Give it up for the 'Axis of Evil Tour'
Ahmed Ahmed travels a lot. Just the other day, says the heavily bearded Egyptian, he was at the airport. An older couple waiting for a flight came over and asked him where he was headed.Skip to next paragraph
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"I told them, 'I have a one-way ticket to Paradise,' " he says. Pause for laughter.
Yup, he says, airports are tough for him right now. They are for everyone, he adds. Nobody likes having to get there an extra hour early or being delayed by all the extra security. But just to make sure, he says, "I get there a month and a half early."
The Cairo-born actor/comedian is onstage in Hollywood, part of a recent evening put on by Twentieth Century Fox television to showcase Middle Eastern comics. As Shaun Majumder, the emcee, explains, "We've got people from hot spots all over the world. "This is the 'Axis of Evil Tour,' " he says with what could only be described as a challenging glint in his eye.
The five comics who share the stage tonight share that look. It is as if to say, "I dare you not to laugh," even at something that touches a pretty tender nerve for just about everyone right now, given code orange alerts and impending war.
All five comedians were working professionals before the events of Sept. 11, but discovered that after the attacks, they had no choice but to tackle the issue of their national origin head-on. To avoid the issue would be emotionally dishonest.
"I'm from Iran," says Maz Jobrani, "where we don't take American Express, but we take Americans." He tips his imaginary hat for a drum roll, to let the audience in on what he knows - this is a corny joke that plays to deeply held stereotypes in the American psyche.
Just like race-conscious comedians such as Richard Pryor, who in the 1970s used comedy as an offense and a defense, Jobrani is happy if the audience laughs, but he also wants them to think.
"Comedy is about getting people to laugh at the things that scare them most," he says. If he and his fellow comedians can make people take a step back from their terror, they can not only relieve their own angst, but help tone the whole country down a notch. You have to be unafraid to joke about anything, he says, even a popular president contemplating war. "I don't want to go to war with Iraq," he says onstage, "because Iran sounds a lot like Iraq, and if there's one president who can mess that up, it's President Bush. He's not too good with the alphabet."
Perhaps remarkably to those who feel some things just aren't funny, the comedians all say they've had great responses to their routines. Ahmed was in New York after the attacks and says he felt audiences were grateful for the release. "They loved it, because they all wanted to laugh," he says.
Since the attacks, Ahmed himself has become a bit of a poster child for the entire concept of comedy based on events in the Middle East. He's been profiled in major newspapers and magazines, and he toured the country doing standup with a rabbi, just about as in-your-face as you can get, he says with a laugh. Yet, with rare exceptions, audiences have been enthusiastic and supportive.
"Bob Hope once said, 'As long as there's war, there will be comedy,' " says Ahmed. "You need it to humanize people all over the world."