Sunday, February 03, 2008

Axis of Evil spreads humor throughout region

Local comedians benefit from buzz generated by American stand-up trio's recent tour of Middle East
By Hassan Abdo and Christian Porth
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, February 02, 2008

taken from here

JOUNIEH: "It's so nice to be in Beirut, because we've been censored in all other countries," said Ahmed Ahmed in his opening gambit at the Casino du Liban in December. After that first remark, Ahmed let loose a string of expletives, his curses as humorous to the audience as they were cathartic to the performer.

Ahmed represents one-third of the popular comedy troupe Axis of Evil, which wrapped up the last leg of its regional tour with a five-night stint at the venue north of Beirut following performances in Amman, Cairo, Dubai and Kuwait. In the months since, the Axis of Evil gigs have had a notable knock-on effect for Lebanon's local stand-up comedy scene.

The term "axis of evil" was first coined back in 2002. In his annual "State of the Union" address, US President George W. Bush asserted to Congress and the American people that Iran, Iraq and North Korea represented an "axis of evil" that was threatening to undermine world peace.

"It's taking a term we felt was silly and we're twisting it on its head," said another member of the comedy troupe, Maz Jobrani, who is of Iranian ancestry.

Axis of Evil is composed of Ahmed, Jobrani and Aron Kader - all Americans of Middle Eastern decent. For their five-night engagement at Casino du Liban, they were joined onstage by Won Ho Chung, who is of South Korean and Filipino ancestry and speaks fluent Arabic, and by Lebanon's own Nimr Abu Nassar.

It is said that laughter is the best medicine, and in times of political crisis, when the situation in the country leaves people with little to laugh about, a good dose of stand-up comedy may be just what the doctor ordered. The Axis of Evil comedy tour that swept through Lebanon in December drew in crowds by the thousands. The trio of stand-up comedians performed before a sold-out crowd each and every night.

According to Tarek Sikias of the Lebanese production company 2U2C, which produced the Axis of Evil appearance, the show was a huge success and sold over 5,000 tickets for five nights. The comedy routine had originally been scheduled for three nights only, but the organizers added two additional performances to meet the demand for tickets.

The Egyptian-born Ahmed, who also served as the show's host, said that in addition to the comedy tour, the group was also shooting a documentary designed for Western - specifically American - audiences. The aim of the documentary was to highlight the tour's message: "The rest of the world can laugh with us."

Although stand-up comedy existed in Lebanon before Axis of Evil took to the stage, it has benefited handsomely from the success and buzz of the December tour. Now local comedians such as Nimr Abu Nassar have no problem packing the house at local venues such as Gemmayzeh's Bar Louie to lay down jokes about everything from politics to sex.

In fact, Lebanon is arguably the only country in the Middle East that has a robust stand-up-comedy scene. According to Abu Nassar, the king of Lebanese stand-up comedy, the Axis of Evil show "gave us a lot of credibility."

"Their showing of support only helped to legitimize the demand for stand-up comedy in Lebanon," he said.

For Abu Nassar, the comedy tour gave him a personal boost. After his appearance at Casino du Liban, he sold out two shows at B018 Classique, near Sodeco Square, in an hour and followed up with a New Year's Eve performance at the Hard Rock Cafe. Now he said he had "a plethora of shows" lined up in the coming months.

The roots of what is known today as stand-up comedy stem primarily from the 1970s, when acts such as Steve Martin, George Carlin and Bill Cosby wowed audiences with their jokes and antics about every possible issue under the sun. New York City proved to be center stage for the comedy scene, where tiny venues like the Comedy Cellar gave local amateurs a chance to test their talent. It was in such places that Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock found their fame.

Today, Lebanon seems to be going through the same transition as local bars and pubs provide platforms for acts such as Abu Nassar's.

Regionally sponsored by the cable television network Showtime Arabia, the Axis of Evil tour also provided the pretext for a talent search across the Middle East. To this end, Showtime held open mic casting sessions throughout the tour.

Two students from the American University of Beirut (AUB), who earlier auditioned on campus for the New York-based comedy troupe, were selected by the Axis of Evil and Showtime to open one of the nights at Casino du Liban.

More than 40 students, mostly from AUB but also from other universities in Lebanon, signed up for the audition. About 20 actually turned up to perform. The two selected students, Arifi Waked, a graduate student in English literature, and Amir Haidar, a rising senior in mathematics, now have the opportunity to work with Showtime Arabia on producing original comedy routines.

Waked, who wears the hijab, said that she started doing stand-up comedy in order "to put a human face to the hijab, and invite people to lighten up the many issues that plague the Middle East."

"Showtime is very excited to be bringing the innovative Axis of Evil comedians to the Middle East for the first time," said Marc-Antoine d'Halluin, Showtime's president and CEO, at a news conference in December.

"This comedy tour, apart from entertaining," he added, "also educates its audiences by breaking down stereotypes and helping change minds."

By satirizing and critiquing all manner of stereotypes and misconceptions that dominate the discourse about the Middle East, the comedians hoped to prove that not only is there a viable market for comedy in the Middle East but also that the comprehension gap between the region and the West is bridgeable.

"It's really sad," said Jobrani. "American comedians never come to this part of the world to perform for the people of the region. They come to entertain American troops."

Although all three members of the comedic trio have roots in the Middle East, their humor is typically American, an offensive, no-holds-barred approach that is unafraid to tackle even the touchiest of subjects.

In fact, all three comedians expressed a degree of apprehension as to whether or not their style of humor would translate locally into laughs. But their worries proved unfounded as audiences roiled with laughter throughout the entire show.

Speaking about the perceived Israeli bias of the mainstream Western media, Kader, the product of a Palestinian father and a Mormon, said: "I'm tired of reading stories in the papers that say something like 'an Israeli tank was scratched by a rock.' Or 'Palestinian attacks Israeli bullets with body.'"

The performance, at least in Lebanon where greater freedoms of expression prevail, was both beautifully and poetically vulgar. "This is not church, we're not at mosque," Ahmed repeatedly reminded the crowd when some of the material touched on sensitive subjects, like religion and politics.

Admittedly, however, it does take an enlightened mind to understand the subtle argumentation in mocking ethnicity and the glorious, equalizing effect that it can provide.

Abu Nassar said unequivocally that they broke down stereotypes and did not reinforce them. "We're making fun of stereotypes we've all come to hate, but they are not true. We all know that," he added.

"To be reinforced they would also have to be justified. No one is justifying them. We are removing the mystery around these beliefs.

"Arabs know a lot about America and Americans. We see American movies, news, we read American books. We understand Americans very well. But Americans have little understanding of Arabs," Abu Nasser said.

"A few Indians got killed in the US after 9/11 because they were wearing turbans. The goal is to address American fears and show them to be unnecessary," he added.

In his final set, Jobrani concluded by issuing a stern, multi-dimensional warning: "Don't always blame Middle Easterners first," he said, "because it's not always us. I mean most of the time it is, but you know what I mean."

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