Arab American Comedy Festival founders want to make New Yorkers laugh now more than ever

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By Dan Sears

For Palestinian American comedian Maysoon Zayid, making slightly inappropriate jokes has always been the way she copes.

“The doctor who delivered me was drunk,” she said in our interview, joking about the fact that she has cerebral palsy.

“That’s a dark way to start out a comedy routine,” she said.

Zayid is a cofounder of the Arab American Comedy Festival, which will come to the Town Hall in the Theater District for its 20th year on Sunday.

She said laughter feels more important than ever in light of the Israel-Hamas war.

Zayid and Dean Obeidallah (who appeared on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show” on Friday) cofounded the festival in 2003, as a response to the 9/11 terror attacks. They wanted to show Arabs experienced many of the same issues as everyone else.

“The whole point of it was to combat the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in media,” said Zayid. “And to help Hollywood realize that we were more than just terrorists and taxi drivers.”

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Both founders expressed dismay that two decades later they still feel the need to combat hostile generalizations about their community.

“The spirit of the festival has been to try to humanize our community,” said Obeidallah. “And it’s so odd that 20 years later we’re back to that moment.”

Obeidallah, who has Italian and Palestinian heritage, said it’s especially hard to see reports of young Arab people experiencing bullying and harassment. He cited a CNN article about a recent rise in anti-Arab and Islamophobic incidents across the country.

Zayid said she’s disheartened by the “dehumanizing,” “bigoted,” and “awful” memes she’s seen posted on social media by people whom she’d considered allies.

“I expected the Trump people to tell me to go back to my own country,” she said. “I didn’t expect people I had shared a stage with in the past to be like, ‘If your godson dies too bad, so sad. But you know, an army’s gotta do what an army’s gotta do.’”

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Despite the political climate, Zayid and Obeidallah hope the festival can be a place for entertainment. They said there’s no hidden agenda to convert, lecture or shame anyone.

“It’s not going to be speeches about the Middle East,” said Obeidallah. “But through the comedy, you’re going to hear a unique point of view about where we are as a people, what we’ve been through, and what we’re going through.”

The festival will feature a lineup of Arab comedians, including Dave Merheje, who plays Ahmed on the Hulu series “Ramy;” Laura Laham, a Syrian American standup comic; and Nataly Aukar, a Lebanese comedian who’s performed on Netflix.

Before the comedians take the stage, Zayid and Obeidallah will interview “Monk” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star Tony Shalhoub, who is Lebanese American.

“It’s almost like a funny version of Nat Geo,” said Obeidallah. “You’re going to learn a lot about Arabs in about two hours and you’re going to be smarter at the end of it, but you’re going to laugh a lot because it’s funny.”

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The first show of the Arab American Comedy Festival will take place at the Town Hall on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. Tickets start at $37. For more information visit here.

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