’ not like today where there’s negative connotation if you say you’re Arab, especially if you say you’re a Muslim. They were just purely intrigued and there wasn’t that much negative baggage involved. It sounds ridiculous when you think about it now, but it was actually a really good thing.
Before you were a full-time stand-up, you were a lawyer. How did you make such a major shift?
They were having the Funniest Lawyer Competition at the New Jersey Bar Association where I’m originally from. People at my law firm said to me that I should enter the competition. I had never done stand-up comedy before. So I’ve always taken that as either they thought I was really funny or that I really sucked at being a lawyer. It’s probably a combination of the two.
I enjoyed it. I didn’t quit being a lawyer right away. The next year, I probably did comedy about three or four times. Being a lawyer to me was like not really being alive. I always told people it was exhausting and was extinguishing the spark in my soul. But when you get on stage as a comedian you’re really alive. If it goes well or badly, it doesn’ matter; you’re still experiencing it instantaneously. It’s very exciting and fun, and it was a creative outlet for me.
What was it like doing material about being Arab-American for the first time in front of an audience?
The first time I did it was probably six or seven months after 9/11. That’s when I first started talking about my heritage on stage and how the world was changing for me. I think it was just one joke based on a real experience, and it was really going into uncharted territory for me. It wasn’t something I talked about too much before 9/11 and I was actually nervous about the way the audience would receive it or reject it. I didn’t know if some people would be upset by the fact I was talking about being Arab or having a Muslim family in a climate right after 9/11, especially since I was based in New York.
I was actually more concerned about it starting a fight or someone yelling something out or someone making some Arab slur in front of everybody and it leading to an altercation. Thankfully it was never like that, but it was definitely unlike any material I’d ever written and worried about before. In the past, I only cared if the joke was funny, I wasn’t really concerned that people were going to be offended to the point of someone screaming at me.