Did you hear the one about a stand up comedy festival in Amman, Jordan? The World's Aaron Schachter did and he brings us the story.
MARCO WERMAN: Okay, guy walks into a bar or maybe I should say, "So, this guy walks into a falafel stand." That might work better in the Arab world. But stand-up hasn't been all that standard in that part of the world. A group of local and international comedians is trying to change that, though. The World's Aaron Schachter recently checked out the Amman Stand Up Comedy Festival in Jordan.
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and Gentlemen, give a very warm round of applause to Dean Obeidallah.
DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Hey, look at this crowd.
AARON SCHACHTER: Stand up is such a part of life in the U.S. that it may be hard to imagine a routine introduction like this being groundbreaking. But as Dean Obeidallah points out in his act, comedy isn't really a part of Arabs' culture, whether they're living in the Mideast or the US.
OBEIDALLAH: This is my impression of older Arabs in the States watching my comedy. They just stare at you like this, like they're watching a magician and trying to figure out a trick. And after the show they'll be like "You're very funny. I laughed three times tonight. A very funny show."
SCHACHTER: Obeidallah is an Arab-American comic. He helped create the Amman Stand up Comedy Festival last year along with the Mayor of Amman. Mayor Omar Maani says the festival is intended to give Jordanians a good laugh, but also to show the rest of the world they can laugh.
OMAR MAANI: These are tough times and I think comedy plays a very important role in opening up horizons, relaxing, having fun. And the statement is very strong that in the Arab world the silent majority are unheard, and the silent majority are moderate, they are constructive. And this is not, unfortunately, perceived in the west.
OBEIDALLAH: Thank you guys very much for coming out this morning or the edge of the afternoon to our standup comedy workshop.
SCHACHTER: As part of the festival, the comics are holding workshops for aspiring comedians. This is Maysoon Zayid, who used to describe herself as a Palestinian Muslim virgin by choice? her father's choice. She's married now.
MAYSOON ZAYID: I think the first most important thing to think about when you think about doing standup is tell the jokes that you want to hear, tell the stories that you know. Stand up comedy is all about making the audience think that you are talking about yourself. And if you want to do standup, trick your friends. Be sitting there, you know, eating your shwarma, and tell the joke. Just tell it. Just do it and see if they laugh. If the people who love you don't laugh, it's not funny.
COMEDIAN: You guys like Lebanon, you like my country? Yeah? Thank you guys.
SCHACHTER: Most of the comedians who are appearing at the festival are hyphenated-Arabs from the U.S. and Canada. But they made a point of bringing in Middle Eastern comics as well. Lebanese Nemr Abou Nassar is like an old-time Borscht-belt comic, setting up jokes in English, finishing off with Arabic punch lines. The crowd loved it.
NEMR ABOU NASSAR: Do we have any Saudi Arabians in the house today? Anybody from Saudi Arabia? Yeah, all right. Two people. Saudi Arabians are the manliest men on the planet. Yes. When a Saudi Arabian doesn't like something he's like [SOUNDS ANGRY] Right? When Virgin Megastores opened, Saudi Arabians went crazy. Huh, virgin? When they walked in there's books everywhere. [SOUNDING ANGRY]
SCHACHTER: I ask Abou Nassar how hard it was starting out as a comic in a region not really known for its introspection. After all, comedy is nothing if not about looking inward. He says Lebanese, for one, are self-critical. They just never do anything about their gripes. The real stumbling block, he says, is regional differences.
NASSAR: In Egypt I was on a TV show called Adam, and I was talking about dating and nobody was laughing. And I asked and they told me because nobody know what you're talking about. Because here you don't go and ask a girl out and take her out and whatever and whatever and whatever. You see a girl, you talk to her parents, and it's done and you marry her.
SCHACHTER: Then there's the issue of what you can say.
NASSAR: Don't talk about sex. That's the rule anywhere you go. Don't talk about the government. You can't cuss at all. Out of the question, you know, and stuff like that.
SCHACHTER: Abu Nasser and others say you can be funny clean. There's always your parents, your spouse and your mother-in-law to talk about. But you do have to know your audience. While there was a good deal of laughter at the shows, there was also a decent amount of tisk-tisking mainly at jokes dealing with sex and marriage. For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter, Amman, Jordan.