By Molly McGuiness
Comedy has always had the unique ability to cut to the core of a cultural divide and lay it bare for a laugh.
Comedians like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin long ago solidified the standup stage as an unlikely venue for confronting social issues and challenging public perception.
Now the co-founders of the Muslim Funny Fest, Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid, want to use it to change the conversation about Muslims in America. They sat down with Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric at the Comic Strip Live comedy club in New York City.
“I really feel like it’s a great equalizer,” says Zayid. “Because if you can get people laughing, they stop thinking of you as an ‘other.’ And I think that’s where the power in comedy is. It’s to take things that otherwise make people uncomfortable and instead make them laugh.”
The three-day event, held in New York City from July 21 through 23, is billed as the first Muslim comedy festival in the U.S. and features top Muslim comedians from around the world, including Obeidallah and Zayid.
Obeidallah, once a practicing lawyer, came to comedy 15 years ago after a job in rights and clearances at “Saturday Night Live” offered him a first-hand education. “It was really like comedy graduate school. I really learned about comedy there for eight years, watching sketches be written, watching the read-through, watching sketches get mounted, watching the audience laugh and not laugh at dress rehearsal. And seeing what works and what doesn’t,” says Obeidallah, who’s now host of “The Dean Obeidallah Show” on SiriusXM radio and writes a column for The Daily Beast.
Zayid went to school to study acting, but soon found her funny side as a standup comic. She’s performed throughout the U.S. and the Middle East over the past two decades. But many might know her from her hugely successful TED talk, “I got 99 problems … palsy is just one,” which has been viewed by more than 7 million people.
Obeidallah and Zayid first teamed up in 2003, to start the Arab-American Comedy Festival. They’ll hold their 12th this fall. “The Arab-American Comedy Festival was showing people that Arabs weren’t a monolith,” says Zayid. “Because people thought Arab and Muslim were synonymous. And now, a decade later, the problem is that Muslims — everyone thinks that they’re a monolith.”
The two hope the festival will bridge that gap and help correct some of the misconceptions about Muslims in this country.
“With comedy, you can reach people who will never go to a lecture on Muslims,” says Obeidallah. “They would never read a book on Muslims. But they’ll come to a comedy show. And while they’re there, they’re gonna laugh. And you hope maybe they learn something while they’re laughing. It’s sort of like this subtle stealth type of mission of using comedy to inform people.”
It’s one step toward better understanding. Another important step? “I think we need a Muslim “Bachelor” or “Bachelorette.” I think that’s what would be the great equalizer, and that would change everything,” jokes Zayid.