An Interview with Dean Obeidallah and His New Comedy Tour
Published on August 25, 2011
With the current intensity of our world's political divisions, particularly with the anniversary of 9/11, the Islam meets West-type concerns, a group of comedians, led by Dean Obeidallah have traveled far and wide to dispel misconceptions, mend ties, and create a bridge of understanding. A bridge many dignitaries have tried for, and struggled with. Where a midwestern Christian American can find a better understanding/appreciation of Islam and the middle east, and vice versa.
But instead of using ties, pens and fancy UN security SUVs, or whatever fancy things United Nations folks use, they're using laughter. Where's the comedy lounge at the UN headquarters anyway?
While we may not always laugh at the same things (I seriously want to punch anyone that found "Meet The Fockers" remotely entertaining), this group of Arab and Muslim comedians seek to find the commonality in all of us - that ultimately we're not as different as many politicians and pundits would like for us to believe.
I get a chance to catch up with Dean Obeidallah, comedian, political satirist, and ultimately an ambassador of sorts.
SKY: Dean, thanks for your time. So what inspired "The Muslims Are Coming" tour?
You've previously toured the Middle East, and also were a part of the "The Watch List" show on comedy central featuring Middle-Eastern comedians.
DEAN: The Muslims Are Coming Tour came out of our concern that polls showed that anti-Muslim sentiment in the US was growing. There was the infamous and ugly mosque controversy in NYC and various other States which we found alarming. Our fear is that discrimination against Muslims will be accepted by mainstream America and we felt a need to do what we could to reach out to non-Muslims in the US and answer their questions about Islam to counter this.
SKY: What makes a Midwesterner laugh, versus a Middle Easterner? Any examples?
DEAN: Actually about 80% of my act works in both places. The jokes that don't work in either place are due to points of reference and familiarity with the subject matter of the jokes. For example, a joke about traffic in Egypt won't work in Tennessee while a joke about The Waffle House wont work in Jordan.
SKY: So your new tour is "The Muslims Are Coming!" Are your audiences generally knowledgeable about Islam, or do they learn a lot during the shows?
DEAN: The shows in this tour are all free of charge because we want to reach as many non-Muslims as possible. I get a sense most people attending have some general understanding of Islam. We hold a Q and A at the end of each show and answer more detailed questions as well.
SKY: Are you particularly religious yourself? What is your interpretation of your faith?
DEAN: I dont think there is an objective definition of being very religious. My faith is very important to me as is my relationship with God. I think each person's sense of faith or religion is between them and God. The only reason we are making religion a focus of this tour is because of the need to address misconceptions about Islam.
SKY: What's the worst heckle you've dealt with on the road talking about these types of issues? I assume things can get more heated than a guy doing jokes about crowded subways.
DEAN: Surprisingly, we didn't face angry hecklers or protesters at our shows in the South. In fact, Im happy to report it went well and the audiences were very responsive. Of course, I doubt people who truly hated Muslims passionately would attend our show even though it was free. But we approached everyone as "American to American" just of different faiths and I believe that made it easier to connect with people.
SKY: Do you see yourself staying in stand-up, or taking your career into a more political direction? I notice you're on TV a lot talking about Muslim-American issues as a commentator.
DEAN: I try to raise the same topics I write about in my stand up act. I enjoy writing jokes about topics I feel strongly about. I hope I can do both as much as possible. My writing though isnt just about Muslims or being Arab - it spans the gambit addressing everything from politics to social media to The Royal Wedding.
SKY: How do you feel about controversies like Park51, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque?" In your view do people need to lighten up on this one, or would it be better for the center to try and relocate, as some would argue it is a lightning rod for people trying to demonize Islam and those that practice the religion.
DEAN: My view is that all religions should be treated fairly in the US. The same standards need to apply to all, not a different one for Muslims. Unfortunately, the "Ground Zero Mosque" which is neither at Ground Zero or a Mosque- its a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero-escalated anti-Muslim sentiment. The lesson learned is that we need non-Muslim allies to stand with us and the burden is on us to reach out and build those alliances.
SKY: What kind of comedy did you do before 9/11? How has your comedy evolved over the years, and where do you see it going? What is the most rewarding part about doing stand-up?
DEAN: Pre-9/11 I didnt tell my jokes about being Arab or Muslim - it wasnt a big part of my act. In the years that followed 9/11 my act evolved and I began speaking about those issues much more in the hope it could help counter misconceptions and the ugly attacks I would hear in the media. I view myself primarily as a political comic who raises social and political issues - I would anticipate it will continue along that route. The most rewarding part of comedy for me is being able to write jokes about topics that I feel passionately about as well as traveling across the US and Middle East for shows and meeting new people. It is much more fun than sitting in an office every day.
SKY: Thanks so much, best of luck out there!