Mining the Middle East for Laughs

Racial profiling and hate crimes are serious stuff ... unless you’re Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah. The New Jersey native is the co-creator of Comedy Central’s new online show, “The Watch List,” a six-part series where Americans of Mideast descent riff on everything from their parent’s arranged marriages to why it’s now hip to be Arab. “We’re so racially profiled now I heard a correspondent on CNN say ‘Arabs are the new blacks',” jokes Obeidallah. “And I have to confess, when I heard that, I was excited. We’re cool! White kids in the suburbs, instead of dressing and acting like blacks to be cool, they’ll pretend to be Arab.” His routine is brought to life by a sketch that includes white boys shooting hoops in galabiyas , pimping their rides to look like New York cabs and greeting each other with hot new phrases like “What Up, My Arab?" and "Arab, please.”

“The Watch List” is named after a decidedly more serious (and arguably less effective) list kept by Homeland Security. The show's mix of stand-up and sketch comedy, which debuted this week, has a raw YouTube appeal, yet the humor here is anything but amateur. Comedy Central was hip to this fact, and though they won't admit it, it's more than likely that the network—home to Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle—is testing out this new strain of ethnic comedy on its Web site before making an airtime commitment. "I think the mainstream is ready for this," says Comedy Central's Dan Powell, a development executive who’s helped shape the “Watch List.”

The cable channel’s mere involvement in the show is one more indication that the Arab and Iranian American comedy scene is truly, er, booming. In 2006 alone, the Axis of Evil and Allah Made Me Funny tours, the NY Arab-American Comedy Festival (also Dean Obeidallah’s brainchild) and Maysoon Zayid’s one-woman show produced some of the most-talked-about comedians among the up-and-comers on the club scene. (And now even the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has gotten in on the joke with “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” a sitcom about a group of Muslims living in a small Canadian farm town). “I think we connect because we’re American and our jokes are American, but there’s this intriguing twist because we’re also from a culture that’s under a microscope right now,” says Obeidallah.

The growing interest in Arab-American comedy is ironic when you consider that the careers of stand-ups like Obeidallah, Aron Kader and Ahmed Ahmed hung in the balance following the 9/11 attacks. The last thing most Americans associated Arabs or Islam with was laughter. But a funny thing happened on the way to America’s next war with a Muslim country. Arab comedy tours such as The Arabian Knights began selling out. “There’s a general curiosity about the culture right now because it’s politically relevant,” says Comedy Central’s  Powell. “We’ve gotten more inquiries about this particular show than any of our other original Web shows.”

ComedyCentral.com’s “The Watch List” was co-created by Max Brooks, an Emmy-winning writer at “Saturday Night Live” who is also Mel Brooks’s son and a self described “super Jew.” “Ironically, working on this show is the most Jewish thing I can do right now,” says Brooks. “The No. 1 lesson of the Holocaust is to fight intolerance. I signed on after I watched Dean interviewed by [ABC News’s] John Stossel. Stossel said, ‘How can you criticize our government when you can’t even do that in your own country?’ Dean said, ‘I’m from New Jersey!’ It’s that kind of thing that makes me want to fight ignorance with humor.” The two, who met as staffers at "SNL," used Obeidallah’s earlier success with his Arab-American Comedy Festival as a blueprint for the show they would pitch to Comedy Central. “There are a lot of great comedians out there who are Middle Eastern, but we didn’t want an Arabic Yakov Smirnoff,” says Brooks. “These comedians all had to grow up here and have the American experience—they needed to play with G.I. Joes and Barbie dolls and watch Spider-Man. They had to be one of us.”

In fact, “The Watch List”'s stand-up Helen Maalik is so American, she’s perplexed about everyday life in the Middle East, especially the concept of women covering their faces. “What if an Arab kid gets lost in the mall over there,” she says. “How does he describe his mother to security? [ Crying: ] ‘I don’t know! She has eyes'.” Joe Derosa, an Egyptian-American who was adopted by a non-Arab family, bases his bit around the comments of an ignorant uncle. “He’d always ask, ‘Hey kid, where’s your oil well?’ And I was like, what is he talking about? Egyptian people don’t have oil wells. How frickin’ lazy of a racist do you have to be when you don’t even separate the stereotypes anymore? Why not throw it all in a big pile and have at it [ imitates his uncle ]: ‘Why don’t you go back to your oil well, and on your way there, stop and buy some fried chicken and watermelon before you sneak back over the border to open a 7-Eleven in this country’.”

One of the stand-up routines best brought to life in a sketch on “Watch List” is Nasry Malik’s post-9/11 fantasy of becoming the most celebrated Arab in the United States. “We want to be more patriotic, more American than Americans,” says Malik. “So my family and I have been discussing it and we’re actually thinking about turning in my father. It’s not because he did anything wrong, it would just make us look so patriotic.” A troupe of actors play the scheming family who drop damning items, such as a Qur'an, in a box labeled EVIDENCE AGAINST DAD. After dad is incarcerated, they are celebrated on cable news as the “Most Patriotic Family in America.” Drastic? Yes. But in times like these, what Arab-American comic can afford to be left off “The Watch List”?