Funny Faces: PBS Documentary on Muslim American Comedians

by Fatemeh Fakhraie

This Sunday, May 11, PBS will air a documentary at 10 pm EST entitled Stand Up: Muslim American Comics Come of Age. It explores five prominent Muslim American stand-up comedians (Ahmed Ahmed, Azhar Usman, Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, and Tissa Hami) as they perform their sets, draw inspiration from their life events, and look back at what shapes their perceptions.

September 11th was a galvanizing factor for many of the comedians, and the special starts off by contextualizing the comedy in the face of continuing backlash against Muslim and Middle Eastern/South Asian communities. The attacks inspired Dean Obeidallah to reconnect with his Arab roots, leave his career as a lawyer, and start the Arab American Comedy Festival with Maysoon Zayid. It inspired Tissa Hami to leave her Wall Street job and do comedy. It roused Azhar Usman into the realization that the hijackers didn’t just seize the planes; they seized Islam, too.

Many of these comedians do jokes about misconceptions of Islam and Middle Eastern and South Asian groups, using their humor as activism for their races and faith. In the documentary, Maysoon states that “any immigrant group that tried to make it in America, that tried to integrate, that tried to rage against discrimination…they all started out using comedy.” The racial profiling that happens regularly to Ahmed is both fuel and inspiration for his comedy; this is the same with Azhar, who sports a serious-looking beard and often wears a kufi, and would thus readily fit into most non-Muslim people’s perceptions of a Muslim fundamentalist. Maysoon and Ahmed are both actors, and while both have had some success, both have had plenty of failures based on Hollywood’s idea of what is acceptable for Arab actors. Ahmed discusses his role as “Terrorist #4” in a movie, and Maysoon is promised a recurring character on the prime-time series Jericho that never pans out.

Maysoon and Tissi speak about issues they face as Muslim women in comedy. Tissa usually performs wearing a headscarf—though she doesn’t wear one regularly—in order to challenge perceptions of veiled women. Both women know that there are those in their own communities (religious and ethnic) who don’t approve of what they do, but it doesn’t matter to them. The approval of Maysoon’s father is all she needs to keep her going.

The only real problem I had with the special is all of the shots of prayer: Azhar is shown praying twice, and the camera punctuates Tissa’s pre-show jitters with her audience praying before an iftar dinner. Why are there always so many shots of people in the middle of prayer on specials that talk about Muslims? We already know they’re Muslim; they don’t need to prove it by invading the privacy of a conversation with God.

This special illustrated the racial, religious, and gender issues that these comedians face in their professions and as Muslims and Americans. What I really enjoyed is that the special offers us different types of Muslims without placing value judgments on their varying levels of observance. We see incredibly devout Muslims (Azhar, for example) as well as cultural Muslims (Tissa or Dean). And anything that makes me laugh gets my attention—these are some pretty funny people.

And that’s exactly what they are: people. Despite the labels they discuss in PBS’ special, the documentary excels most by illustrating their person-hood rather than their Muslim-ness or American-ness: showing Ahmed getting acupuncture and telling us about how he always wanted to be a boy scout; watching Tissa make copies at her mundane part-time job; speaking with Maysoon’s adorable father, who has obvious pride in his eyes when he talks about her (watching that clip always gets me downright faklempt). Though program sets out to explore the boxes of Muslim and Middle Eastern/South Asian comics, it’s best when the comedians draw the boxes themselves.

You can see a few clips of the show here. Below is a clip of Dean Obeidallah:

Related: Funny Business: Muslims in Comedy

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Fatemeh is currently finishing her master's degree. She currently runs a website dedicated to critiquing how Muslim women are portrayed in both Eastern and Western media.