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An axis of laughter

Pegged as terrorists, cabbies or 'the Arab Guy,' these rising comics just have to smile.

March 25, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

"I can always tell who the air marshal is on a flight," jokes Ahmed Ahmed. "He's the one holding a People magazine upside down and looking straight at me."

Aron Kader, whose father is Palestinian and mother is Mormon, recalls being asked to go on a Mormon proselytizing mission.

"I told him, 'Look, to an Arab, a mission is a whole different deal. Generally we don't come back from those.' "

Fellow comic Maz Jobrani imitates Iranians in America trying desperately to distance themselves from their home government's hostility to America.

"I am not Iranian," he says with a huge, harmless smile. "I am Persian, like the cat. Meow! Like the rug!"

The L.A-based threesome, who worked their way up through the local comedy ranks and have performed together since 2000, form the nucleus of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (, which debuted March 10 on Comedy Central. And with a multi-city Axis tour starting Thursday in Anaheim and Comedy Central in talks to do a TV version of "The Watch List," a series of skits and performances featuring Middle Eastern comics on, it looks to be a breakthrough moment for comics with Arab and Mideast roots.

"They're going to the next level," says Jamie Masada, founder of the Laugh Factory. "They've started blooming."

Both bedeviled and inspired by life in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the comedians mine their experiences for laughs. Along the way, they say, they hope to subversively cut through ethnic stereotypes that have labeled them violent, fanatical and, ironically, humorless.

"I think comedy can change things. I think Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce showed you can raise issues and make people think. Jon Stewart does it every night," says Dean Obeidallah, a cofounder of the annual New York City-based Arab-American Comedy Festival and a creator of "The Watch List." "It's still just pebbles in a bucket of negative press about the Middle East."

The comics see themselves following the lead of black, Latino, gay and Jewish comedians who've helped kick down cultural doors.

"It's our turn to do that for our community," says Jobrani, who was born in Tehran and raised in Northern California's Marin County and who has a co-starring role in the ABC sitcom "The Knights of Prosperity."

"I really feel the momentum. This is going to have a ripple effect for all of us," says Maysoon Zayid, another standout performer and cofounder, with Obeidallah, of the New York festival. "Now the next step is for Arab comedy to no longer be a novelty, for Arabs to be cast in average-Joe roles -- the romantic lead, the best friend, the weird neighbor -- and have their ethnicity not be a factor at all."

A helping hand

IF the coming years do produce a breakout Middle Eastern star, much of the credit may end up going to a tiny Jewish woman who's already a comedy legend. Comedy Store founder Mitzi Shore first conceived an all-Middle Eastern comedy show in 2000. Jobrani was already performing at the nightclub, and Shore brought in up-and-comers Ahmed and Kader with an eye toward teaming them under the banner "Arabian Nights." Shore, who is in poor health, declined a request for an interview, but Kader, Ahmed and Jobrani speak of her as a visionary who saw conflict coming well before 9/11 and sought to preemptively fight it with comedy.

"In 2000, she told me, 'There's going to be a war between America and the Middle East, and it's going to be soon, and your people are going to be so misrepresented,' " says Ahmed, whose parents moved from Egypt to Riverside when he was a child.

Ahmed, 36, also tells of the first time he met Shore backstage at the Comedy Store, a meeting that helped set the tone for the no-holds-barred approach that Shore fostered in her proteges.

"So you're Egyptian, eh?" she asked.

"Um, yeah."

"You know, we used to be your slaves," she quipped.

The "Arabian Nights" grew into a series of successful shows in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Eventually, the trio adopted the name "Axis of Evil," partly to reflect that Jobrani, an Iranian, isn't ethnically Arab.

A parallel cadre of performers, led by Obeidallah and Zayid, was emerging from the New York clubs, and the groups began appearing in each other's performances and projects.

Working their way up the comedy and acting ladders, many of the comics, particularly the swarthier ones such as Jobrani and Ahmed, have endured a succession of "ethnic" roles -- from cab driver to grocery store owner to the inevitable terrorist. But the pigeonholes get old, and the men talk excitedly about the acting gigs they've had in which their ethnicity was incidental.

Jobrani's character, Mo -- for Mohammed -- in the movie "The Interpreter" speaks without an accent, and his ethnic background is scarcely mentioned. Ahmed appeared in several episodes of "Punk'd" playing a variety of roles, including a fire inspector who bars Halle Berry from her own movie premiere.

"It was the first time in 10 years where I wasn't playing 'the Arab Guy,' " Ahmed says.

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