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Arab American Comedy Festival Opens

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Times Square bomb attempt will not be a focus of the jokes at this year's Arab American Comedy Festival.

But the festival's co-founder, Dean Obeidallah, says many of the comedians in the festival had the same thought about the suspect right after the incident.

"When we first heard he was white, I can tell you sincerely we were like 'Yay, he’s white! I’m so happy. Thank god. We made it. Crazy white guy!'" Obeidallah said. "And then, two days later, he’s Pakistani and we’re like, 'Oh. Not good. I’m back to being Italian again.'"

Obeidallah is, in fact, the son of a Sicilian mother and a Palestinian father. He co-founded the festival in 2003, with the comedian Maysoon Zayid. She says that the festival gives Arab Americans a platform to respond immediately when there's an incident like the failed terror attempt.

"At the comedy festival we get to come out and immediately tell jokes that distance us. Immediately get to say, 'I've got nothing to do with that,'" Zayid said. "We've got nothing to do with every maniac on the street."

The festival has expanded this year to include a late night "Haram" show, which will feature raunchier content than most of the acts in the festival. And, for the first time, the festival will present a night of stand-up in Arabic, with comics from the Middle East and the U.S.

Obeidallah just got back from touring in the Middle East, where, he said, the scene for stand-up comedy is growing.

"They've learned the American tradition of stand-up comedy from watching clips on YouTube," Obeidallah says. "They love Chris Rock. They love Jeff Dunham, with the puppet "Ahmed the dead terrorist," they love that! They're not offended at all."

The festival has brought Arab and Arab-American comedians out of the woodwork, Zayid and Obeidallah say, and this year, for the first time, they had to turn away applicants for their sketch-comedy nights. The festival has also become a clearinghouse for casting directors seeking to fill roles in movies and television.

Obeidallah says that the festival has changed a lot since it kicked off seven years ago. "We're much more confident. We can celebrate our heritage unapologetically now. Even though there maybe things that go on like Times Square, we're still going to celebrate who we are." Obeidallah says. "We're comfortable that we're American and we can show the full range of our heritage, not just in English, but in Arabic as well."

The festival runs at 3LD Art and Technology Center through Saturday night.

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