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TEDGlobal: The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour Kills

Jamil Abu-Wardeh is a comedy impressario taking on a tricky task – bringing standup comedy to the Middle East. He tells us that humor is a great way to bridge our differences – we need to take our responsibilities seriously, but not ourselves. We need to laugh at ourselves before others can laugh with us.

Abu-Wardeh was working in television in London. The best talent comes from the standup comedy circuit, where if you do well, you “kill” and do poorly, you “bomb”. No wonder George W. Bush is such a hero to standup comics.

The Axis of Evil comedy troupe involves three comedians from the Middle East. Abu-Wardeh’s goal was to bring these guys to the Middle East and help recruit and train local talent in Dubai. But the management he was working with just didn’t get it. Fortunately, “good things happen to those who procrastinate”, and two years later, a new French CEO was more receptive. And now there’s a Korean who speaks Arabic who complements the tour, Voho.

There are three things to stay away from – working blue, beliefs and “bolitics”. So what’s there left to work with? The tour was so successful that the King of Jordan came to one of the shows. Each of the shows features local talent, and that talent is getting better with each show.

Dubai is a had that can make anything happen. Twenty years ago, no one had heard of it. You can think of the Burj Khalifa as a giant middle finger to everyone who doubted the ambitions and talents of the UAE.

The tour is about the positive image of the Middle East – getting beyond bombers and billionaires, towards a more reasonable picture of the region.

To test the truthiness of coverage of the Middle East, check whether:
– the portrayals are contemporary and accurate (i.e, not Sex in the City 2)
– the people portrayed smile and laugh
– they’re portrayed actually by people from the Middle East.

For a glimpse into the tour, we meet Maz Jobrani, one of the founder members of the Axis of Evil tour, along with an Egyptian American and a Palestinian American. He’s the Iranian American of the group, and notes that Iranian Americans have a lot of inner conflict: part of him thinks he should have a nuclear program, part thinks he can’t be trusted with it.

Traveling on an Iranian passport is sort of limiting – you can go to Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. But he’s a US citizen now. The passport says “born in Iran”, though, and he says, “Oh man, I finally wanted to get around.” The problem happens mostly in the Arab countries where evidently the Arabs and Iranians don’t always get along too well.

Iranian Americans tend to suffer from certain casting problems. “The director says, ‘Can you say – ‘I kidnap you in the name of Allah’? Well, I could, but I could also say, ‘Hi, I’m your doctor.’ And he says, ‘That’s great. And then you hijack the hospital!'”

Jobrani tells us that he was in Times Square the night of the failed car bombing, and in Austin the day a man flew a plane into a federal building. “After a while, you start wondering, ‘Was I involved with this plot? I didn’t get the memo.'”

We explore the logic of claiming credit for a failed bombing – “It’s the thought that counts
– and the enthusiasm every American Muslim had that the Texas bomber turned out to be named Jack.

The goal of Jobrani’s comedy is to break stereotypes. But he admits he’s guilty too. In Dubai, he assumes that Indians are all laborers. Waiting for the driver to pick him up at a hotel, he asks a badly dressed Indian guy if he’s the driver. “No, I’m the owner of the hotel.” So he asked why the man was staring at him. “I thought you were my driver.”

Until we’ve got a Middle Eastern James Bond – Jamal Bond – he promises to keep telling jokes and keeping us laughing.

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