This Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the Broadway and Gotham Comedy Clubs will host the 11th annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. One of the creators of the festival, Dean Obeidallah, is using the stage to try to do a lot more than simply make people laugh. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.
Comedian Dean Obeidallah is accustomed to all sorts of audiences.
"The one in the Middle East, I didn't know how many people spoke English, so I'm like, 'Well, if they don't laugh, they don't understand the language. It's not my fault,'" he says.
"I've had people say, 'You're Arab. You know, I love Indian food.' We're not the same at all," he says in his standup.
Obeidallah is a standup comic, performing at clubs all over New York, the country and around the world. He is an interesting ethnic mix, a north Jersey guy, part-Italian, part-Palestinian.
He's perhaps best known as the co-founder of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, created two years after the September 11th attacks.
"We were getting a lot of press coverage just doing these one-off standup comedy shows, so we said, 'Why don't we do a festival? Maybe we'll get more press so we can, one, showcase the comics, but more importantly, frankly, show people that Arabs could be funny and they're not just people on TV looking scary," he says.
The September 11th attacks changed the arc of Obeidallah's career.
"It's the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It's also the 10th anniversary of me being Arab. Because I used to be white. I was white before 9/11," he says in one of his shows.
"The first time I went on stage, about three or four days after 9/11, at another comedy club, the club manager said, 'You know, don't talk about being Arab on stage. I don't think it’s a good idea,'" Obeidallah says. "And he meant it as a friend. He didn't mean it to censor me, he goes. And in fact, he got so in my head that the first time I went on stage, the first few times after 9/11, I didn't use Obeidallah. I was worried, so I used Joseph, Dean Joseph."
Eventually, the media started calling, asking Obeidallah and other Muslim- and Arab-American comedians to appear on television for interviews and panels.
"Why would you want us? We're comedians. Why wouldn't you want, like, people who are academics? They go, 'No. We want comics.' All of a sudden, the media started to look at us in an odd sort of way, like we were ambassadors," Obeidallah says.
"For us in the beginning, I think we weren't sure what to make of it. There was a point, I think, where we said, 'We have an opportunity to talk about who we are that's not being shown on mainstream media.'"
"There were literally like five Arab-American comics in the country at the time, and I thought we had an opportunity to do something different, to talk about it, to use humor as a way to break down stereotypes, just like other comics, like Richard Pryor, has done, and Lenny Bruce, not about race, but about very complex issues."
Obeidallah took the opportunity and ran with it. He's become a public figure and writes columns for The Daily Beast and CNN.com
In 2012, he starred in, directed and produced the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming" about Muslim comedians performing and conducting interfaith and intercultural outreach around the country.
In 2008, Obeidallah was executive director of the Amman Standup Comedy Festival in Jordan, at the request of the King of Jordan.
"The king asks you to do a comedy festival, you tend to say yes," he says. "You want to get out of that country."
Obeidallah says audiences in the Middle East laugh more than other audiences and are appreciative because they haven't been exposed to a whole lot of standup comedy.
"We're the first comics, when we were doing this, 2007, 2008 and onwards, that were literally making fun of their culture through words, through standup, and they did not resist it," he says. "In fact, now, when I go do a show in the Middle East, if I don't make fun of Arab culture, they're disappointed. They want you to talk about them."
For the past 10 years, Obeidallah and one of his standup colleagues, Scott Blakeman, who's Jewish, have teamed up for a two-man tour called Standup for Peace.
"We've brought peace, obviously, to the Middle East," Obeidallah says. "It turned out really well, as you can tell."
They perform for Arab, Muslim and Jewish students together on college campuses.
"In many occasions, in colleges, they have great interfaith workings. Other colleges we've went to, they're not getting along at all, and our comedy show is the first project they've worked on together, so we're really proud when that happens," he says.
There is, of course, another part to Dean Obeidallah's ancestry.
Mishkin: I'm curious if your mom is ever like, "Hey, man, you're Italian too, you know?"
Obeidallah: My mom literally, every week, I go back to Jersey and I have breakfast with her or lunch, weekly, says, 'Don't forget you're Italian." I go, "I'm very proud to be Italian."
"The good thing was, Obeidallah sounded Italian, and everyone was Italian in New Jersey, in Lodi, so they just thought I was Italian, and instantly, Dean became Deano. So I became Deano Badallia, as opposed to Dean Obeidallah, and then they'd spell it out and say, 'Why is there an H at the end and not a vowel?' I go, 'Don't worry. It's a silent H,'" Obeidallah says.
"I literally did bring my father to school for show and tell because they didn't know anything about Arabs, and that was a great experience."
Obeidallah went to Fordham and Fordham Law School, and became a lawyer. One night, he got up at a funniest lawyer competition at a club in New Jersey.
"I remember reading about the mafia, and, like, Sammy the Bull being, like, a 48-year-old associate. I'm like, '48-year-old associate? How long does it take to make partner in that firm?' And all the lawyers loved it," he says. "You know, regular people wouldn't laugh, but it was all lawyers, so that was like, 'Oh my God, you're a genius.'"
He left the legal profession and its secure paycheck for a $10-an-hour job as a page at NBC. His family's response?
"I already had a law degree, so they felt like, 'Well, you could always go back to it,'" Obeidallah says. "They always thought it was a phase. They still think this comic thing is a phase, like, 15 years later. They think it's a phase, and I'll go back to being a lawyer."
The page gig led to a job in the video department at Saturday Night Live.
"It was like going to comedy graduate school. That was the best way of putting it," Obeidallah says.
"While working there, I got to write jokes for Weekend Update, and I had 30 or 40 jokes on in the time I worked there. They would buy them. And I was probably in a bunch of, maybe 25, 30 sketches."
This eventually led to work on a Comedy Central web series and gigs around the country, occasionally flying with other Arab- or Muslim-American comedians.
"I've seen firsthand, friends, just because of their heritage, have to stand on the side and get patted down and everything, go through everything, while I walk through. And I'm just as Arab or Muslim as they are. Just, I look like a white guy, so I get a pass," Obeidallah says.
"It's weird to be in a community where you have no control over the way you're defined," he adds. "Because people can do horrible acts and get on TV all day, and define your faith or your background, while if I'm lucky, I can get on for three minutes to say, 'These are terrorists. They have nothing to do with us.'"
Obeidallah has a rather unique vantage point on all of this, thanks to his mixed heritage.
"Part of it is the model of Italian-Americans, who, in World War II, could have been horribly, who could have suffered a fate the same as the Japanese-Americans. They didn't, because you had Frank Sinatra, you had Joe DiMaggio, famous Italian-Americans that are part of the fabric of this country," he says. "We don't have that on the other side of my family. There's no Arabs and Muslims who are the fabric of this nation, where it's sort of a counterbalance or counter-narrative to what you see."
Obeidallah lives with his girlfriend, actress Hend Ayoub, an Israeli-Arab who's been in several films and television shows.
"She was on a few TV series last year. She didn't play a terrorist, which was great. She played the wife of a terrorist. But still, it's baby steps," he says in one of his shows.
Obeidallah actually sees a bright future for Arab-and Muslim-Americans in the entertainment industry.
"I think now, you see a generation of even people below me, younger ones who are in their 20s and early 30s, who are coming up, who are of Arab heritage or are Muslim, who are hitting the ground running, and I think you probably will see more likely someone from that demographic who truly breaks through and explodes into becoming a household name," he says.