Funny People: Bridging Gaps Through Comedy
They say when one door closes, another one opens. This adage applies in the post-9/11 world, which has opened up ways for Muslims to reach out to other Americans using a common language — laughter. Carla Ardian and Sofea Famian bring us the punchline.
Allah Made Me Funny
‘The moment I have to get on a plane, people are in shock. They look at me and go, “Oh my God, I’m gonna die!”’
— Azhar Usman (who is 188cm tall and sports a dense, black beard and long, wavy hair)
‘If I was a crazy Muslim fundamentalist terrorist, about to hijack a plane, this —’ Azhar points to himself, ‘Is not the kind of disguise that I would go with.’ Such is the brand of humour that has created the trio of Allah Made Me Funny (AMMF), a hit comic act since 2004. Their game plan? Break down stereotypes and have a laugh doing it.
Co-founder Preacher Moss has been a comedian since 1992. But post-9/11, when the heat was on the Muslim community in the US, he felt a stronger need to counter the negative attitudes about American Muslims. Laughter is indeed the best medicine, and thus AMMF was born. Moss and Azhar were later joined by Mohamed ‘Mo’ Amer, who was flying solo when he was asked to join AMMF. ‘Who?’ was his response.
Their followers range from practising Muslims to those who follow no faith, as well as those who are anti-faith. People turn up at their shows often because ‘they are just curious’. And AMMF should know, having entertained American troops in Iraq. They touch on what it’s like being a Muslim in America. During one act, Mo has this to say: ‘Muhammad is supposed to be one of the most popular names in the world, right? I went to Disneyland three weeks ago. Not one keychain with my name on it.’ The crowd guffaws even harder when he says that with him at that time was his cousin, whose name is Khalil.
Where to Watch: www.allahmademefunny.com
‘Isn’t it funny that some people think that just because you’re wearing a hijab, that you’re oppressed? I used to work in an office environment where we had to wear shirt and tie to work. That was oppression. And when you’re working in a crowded office with a broken AC and a bunch of sweaty people? That was big time oppression.’
— That’s Not Hijab by Ummah Films
The toothy-grinned Ali Ardekani, or Baba Ali as he is better known, started to post videoblogs on YouTube under his ummahfilms channel about four years ago. His material is straightforward, with no fancy settings and employing only simple graphics. But Ali makes an impact with the topics he chooses — everything and anything Islamic delivered with a healthy dose of humour and simple production tricks such as switching the camera angle often, distorting the sound tuner and playing multiple roles in the same skit. His wide range of facial expressions is appears almost schizophrenic, with Ali one moment bearing a deadpan look and the next, grinning wildly, biting his nails or screaming non-stop.
The Iranian-American comedian relates, using comic examples and illustrating with clear explanations, common Islamic misconceptions. In That’s Not Hijab, a woman wearing a hijab self-righteously feels superior to her non-hijabi Muslim sisters simply because she wears the headscarf. In Distractions During Salat, he tackles religious faux pas such as praying loudly and having garlic breath during communal salats.
Where to Watch: Ummah Films on YouTube
‘I am a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey. If you don’t feel better about yourself, maybe you f****** should.’
Born in New Jersey in the 70s, Maysoon Zayid is the first female American comedian to perform stand-up in Palestine and Jordan. How did Maysoon’s career path unfold? Armed with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Arizona State University, she started out by acting and has appeared in television programmes such as Law & Order, among others. Finding that her ‘disability and ethnicity’ restricted her acting career, Maysoon then turned to stand-up.
Some people say that she may not have much to laugh about, but we beg to differ. Her acute sense of humour and the complete lack of any self-pity make Maysoon a comedic force to be reckoned with. When she’s not poking fun at herself being a Muslim, Palestinian, a virgin (‘Yes, by choice — my father’s choice’), disabled or single in her 30s, Maysoon is very vocal about the crimes against humanity in Palestine and Israel.
Maysoon also helps disabled and wounded refugee children and orphans in Palestine through Maysoon’s Kids, a charity that is 80 percent funded by her comedy work.
Where to Watch: Maysoon Zayid on YouTube
‘In case of emergency, please take a moment to look around and locate the Muslims nearest you.’
Tissa is an Iranian-American Muslim and she only wears a hijab when she performs. Why? Because she wants to show that she is a Muslim and that ‘just because you’re a Muslim woman doesn’t mean you are voiceless. It doesn’t mean that you are oppressed. It doesn’t mean that you can’t speak for yourself. I wanted to give people something they didn’t expect. I wanted to go up and fight back and speak out and be funny… I wanted to provide an alternative to the hijacker, the suicide bomber.’
Tissa is Ivy League–educated, and she used to be an investment banker until one year after 9/11, when she exchanged her power suit for a headscarf prop. She wished for nothing more than to break down the stereotypes about Muslim women and to change the way Americans think about Middle Easterners. One of her jokes is about the mosques in which women pray behind men. For Americans this is a sign of oppression, but Tissa quips, ‘Really, we just like the view — we’re praying for a piece of that.’
Tissa’s acts also involve provocative topics such as stoning and hostage taking. She sees herself not just as a comedian, but also an activist who makes people think as well as laugh. On what her name means, she says that it’s an ancient Persian word that means ‘we’re so disappointed it’s not a boy.’
Where to Watch: Tissa Hami on YouTube