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America at a Crossroads: "STAND UP: Muslim American Comics Come of Age"

Finding Humor in the Post-9/11 World, Five Comedians Observe the Mess They’re In

Terrorism, racial profiling and U.S. relations with the Middle East may not seem to be laughing matters — until you meet the five hilarious, insightful, courageous Muslim-American comedians showcased in “Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age,” the latest special in the acclaimed PBS series AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS.

The program explores the emergence of Muslim- and Arab-American comedians in the wake of 9/11, showing how they use humor to take on stereotypes about their religion and their politics. The film highlights five performers, their comedy and the way everyday tribulations shape their art. Some of these comics are Arab, some are Muslim and some are both. All are Americans, and this is the story of how each of these men and women felt the aftershock of 9/11 personally. At a time when people of Middle Eastern origin were advised to lie low, they chose to stand up … and crack jokes. “Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age” airs Sunday, May 11, 2008, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.

Many Americans might view the phrase “Muslim comics” as an oxymoron, but these five artists — Ahmed Ahmed, Tissa Hami, Dean Obeidallah, Azhar Usman and Maysoon Zayid — succeed in cutting through the fear, loathing and misunderstanding to accurately convey the vibrant Muslim-American community in America. Their tool is laughter, but there is much more than humor in their motivation. As Ahmed says, “We can’t define who we are on a serious note because nobody will listen. So the only way to do it is to be funny about it.”

And funny they are — to wit:

• Dean Obeidallah, welcoming the crowd to the Arab American Comedy Festival: “How many people are white people here? Look at this; that’s great. Scared?”

• Azhar Usman, on his recent trip to Britain: “It’s a totally different vibe over there, man. … I’m just so used to people hating me for being a Muslim. It was nice to finally be hated just for being an American.”

• Ahmed Ahmed: “I actually read a statistic that said right after 9/11, hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims went up 1,000 percent, which still puts us in fourth place behind blacks, gays and Jews. We’re still in fourth place. … So what do we have to do?”

If it is true that the secret of comedy is genuine insight, it is not surprising that these artists represent an emerging pool of superb comedic talent. Behind their comedy is genuine wisdom. “No one wants to laugh with the enemy,” Ahmed says in the film. “They want to look for an excuse to hate you.”

The comics all take pride in their ability to make people laugh, but hold equal pride in their dual heritage as Muslims and Americans. “We are Muslims; we are Americans; and there is no contradiction,” Usman observes in the documentary. “We are onstage expressing ourselves, and there is nothing more quintessentially American than stand-up comedy.”

The five comics viewers meet in “Stand Up: Muslim-American Comics Come of Age” represent the diversity of both the American Muslim community and the Muslim world as a whole. Ahmed Ahmed is Egyptian-born and California-raised. An accomplished actor, he has appeared in numerous feature films. One of his challenges is getting beyond playing “Terrorist No. 4.” He performs with the highly successful “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” and won the first Richard Pryor Award for ethnic humor at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in 2004.

Tissa Hami was born in Iran, but grew up near Boston. Hami performs in the traditional hijab worn by Muslim women and through her comedy seeks to break down stereotypes about women in Islam. She turned to comedy after 9/11 and says her parents are thrilled at the way she is putting her Ivy League degrees to good use.

Dean Obeidallah is a lawyer by training, a comic by talent and passion. The events of 9/11 led him to explore his Palestinian heritage. Currently developing a comedy series called The Watch List, he co-founded the Arab American Comedy Festival, the fifth edition of which is slated for New York in January 2008. Scenes from past festivals play a big part in “Stand Up.” Obeidallah has performed across the country and around the world.

Azhar Usman is of Indian descent and hails from Chicago. He is a comic, lecturer and community activist. Holding both communications and law degrees, Usman is perhaps the thinking person’s comic. His stand-up career has taken him across America and throughout the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, headlining for “Allah Made Me Funny: The Official Muslim Comedy Tour.”

Maysoon Zayid, of Palestinian ancestry, grew up in New Jersey. She and Obeidallah co-founded the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Also an accomplished actress, Zayid was the first comedian to do live stand-up in Palestine, performing throughout the region. She spends three months each year in Palestine, operating art and wellness programs for disabled and wounded refugee children and orphans. Zayid herself has cerebral palsy.

Clearly, this is a diverse group. However, one thread binds them all: the desire to foster an understanding of their culture and their religion through comedy. As with many ethnic groups in the past, humor is often the one way the rest of America will take them seriously. As Tissa Hami says, “I thought maybe I can, through stand-up comedy, use my voice to speak up, speak out, stand up.”

CPB developed the initial concept for AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS in 2004 with an open call for film projects. More than 400 proposals were submitted from public television stations and independent documentary filmmakers around the world. In 2006, CPB named WETA the producing station to oversee all films throughout production.

Underwriters: Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Co-producer: Independent Television Service (ITVS). Producer/director: Glenn Baker. Co-director: Omar Naim. Co-producer: Lauren Cardillo. Series executive producers: Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan. Series producer: Leo Eaton. Format: CC Stereo DVI Letterbox/Widescreen where available. Online: pbs.org

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