NYC comedy fest spotlights Muslim comedians

August 1, 2015 at 12:49 PM EDT
At a recent comedy festival in New York City, the big joke was Islam -- that is, being a muslim in America. Organizers say the three-night "Muslim Funny Fest," highlighting stand-up by Muslim comics, was the first of its kind. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.

ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH: Hey Muslims, make some noise!

RAMY YOUSSEF: Let me hear the Muslims!

ALI AL SAYED: Just In case the word ‘Muslim’ didn’t tip anybody off, I said, let me dress like this.

MEGAN THOMPSON: At Manhattan’s “comic strip,” the goal was to showcase Muslim talent. There were jokes about how Muslims are perceived…to counter how Islam is often portrayed in the news…

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: After a while, you keep hearing the word ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ together, you’re going to assume they’re connected.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Festival organizers Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid have spent their careers challenging stereotypes.

MAYSOON ZAYID: Don’t you watch 24? Everything was fake except for the mother killing the infidel. Totally true.

MEGAN THOMPSON: As professional comics, Zayid and Obeidallah started an Arab comedy festival after the September 11th attacks. Fourteen years later, they feel the constant bad news about terrorism has made things worse. And then, there’s the Islamic State – or ISIS.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Look at ISIS. First of all, they’re horrific. Second of all, they’re idiots.

I had someone say to me, I’m not kidding, ‘So, Dean, what do you think of beheadings?’ What do you think I’m going to think? ‘Oh, it was a phase when I was young. I used to do it all the time…. Left and right beheadings, it was crazy.’ You don’t go up to white people and ask them about the worst things that white people do like, ‘Hey, what’s up with mortgage fraud?‘

MEGAN THOMPSON: There were plenty of jokes about their own religion – from the holiday of Ramadan to being “haram” which means “sinful.”

MAYSOON ZAYID: I was allowed to celebrate Halloween, but my costume had to be adjusted, so that it wouldn’t be haram. Halloween’s only haram if you look haram. So, I had like a flapper costume with a turtleneck and leggings.

RAMY YOUSSEF: How was your Ramadan? Did you fast? Yeah, you did? Did you skip a day? You skipped a week? Oh yeah! Girls can! That’s the only time in Muslim culture that I wished I was a woman.

MAYSOON ZAYID: We thought what better way to show the world what the majority of Muslims really are like, instead of the extremists that we are exposed to on a daily basis on mainstream media.

ZAHRA NOORBAKHSH: I get so saturated sometimes just hearing, Muslim, Muslim, Muslim, Muslim, Muslim, Muslim on television. I feel like Persians figured it out. During the Iranian hostage crisis, people were like, ‘Are you Iranian? And they were like, ‘Oh no, I’m Persian.’ I don’t know what that is. That sounds very bad.

MEGAN THOMPSON: These Muslim comics make plenty of jokes about stereotypes.

GIBRAN SALEEM: There’s a lot of times when I meet people and I say my name, and I feel like they only hear what they’re already expecting. ‘Cause I’ll meet someone, and I’m like, ‘Hi, my name is Gibran.’ And they’re like, ‘Nice to meet you, Mohammad.’ And I’m like, that’s amazing. How did they get my middle name?

ALI AL SAYED: You know how the African-American community had a negative word, like, the N-word. Like, don’t even say the N word. You know what, as Arabs and Muslims, we do have a word. We have the word ‘terrorist,’ right? What if we led by example. And took the ‘T’ word and turned it into something? This goes out to all my terrorists out there.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: If everybody had a Muslim friend, we wouldn’t have to do this. There’s no other way. I want to do an adopt-a-Muslim program, but nobody really wants that right now.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Obeidallah and Zayid say they’ve received taunts and threats, mostly online. But they’re not backing down.

DEAN OBEIDALLAH: When you make people laugh, and you make fun of yourself, in a way, you’re becoming likable. You’re becoming a human, three-dimensional character to them.

MAYSOON ZAYID (ON STAGE): I was 33, I was in my Jesus year, and I needed to catch a husband.

MAYSOON ZAYID: I say often my mic is my sword. Comedy is all about making people relate, and if you can make someone relate to you, they’re less likely to hate you. And as we do these jokes and they see how much of a common ground we have with them, I think that that helps to dissipate the hate that comes from not knowing.

RAMY YOUSSEF: Attention. Were you Muslim between 2001 and 2025? If so, we may owe you a huge cash settlement. (Laughter)