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An axis of laughter

Times Staff Writer

“I can always tell who the air marshal is on a flight,” jokes Ahmed Ahmed. “He’s the one holding a People magazine upside down and looking straight at me.”

Aron Kader, whose father is Palestinian and mother is Mormon, recalls being asked to go on a Mormon proselytizing mission.

“I told him, ‘Look, to an Arab, a mission is a whole different deal. Generally we don’t come back from those.’ ”

Fellow comic Maz Jobrani imitates Iranians in America trying desperately to distance themselves from their home government’s hostility to America.

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“I am not Iranian,” he says with a huge, harmless smile. “I am Persian, like the cat. Meow! Like the rug!”

The L.A-based threesome, who worked their way up through the local comedy ranks and have performed together since 2000, form the nucleus of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (www.axisofevilcomedy.com), which debuted March 10 on Comedy Central. And with a multi-city Axis tour starting Thursday in Anaheim and Comedy Central in talks to do a TV version of “The Watch List,” a series of skits and performances featuring Middle Eastern comics on www.ComedyCentral.com, it looks to be a breakthrough moment for comics with Arab and Mideast roots.

“They’re going to the next level,” says Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory. “They’ve started blooming.”

Both bedeviled and inspired by life in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the comedians mine their experiences for laughs. Along the way, they say, they hope to subversively cut through ethnic stereotypes that have labeled them violent, fanatical and, ironically, humorless.

“I think comedy can change things. I think Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce showed you can raise issues and make people think. Jon Stewart does it every night,” says Dean Obeidallah, a cofounder of the annual New York City-based Arab-American Comedy Festival and a creator of “The Watch List.” “It’s still just pebbles in a bucket of negative press about the Middle East.”

The comics see themselves following the lead of black, Latino, gay and Jewish comedians who’ve helped kick down cultural doors.

“It’s our turn to do that for our community,” says Jobrani, who was born in Tehran and raised in Northern California’s Marin County and who has a co-starring role in the ABC sitcom “The Knights of Prosperity.”

“I really feel the momentum. This is going to have a ripple effect for all of us,” says Maysoon Zayid, another standout performer and cofounder, with Obeidallah, of the New York festival. “Now the next step is for Arab comedy to no longer be a novelty, for Arabs to be cast in average-Joe roles -- the romantic lead, the best friend, the weird neighbor -- and have their ethnicity not be a factor at all.”

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A helping hand

IF the coming years do produce a breakout Middle Eastern star, much of the credit may end up going to a tiny Jewish woman who’s already a comedy legend. Comedy Store founder Mitzi Shore first conceived an all-Middle Eastern comedy show in 2000. Jobrani was already performing at the nightclub, and Shore brought in up-and-comers Ahmed and Kader with an eye toward teaming them under the banner “Arabian Nights.” Shore, who is in poor health, declined a request for an interview, but Kader, Ahmed and Jobrani speak of her as a visionary who saw conflict coming well before 9/11 and sought to preemptively fight it with comedy.

“In 2000, she told me, ‘There’s going to be a war between America and the Middle East, and it’s going to be soon, and your people are going to be so misrepresented,’ ” says Ahmed, whose parents moved from Egypt to Riverside when he was a child.

Ahmed, 36, also tells of the first time he met Shore backstage at the Comedy Store, a meeting that helped set the tone for the no-holds-barred approach that Shore fostered in her proteges.

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“So you’re Egyptian, eh?” she asked.

“Um, yeah.”

“You know, we used to be your slaves,” she quipped.

The “Arabian Nights” grew into a series of successful shows in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Eventually, the trio adopted the name “Axis of Evil,” partly to reflect that Jobrani, an Iranian, isn’t ethnically Arab.

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A parallel cadre of performers, led by Obeidallah and Zayid, was emerging from the New York clubs, and the groups began appearing in each other’s performances and projects.

Working their way up the comedy and acting ladders, many of the comics, particularly the swarthier ones such as Jobrani and Ahmed, have endured a succession of “ethnic” roles -- from cab driver to grocery store owner to the inevitable terrorist. But the pigeonholes get old, and the men talk excitedly about the acting gigs they’ve had in which their ethnicity was incidental.

Jobrani’s character, Mo -- for Mohammed -- in the movie “The Interpreter” speaks without an accent, and his ethnic background is scarcely mentioned. Ahmed appeared in several episodes of “Punk’d” playing a variety of roles, including a fire inspector who bars Halle Berry from her own movie premiere.

“It was the first time in 10 years where I wasn’t playing ‘the Arab Guy,’ ” Ahmed says.

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Playing a terrorist is the most problematic. Both men speak of taking such roles, though, when they needed the work and the exposure.

One of Jobrani’s first big roles was as an Afghani terrorist in a 2001 Chuck Norris television movie “The President’s Man.” “I thought I could bring integrity to the character,” he says. “I fooled myself.”

The first sign that things weren’t going to go as he planned came right at the beginning.

“I show up at wardrobe, and they’re like, ‘Here’s your shirt. Here’s your pants. Here’s your turban.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute -- an Afghani Muslim in America seeking to blow things up isn’t going to walk around with a turban.’ ”

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But his concerns were quickly overruled, he said. “So I wore the thing, and I felt just horrible.”

He tried to swear off terrorist roles after that but appeared in “24" as a member of a terrorist cell who has a midmission change of heart. Now, he says, “I’d love to be a Middle Easterner who just robs a bank. Something mundane. That’s all I want.”

On the Axis of Evil special, Ahmed tells of reluctantly auditioning for the part of “Terrorist No. 4" in a movie. His only real line: “Sit down. You will obey! Or I’ll kill you in the name of Allah!” He felt guilty about even auditioning and was shocked when his agent called to say they were offering him the part.

“I said tell them, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ Every time I do a part like this, it’s like feeding the beast. It’s like putting fuel on the fire. No way.”

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After pausing for polite, approving applause from the heavily Middle Eastern crowd at the Orange County Pavilion, he continues: “And then she said, “They want to pay you $30,000 for a week of work.”

He took the job.

Max Brooks, who helped create “The Watch List” with Obeidallah, dismisses the idea that comics with Middle Eastern backgrounds are thriving because audiences have evolved. What’s changed, he says, is the comedians -- now an experienced group who have honed their skills through thousands of club dates.

“It’s not so much that America is ready for them. It’s that they’re ready for America,” says Brooks, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer and the son of comic legend Mel Brooks.

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The 9/11 attacks and the aftermath, he adds, prompted a deeper and more complicated understanding of the comics’ heritages and place in America. And then “It took them years to process that experience and then build it into A-List-level material.”

Post-9/11 wariness

ALL of the comics say 9/11 was a crucial turning point, and all vividly remember their first performances after the attacks. A friend took Obeidallah aside and advised: “Don’t talk about being Arab. We’re in New York. Somebody might get mad.” For several weeks he used his middle name and performed as Dean Joseph.

Ahmed was reluctant to get on stage, but Shore chose him to open the night and told him to trust his instincts. He started out by saying, “Hey, my name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I had nothing to do with it. I’m just saying that so none of you follows me to my car after the show.”

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The comics have seen public support for the war in Iraq and the Bush administration rise and fall. They’ve also seen audience reactions to the acts -- especially the more political material -- waver as well: When Bush is popular the audiences laugh less, and when he’s unpopular they laugh more. Kader and Jobrani have the most overtly political acts; Jobrani makes clear his disdain for the Bush administration, and Kader does a decent, if cruel, Bush impersonation. Obeidallah observes one core red line:

“I would never make fun of victims of terrorism. Or of soldiers,” he says.

Jobrani recalls audience reaction to his Bush jokes becoming more hesitant in the final days before the war in spring 2003.

“All of a sudden, these jokes I was getting laughs with about Bush weren’t getting laughs anymore,” he says. “Now when you go, ‘Bush is an idiot,’ the whole crowd claps.” But at times of intense patriotic fervor, it can be especially dicey for someone named Maziar or Ahmed to be standing on a stage mocking the government.

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“If it’s a Middle Eastern guy doing it, then it’s like, ‘You’re bashing our country and why don’t you go back where you came from?’ ” Jobrani says.

So out in the clubs, Kader and others defuse the tension by making fun of their mother cultures first. Kader pokes fun at the hypocrisy of his cousin in Jordan, who bitterly predicts the collapse of the American “paper tiger,” then eats at McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks.

“It kind of opens things up,” Kader says. “Then it’s OK [to get into domestic politics].”

With projects and negotiations bubbling out of both coasts, everyone involved is looking for that next step into mainstream consciousness. A decade ago, the question would have been who to package in a Margaret Cho-style wacky ethnic family sitcom. Now the model is more along the stand-up with skits model popularized by Dave Chappelle.

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“I don’t know what the show is going to be that takes this to the next level,” Jobrani says. “Now it would have to be more than just an Iranian guy and his family.”

All that’s certain, the comics say, is that if they bring in big audiences, opportunities will come. Brooks and Obeidallah have high hopes for turning “The Watch List” webisodes into a regular series showcasing a shifting roster of Middle Eastern American comedians. They envision huge buzz, heavy media attention and hopefully a little attention-getting notoriety.

“If Ann Coulter doesn’t call us traitors, I’ll consider this a failure,” Brooks says. “But this can’t be comedy affirmative action. If they’re not funny. It won’t work.”

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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