Comedy with social commentary
“Immigrants work hard. Last year at this very time, we had Hurricane Sandy going on. In my neighborhood in New York, every American restaurant closed. What was open? Chinese restaurants. How do I know that? I look out my window, and the Chinese delivery guy I know is on his bike, delivering food because somebody ordered delivery during a hurricane. Ok, I ordered delivery. Because I knew he’d be there, and there he was!”
Dean Obeidallah, a New Jersey-born comedian of Palestinian-Italian descent, uses comedy shows, interviews, and online writings to deliver political and social commentary. He has appeared on Comedy Central’s “Axis of Evil” tour, ABC’s “The View,” and various other TV shows. He has written for CNN, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast. Along with Jewish comedian Scott Blakeman, he started the “Standup for Peace” tour. The two describe themselves as “the two-comedian solution to peace in the Middle East.” He also co-directed the recently released comedy documentary “The Muslims Are Coming!” which features a group of Muslim-American comedians touring the country performing standup and interventions to combat religious bigotry, including interviews with comedy and TV icons including Jon Stewart, David Cross, Rachel Maddow, and Russell Simmons.
While Dean is now a successful comedian and political commentator, he hasn’t always been in the business of comedy — he started out as a lawyer planning to enter politics. After unhappily practicing law for several years, he was encouraged by his colleagues to compete in the funniest lawyer competition held by the New Jersey Bar Association. He tested out comedy by performing at night and eventually quit his job to do legal-related work for NBC, which he describes as akin to going to comedy grad school.
The worst advice he’s ever been given is: “Stay a lawyer. Keep doing the career you hate and that you regret waking up every day to go do.” However, he does grant his law degree some credit in his new career as a political commentator, saying, “A law degree is great for anyone if you have the money to waste on it. It’s good to know your rights.”
When Dean first began as a part-time performer, his comedy material was not politically inclined. His focus shifted after 9/11 to help dispel the new wave of fear and hate directed at Arabs and Muslims. Regarding these negative views, Dean comments, “There are bad people; I get it. Overwhelming they’re all good, but the teeny exceptions are what define us, and that’s the challenge. For every minority group in America, I think the challenge is to fight against that, that you’re being defined by the worst people.”
Dean has performed all over the U.S., Canada, and the Middle East, and his jokes reflect his international experiences.
“The Lebanese are very resilient people. This is how I got directions walking around. I’m not kidding. I asked this guy, ‘Where is this place?’ He goes, ‘Ok, it’s easy, come here my friend. Go down three blocks, you see a big building with bullet holes; you make a left. You keep walking, and you see a big hole due to a car bomb. Not the first one, the second one. You make a right. You keep walking. If you hear explosions, you’ve gone too far. You come back, you see guys near the barbed wire, don’t look them in the eye. Keep walking, keep walking, and there’s Pizza Hut.’”
“I like Dubai very much … the construction five years ago was insane. I was on a street corner, and this guy goes, ‘Uh, sir, you have to move.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ and he says, ‘We’re building an office building here. It’s going to be beautiful. It’s oceanfront.’ I’m like, ‘There’s no ocean,’ and he says, ‘Come back next week.’”
As for the future, one of Dean’s goals is to get more involved in the media and to inspire more Muslims to do the same. He believes involvement in the media and the arts is crucial to ensure that news reports about terrorists and conflict in the Middle East aren’t people’s only exposure to Muslims. Dean says, “It’s important for the voice of Muslims to be heard. The more it becomes commonplace, the more it will be normal to people, not something to be hated and feared.”
While many of his performances at colleges, such as his show last Saturday at MIT, are hosted by Muslim student associations, his audience base is very broad. His documentary tour through the deep South and West attracted many audiences with zero Muslims, with the aim of meeting as many people as possible and eliminating misconceptions about Muslims. After all, why do people fear other people and things they don’t know? Ignorance. Laughter, on the other hand, is a universal experience that brings people together.