What’s funny about the Middle East?
It sounds like the setup for a comic sketch: two Middle Eastern American guys launch a comedy festival to dispel those cabdriver-terrorist stereotypes and show Hollywood that “Prince of Persia” star Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t the only one who can play a likable Arab.
But festival co-founders Ronnie Khalil and Ryan Shrime not only launched the Middle Eastern Comedy Festival last week with four sold-out nights of stand-up and sketch comedy at the Laugh Factory and Acme Comedy Theatre, they also populated the audiences with casting agents and TV executives and persuaded the Disney/ABC Television Group to co-sponsor, with KPCC-FM (89.3) and USC’s Middle East studies program.
“Our whole point is to show that Middle Easterners can be marketable,” said Shrime, a Lebanese American actor. “What we do is just as enticing to the mainstream American media as it is to the specific pockets of culture within the United States.”
The festival kicked off Tuesday night with a half-dozen comedians from Egypt to Afghanistan lampooning things such as Islamic doctrine and circumcision. Israel’s lone spokesman was Yisrael Campbell, an Orthodox Jewish comedian from Philadelphia and a former Catholic whose ex-wife is Egyptian; he’s now living in Jerusalem and will have his off-Broadway debut in November. But that’s another story.
Syrian-Lebanese American Jann Karam joked that she didn’t correct casting agents who mistook her for Jewish because she felt she would would get more work that way. Comic Aron Kader, whose father is Palestinian and mother is a Utah Mormon, was more overtly political -- and politically incorrect -- in his comedy, joking pointedly about Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu endorsing Palestine’s statehood last summer. “Now we’re people to them,” he said. “It only took ‘em 60 years.” Khalil, raised Muslim, told the crowd, “I drink alcohol. I eat bacon. I have premarital sex. So really I’m a good Christian.” Campbell took the stage in his calf-length wool coat, full beard and fedora and asked, “Is it warm in here or is it that I’m the only one dressed for Poland in the 19th century?”
The festival comes on the heels of a comic counterprogramming trend that emerged after Sept. 11, when anti-Muslim sentiment was widespread. It follows the New York Arab American Comedy Festival, launched around the time U.S. troops were setting up camp in Baghdad, and the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which began just months after the London Underground terrorist attacks.
“We have to take an active role in creating more programming and getting more writers on staff to show the culture and maybe point out misinformation,” said Khalil, an Egyptian American comic who routinely tours the Middle East. “The truth is, it’s unrealistic to think that someone who grew up in America, without Middle Eastern influence, would get the characters right.”
Indeed, most American film and TV writers don’t have much use for Middle Eastern characters unless they’re plotting societal meltdown, kidnapping ingenues or aiding a heroic Westerner. Shrime and Khalil, like so many of their peers, have grown accustomed to auditioning for terrorist roles. They know plenty of Middle Eastern performers who keep their ethnicity secret. But Shrime and Khalil have kept an open mind, even after viewing the 2006 documentary “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” last year.
“We thought it’s not very accurate anymore,” said Khalil. “Things have gotten considerably better. Then we went to see [Liam Neeson’s action film] ‘Taken’ the next day. And there was a fat sheik with a scimitar chasing virgins. And we said, ‘OK, I do think we need to start this festival.’ ”
So they started soliciting agents and pitching media. One agent suggested his Indian client, saying, “My client’s not Middle Eastern, but he gets called in for terrorist roles.” A representative of a local TV station looked at their news release and told them, “We can’t touch it. It’s too political.”
“When you put ‘Middle Eastern’ along with ‘Hollywood,’ ” said Khalil, “people are like, ‘What are they doing?’ ”