Muslim-American comics after 9/11: "I thought comedy was over, but it was more important than ever"

Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani and Dean Obeidallah appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss how stand-up evolved since 9/11

Published September 10, 2021 5:00PM (EDT)

Comedian Maz Jobrani performs at "Loose Change" on October 29, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. | Writer/director Negin Farsad speaks onstage at the "3rd Street Blackout" screening during the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival on June 13, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. | Comedian Dean Obeidallah is seen performing in the liberal comedy show on Broadway called "Laughing Liberally: This Ain't No Tea Party," on April 11, 2011 in Manhattan, NY. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Alberto E. Rodriguez/Jennifer S. Altman)
Comedian Maz Jobrani performs at "Loose Change" on October 29, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. | Writer/director Negin Farsad speaks onstage at the "3rd Street Blackout" screening during the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival on June 13, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. | Comedian Dean Obeidallah is seen performing in the liberal comedy show on Broadway called "Laughing Liberally: This Ain't No Tea Party," on April 11, 2011 in Manhattan, NY. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Alberto E. Rodriguez/Jennifer S. Altman)

Comedians typically are focused on getting laughs. But in post 9/11 America, Muslim comedians had to not only be funny, but also try to break stereotypes about who we were (without unintentionally furthering them) and help our community cope with the post 9/11 backlash. 

I spoke to two of my fellow Muslim-American comedians for "Salon Talks": Maz Jobrani who co-created the groundbreaking "Axis of Evil" comedy tour, which in 2007 became the first TV special featuring Middle Eastern American comedians when it aired on Comedy Central and Negin Farsad, who can be heard frequently on NPR's "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" and who co-directed (along with me) the comedy documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!"  

Farsad and Jobrani candidly shared the challenges and joys of being Muslim-American comedians in post 9/11 America. As Jobrani noted, the Middle Eastern community was overjoyed when tours in the mid 2000s like the "Axis of Evil" began because they had been waiting to finally hear and laugh about their own experiences. But it was not always full support from some parts of the community. Farsad shared there were times as a female, Muslim comic she was criticized by members of our community for simply being who she was. 

For me, performing comedy actually helped me process the new world I found myself in after 9/11. Prior to 9/11, I truly considered myself a white guy, but in the years that passed I became a minority because society made it clear I had lost my "white card." Overall, though the hope for these comedians — including myself — is that our comedy not only helped our community cope with the post 9/11 backlash and countered misconceptions, but it also inspired others in our community to go into comedy. That's not the typical goal of comedians, but our lives after 9/11 were anything but typical.

Watch my "Salon Talks" here, or read a transcript of our conversation below, to hear more about how comedy played a role in helping our community cope then and how we see comedy today.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm joined by two of my friends: first Negin Farsad, host of "Fake the Nation" podcast at TEDFellow. You hear her often at NPR's "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" and also we co-directed the comedy documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Negin, welcome to "Salon Talks," my friend.

Negin Farsad: Hey Dean. How's it going?

Doing good. Thanks for being here and then also a fellow Middle-Eastern American comedian, my buddy Maz Jobrani. Comedian, actor. He co-created the "Axis of Evil" comedy tour, which became a special. The first special Middle-Eastern American comedians ever on American television on Comedy Central. He's also been on NPR's "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!" often. He's got a podcast, "Back to School." Bottom line, I'm the only person not on "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"

Farsad: Yes.

So maybe you guys could help me. Can you guys help me get booked for "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"? Okay, Maz, my friend. Good to see you.

Maz Jobrani: How are you, Dean? You're too busy doing your MSNBC. CNN, N-B-B-C-D whatever. I always look up, you're always there. You're always the guy.

I do my best to prevent them from booking anyone else. That's sort of my rule. Let's talk about, we are right now looking back at 20 years since 9/11. I want to talk about also as fellow comedians, what it was like navigating that world, but just on a personal level and I'll start with you, Negin. When you look back 20 years ago through today, how did 9/11 and the repercussions from it and the consequences from it affect you personally?

Farsad: It's funny, in the last couple of weeks, a lot of people have been asking about comedy since 9/11 and I wasn't a comedian before 9/11. I'm just far too young for that, for the record. I've only known comedy since 9/11. I think one of the interesting things is that I feel like I noticed it has increased over the years, is this kind of Pan-Middle-Eastern, Pan-Muslim identity in the United States. We weren't necessarily all grouped together in the '80s and '90s or not in good and bad ways, we weren't building coalitions. We didn't necessarily have each other's back, but right now here we are, two Iranians with an Arab dude and we've done a lot of stuff together, the three of us, right? And so that kind of Pan-Middle-Eastern relationship between people in the diaspora is kind of delightful. Just to start off with a nice thing that I think has developed for us as first-generation people in the United States.

That's a good point. Maz, just on a personal level, before we get more into comedy, how was your life affected by 9/11? If it was? In terms of the 20 years that we've just gone through?

Jobrani: Well, unlike the young Negin, I am old. So I was doing comedy before September 11th and I remember when September 11th happened, I had this feeling of, "How can we ever be funny again?" It just felt like such a traumatic experience for everyone in this country and probably around the world that I thought . . . It kind of felt to me like that song of "the day the music died." It felt like the day the laughter died and I couldn't envision being funny and slowly, slowly though, as time went by and we started seeing the Bush administration using 9/11 as an excuse to go into Iraq and then we started seeing anti-Muslim sentiment.

That's when I realized, "Oh, we need to be funny and we need to, A, point out the hypocrisy and B, make fun of any sort of racism that's happening, any sort of xenophobia that's happening," and that's kind of what led to the "Axis of Evil" and you, me, Ahmed [Ahmed] and Aron [Kader] doing that special because I think that we had to express our voice after September 11th and show the counter to what many Americans started seeing. How many times did we hear people say, "Oh, just bomb the whole goddamn place. Just bomb them. Bomb them all,"? And you're going bomb who? What are you talking about?


Jobrani: So for a minute I thought comedy was over, but then quickly I realized it was more important than ever.

Maz, since you did do comedy before 9/11, did you feel any different sense of responsibility in the post 9/11 world than you did in a pre-9/11 world when you were talking about your background, your heritage, your faith on stage?

Jobrani: Well, the truth is I came to America in the late '70s and then quickly the hostage crisis happened. So as a kid I got picked on, and they would call us F'in Iranians. So anytime people say, oh, September 11th really made your life different. I go, no, I had the hostage crisis then we had Iran Contra and then we had the movie, "Not Without My Daughter." Iran was and continues to be the enemy for 40-plus years. So there was already a lot of anti-Iranian, anti-Muslim sentiment. All it did was probably even make it more so. I remember doing some show somewhere. I forget where I was but it was a morning show to promote that night's stand-up show and the DJ goes, oh, "September 11th was really good for your career" and I was totally offended by it.

I go, "You wouldn't say to an African-American comedian, oh, slavery was good for your career." And the fact is, I wanted to reiterate, no, I got into comedy before September 11th. I got into comedy because I was a fan of Eddie Murphy. I got into comedy because I just want to be funny. It's just that when, no matter what background you come from, you're encouraged to talk about that background because that's what you know. So I was talking about it before. I was talking about it after. It just felt like it became even more well-known after September 11th.

But Negin, in your case, you cashed in on 9/11, right?

Farsad: I think the funny thing about Muslims is that we walk among you. We've been around and obviously our numbers have gone up. I think we were in the one millions around 2001 and now we're in the three millions of the population. Our actual numbers have grown, but there were Muslims around. I think part of it is they weren't a main part of our media diet. We didn't talk about them as much. With the exception of the many years of the Iran hostage crisis and the demonizing of just Iranians, which was just a little special note in the '80s. We didn't take that much time on Muslims.

So we sort of were able to walk amongst you without making too much noise and just kind of subtly becoming Omar Sharif or whatever. I feel like that's a little thing, that we've been around. We've been doing this work and then after 9/11, I think, Maz was right, there. It was like, "Oh, I actually now have a responsibility." 

I feel like every time there's like a Catholic joke or something and stuff like that comes up all the time, right? It makes sense. We're in a majority Christian country, so jokes like that will come up and if I'm on stage, I'll just suddenly throw in, as a Muslim, this is what I think of that. And I throw it in because it's funny or whatever, but also because this beloved mainstream show ("Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!") has a Muslim on and it's not a big deal and it's cool and it's fine. I do feel a little bit of that responsibility of just reminding everybody this is fun. We're making jokes about Christianity and then also, so is a Muslim and I think it helps kind of normalize.

Who books "Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me!"?

Farsad: Moving on Dean, moving on.

Jobrani: They've reached their quota, pal. There's no more room for you.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Maz, can you remember your first show after 9/11 and what that was like?

Jobrani: I was a regular at The Comedy Store already and The Comedy Store that Tuesday – Comedy Store is open every day of the week, to the point where, I remember one time they booked me; I did a show on Christmas and it was interesting because I showed up and there was, in a room that sat 350 people, there was one booth with maybe four people or something. It was ridiculous. The Comedy Store never closes. So obviously that day they closed and I believe they were closed all the way until that Friday, and Mitzi Shore, who was the owner of The Comedy Store, Jewish lady who had put me, Ahmed and Aron together and called us the Arabian Knights. She was the founder of the club, but she was also a mother to the comics. She also cared for the comics.

I think, at first, she was hesitant to put us back on stage because she was afraid of the anti-Muslim backlash that was happening and so that first week I didn't go on stage. However, I had been booked to do a private event somewhere in Irvine or Orange County and it was someone's private party and I called to cancel. I said, "Listen, I don't know how it could be funny," and they said, "No, you should come." And they go, "By the way, if it makes you feel any better, the guy whose house it is, his wife is Turkish." And I was like, okay, well, that's kind of close. Maybe they're allies. I don't know. And so I went there and again, I was relatively new to comedy.

I've been doing it for about three years at that point. I wasn't well versed enough to necessarily know how to navigate a major tragedy that just happened. I remember going on stage and whereas maybe before 9/11, I would go on stage and start talking about my background right away, in this case, I think I remember going on and maybe doing a couple of jokes that were just neutral jokes and didn't have anything to do with my background. And then I think when I mentioned my background, I said something along the lines of, "So the name Maz Jobrani. I was born in Iran." And then I go, "I know I'm not too excited about it either," or something along the lines. I just wanted to, right out the gate, I wanted them to make sure I'm on your side. Even though I think most educated people understood that. I think the fear that we had as comedians from that part of the world, even though Iran was not . . . Nobody from Iran was involved in 9/11,

Farsad: It doesn't matter. 

Jobrani: It doesn't matter.

Not overtly.

Jobrani: Yeah. And so I did feel you had to be very careful how you opened up the subject because you left that door open for the guy or whoever was in the audience to go, "Get them!" Or whatever they were going to yell at you. I remember being fearful of it the first time I performed.

Farsad: And I think that's also a function of comedy just being such a white-male dominated sport to begin with. I feel like in this, very much the same way, but since the very beginning of my career in comedy, I have to go on stage and sort of be like, "I'm Iranian-American Muslim lady like all of you." And I point that out because I just want the audience to be at ease. I know that you know, that no one can pronounce my name and everyone's confused. What is this ambiguously ethnic person doing in front of me? Plus she's a woman that's really strange. So it's like I just have to defuse the thing by pointing it out and then we can all move on with the task of laughing. I feel like that's been a part of just, in general, the comedy life of so many kind of minority groups.

But also, just on the question of security and whether or not it was safe to put you guys up after 9/11 at The Comedy Store. The interesting thing is just in terms of the last 20 years, the security issue continued to play a role. Dean and I even had to deal with security issues, doing a show in 2019 in Charlottesville because the venue was afraid that we were going to attract haters and some kind of violence by just being there. And this is something that, again, right before the pandemic we had to deal with. So it's years and years and years and years later, venues will still be nervous about having too many Muslim comedians on one set. Obviously, it's not every venue, #NotEveryVenue. But it's happened enough that it's a thing. A thing that when the email comes to me, I'm not shocked by it.

Jobrani: Mitzi, to her credit, when you're a regular at The Comedy Store, there's shows every night and they have a lineup of just diverse comics going up after each other, no theme. Once in a while, then they would do African-American night, Latino night, ladies' nights. Mitzi put together the Arabian Knights, which was again, her handful of Middle-Eastern comedians and they would put that on the marquee, pre-September 11th. You'd have that in the marquee. Well, after September 11th, she said, we're not going to do an Arabian Knights show for a little while. Let it cool down. The first time we did an Arabian Knights show was at the LA Jolla Comedy Store, which we all know is near Camp Pendleton. Who knows who's down there or what what's going on or anywhere in America?

We were doing a show with me, Ahmed and Aron and maybe it was Sam Tripoli at the time with us and the manager called and said because our name was . . . It said the Arabian Knights, this weekend. The manager called and said, "Look, we got a death threat against you guys that someone wants to come do something." And the guy goes, if you guys want to cancel the show, we're totally cool with that and we kind of talked about it and we go we feel it's an empty threat, number one. And secondly, I thought, well, gosh, if you got to go, that's probably a great way to go, telling jokes.

On stage.

Jobrani: It'll be good for the career.

Farsad: It'll get you a really long obituary at the very least.

Jobrani: Yes. Yes.

For me, the first show I did after 9/11, was at Stanhope, New York and the manager there at the club, a guy named Jerry called me before, right when they reopened and he booked me and he said, "I'm really concerned about using your last name on stage. Did you think about using your middle name?" Because he goes, "What's your middle name?" I go, "Joseph." And he goes, "Why don't you use that?" And I go, "Why?" And he goes, "Well, people are getting beaten up. It's not because I think people are going to come here to beat you up. But what if it prompts a conversation you don't want to have on stage with someone who goes, 'What kind of name is that?'" And there's awkwardness. I thought about it for a while, and then for the first couple of weeks after 9/11, I did go up as Dean Joseph. Even though I was not going to talk about being Arab all the time, but it made me become self-conscious about my own heritage in ways pre-9/11 . . . That made it really clear . . . the world was changing. America was changing where you had to think about things. My first joke after 9/11 about your heritage was six months later. Someone said, about my credit card, what kind of name is Obeidallah? And before 9/11, they'd asked it all the time. I actually became self-conscious to say Arab at that point. In my first joke, I'm not going to do it now, but my first joke was based on this real life experience. Negin, do you remember what your first joke was about your heritage on stage in the post 9/11 world?

Farsad: I did a solo show sort of before I did stand-up and I talked about going to Iran and going to a cousin's wedding and being nervous that I had to censor myself around her. If I had to hide the freedoms I enjoyed like boys and alcohol and peaceable assembly. And I was worried that if she knew the truth about me, she'd consider me some kind of Iranian-American slut, whore, hooker, prostitute, which in New York, we just call a Facebook friend. 

It's interesting because it was almost more about me confronting actual Iranians in Iran than it was . . . It was sort of like, hey, Americans, take a glimpse at this other thing I have to deal with, as opposed to let me introduce . . . Let me try and build a bridge with you. It was like, watch me try and build a bridge with Iranians and so it was a little bit of a different approach.

Maz, while you're doing Arabian Knights, there was no Middle-Eastern comedy tours going on. There was no theme about that. Was the reaction from the community different than say a white audience that would laugh at the jokes? What can you share that's more unique about the community that came out and saw you?

Jobrani: Well, the community felt like they'd been waiting for us because based on what we're talking about, there's also an issue if you go back, I think a lot of immigrant cultures when they come to America, the first generation sets up shop. They buy stores. They do their business. They do whatever they can to be able to afford to then send their kids to college, and those kids go off and become doctors and engineers and what have you.

And it takes maybe a second or third generation of their kids to go, "Oh, I can be an artist or do something else." So we were kind of the first wave. I mean, if the Iranians came in the early '80s, late '70s, we were the first wave of people from these cultures doing comedy, and so people didn't know we existed. I mean, a lot of people didn't know we existed, but then once they found us, I think the community goes, "Oh my God, this is . . . They're talking about my experiences. They're talking about what I'm going through. They're talking about what I'm thinking." 

It was very interesting to us where our audience grew fast, and that's why "Axis of Evil" was so successful because there was an audience waiting for us. I say, it's like a "Waiting for Godot" moment. They're waiting, waiting, waiting. We show up, and then all of a sudden we're packing – You guys remember we did . . . One of our biggest shows was 2005. When we did the Lisner Auditorium in DC. The comedy club in DC, didn't think we could do a big show. So they kept giving us Monday night, Tuesday night and a 200-seat comedy club at the DC improv and we kept saying, "Give us the weekend," and they said, "Well, you guys aren't really headliners." But we were selling out the Monday, Tuesdays, but they weren't giving us the weekend.

So we took it upon ourselves. So, you know what? Screw it. We took our own money, rented the theater, Lisner Auditorium, 1,400 seats and sold it out. And then went to San Francisco, The Palace of Fine Arts, thousand seats. Sold it out and that's when our agents and manager were going, who's promoting you? Is it Live Nation? Is it AEG? And we go, no, it's us! And they go, what? There's an audience for this? It was crazy. The audience was waiting for us, and then it got even crazier in 2007 when we took the "Axis of Evil" with me, Ahmed and Aaon and we flew to the Middle East to do it and that was the first time there was a group of American-based comics performing in the Middle East for the people of the Middle East. And that was 27 sold out shows over 30 days. I felt like we became the Beatles going over the Atlantic.

What I was amazed by the Middle-Eastern American audiences was more of this sense, especially in the early years of, they didn't come up after the show and go, "Hey, you were funny." They come up and go, "Thank you." And I go, thank you? And it was just, "Thank you for doing this." Thank you for talking about our experience. Thank you because they got, the ones who came to our shows, understood we were trying to use our art form as a way to entertain, but also as a form of activism. I could do a great show in the city, wherever. People didn't come up afterwards and go, thank you. They just go, "Hey, you're funny." Our community, I remember over and over people saying thank you. In the beginning, I didn't understand it, and it took time. Negin, what about the reaction of the community to you over the years?

Farsad: I mean, yeah, I don't mean to rain on the parade here with a little feminist analysis of what may have also been happening, but I started stand-up in, let's say 2006-ish and at that time, the community that was embracing you guys was 100% suspicious and or insulted by my very existence. So I got a ton of hate mail and death threats from my own people, which has its own interesting flare to it. But so they weren't comfortable with women, and I think someone like me didn't necessarily have the same opportunities to go to Arab countries and perform. It just was 100% a completely different way. 

I often was like, it doesn't matter because I'm an American and I'm trying to reach a more mainstream American audience. And if the Muslim Americans don't want to support me, it's fine. My comedy just isn't for them and so I sort of had to talk myself through those really tough times and there's even scenes in "The Muslims Are Coming!" where you see tons of people walking out, because I made a joke that involved dating and sex. They just were not comfortable with a woman talking out loud in that way and so I think that's something that I had to deal with a lot in the early years.

So now I'm coming out of the raining on the parade to say that in these intervening years, I'd say in the last five years, things have felt remarkably different. I think more and more Muslim women are in the spotlight and that has made it. And I do more and more things in the mainstream. They're like, oh, white people are not disgusted by her. You know what I mean? They are not insulted by her very existence. I think the Muslim community is also kind of evolved to understand that someone like me could even be, dare I say, useful in building that bridge between the Muslim community and the white mainstream American community.

Jobrani: First of all, Negin, I'm sorry I walked out on you. It was a bathroom break. I had to go and pee.

Of course, Maz. I remember.

Jobrani: Secondly, I'm going to rain on Negin's parade, raining on our parade because the past five years for me has been different because all of a sudden I've run into Muslim supporters of Trump, and so all of a sudden my fan base started turning on me a little bit when I would make fun of Trump because a majority of people that come to the shows were on board. But when I would do Trump jokes, there were people within the community who thought somehow Trump was going to get rid of the Islamic Republic of Iran, because Trump said he's going to and we saw the great negotiations he did in Afghanistan with the Taliban.

So perhaps I don't know what their strategy was, but Negin, just like you were saying, where they were with me for the longest time and then the past four years, pre-Biden, they really – some people really turned on me. There were like, "I can't believe you're criticizing our president." I'm going, he banned people from your country from coming and they're like, "Well, I'm here. It doesn't matter." So that was an interesting twist as well, to find these immigrants who supported Trump.

The last 20 years has actually been kind of remarkable when you think about it. There were no Muslims in Congress 20 years ago. There was no TV shows starring Muslims talking about being Muslim. There were Muslims but they were terrorists or people depicting our community. Twenty years later, we have three Muslims in Congress. We have a statewide elected official, an AG Keith Ellison in Minnesota. You have shows like "Ramy." You have Oscar winners and stuff. In 20 years I'll still be hosting on Salon, but what do you guys think? What do you think will be happening? Negin, what do you think for our community more broadly? Are you optimistic for the next 20 years?

Farsad: I mean, it's interesting because I think, bigotry follows trends, and so it will just be . . . We'll be supporting some other marginalized group, that's being demonized and then maybe it'll come back to us and then we'll just be on the offensive again. Then we'll have to lean on other groups to defend us, and I think it'll just kind of ebb and flow like that, which I think is what we've sort of seen in the last 30 years, including 9/11, which is just we go away from and come back to Muslims. And I think a lot of different groups feel the same way, but I think in general there is incremental change that is positive and yeah, Muslims are more visible than we've ever been in America. And in a good way, not in just "footage of dusty dudes in a desert with arms" way.

Maz, what do you think? Are you optimistic?

Jobrani: Oh gosh. So much to unpack there. First of all, I think we learned our lesson from watching other groups and their struggles. Look at, for example, African-Americans they made a lot of progress, but we still have a lot of racism. We still have a lot of issues. Mexican Americans made a lot of progress and then they say, "Build a wall. They're rapists and drug dealers." And Mexican Americans have got to be going, what do we got to do? This was our land. Now you guys keep coming back to us? Similarly with Muslims and Arabs and Iranians and people from that part of the world, I think that, like you said, we've made some progress. The bright side is we see a lot more when we go do shows now, stand-up shows.

The reason I felt that this idea of Arabian Knights or "Axis of Evil" was limited. I was like, "There's only five of us." We've got to keep writing new material, but now you do a show and it's packed. And there's all these young comics and I'm so excited by that and we have more of our people in stand-up. We have more of our people in front of the camera, behind the camera. More importantly, we have more of our people in the world of social media. There's people that, I don't even know who they are. There's another guy named Ahmed, something. I don't know what his last name is. He's a YouTube star. He's got 20 million followers or like DJ Khaled.

And I don't know where they stand in their race, in their religion or race or where they stand. But these people are making a difference and I think they're getting to the point where the hope comes when we have white kids and Black kids and Asian kids and all these other kids going, "DJ Khaled. I love that guy." They don't care about his background. They just go that's who that guy is. So that progress will continue to be made.

However, we're going to continue to have this backlash from the fear-mongering of... I mean, almost in the same breath, the Republicans in their criticism of the Biden pull out of Afghanistan. They go, "Biden pulled out of Afghanistan. He really messed that up. And now these terrorists are coming from Afghanistan to America. We shouldn't let them in." I go, wait a minute, are you guys opening your arms to the refugees? Or are you... Where do you stand?

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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