I enter a room backstage to meet the Axis of Evil boys for my interview, and I hear Maz Jobrani asking about the names of bridges and streets in Cairo. An hour later, he is on stage performing to a jam-packed hall at El Sawy Culture Wheel, making jokes about the 15th of May Bridge, the 6th of October Bridge and 26th of July Street.
The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour was in full swing in Cairo last week. Thousands of people flocked to El Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek as well as New Generation to catch the second stand-up comedy show in Egypt after American comedian Azhar Usman successfully introduced this type of comedy to the country last August.
Even though stand-up comedy is an art yet to be popularized and fully grasped in Egypt, over 1,500 people filled El Sawy halls during those couple of evenings to support an initiative much needed in the region – comedy.
The show was divided into four acts. Up first was Egypt’s own Ahmed Ahmed, who was hosting the show, followed by Palestinian-American Aron Kader, then another act by Ahmed, finally leading up to the last act by Iranian-American Maz Jobrani, who boosted the room’s already dynamic energy to new highs.
“It just works better that way, Ahmed goes out and gets the crowd going, followed by the second act, then Ahmed again, and finally Maz, because the energy with Maz is just crazy, Kader told Daily News Egypt.
Ahmed’s first act included a South Korean comedic protégé called Wonho Chung. Chung appears to be shy, confused and stage frightened, when he suddenly takes the audience by surprise and starts singing to the tunes of Abdel Halim Hafez – a stunt that prompted a wave of laughter and applause.
A running theme with all of the acts were jokes about the plight of Middle Easterners living in America that ranged from airport pickles with humorous twists, to silly inquiries about their Middle Eastern backgrounds.
Moreover, each comedian’s material played on local issues that were very easy for their audience to relate to. The humor in Ahmed’s anecdotes about his father struck a chord when he described him as an “Egyptian with a good sense of humor. Kader’s mimicking of the Dabka (a famous Lebanese dance) was also very well received.
Jobrani’s jokes about the tribulations of the Cairo traffic were probably the wittiest and were greeted with the loudest laughs from people who were all too familiar with the ordeal.
But material about the Middle East wasn’t the only thing that had the audience cracking up. The humor was never lost on the audience even when it came to jokes that contained a lot of American references. Punch lines about country music, the 7/11 shops and the dating scene in Los Angeles left the audience laughing, applauding and whooping.
Then there is material of a fundamentally universal scope – like Kader’s mimicking the differences between men and women – that reminds you that people everywhere are ultimately the same.
But coming up with punch lines does not always prove to be an easy task, especially when performing to a Middle Eastern audience. “Some people are sensitive to certain jokes . we try to stay away from cursing, making any sex jokes, or anything about religion, Ahmed said.
According to Kader, the boys were also told to steer clear of Middle Eastern politics. “It’s kind of a double standard, they encourage me to make fun of the American president but I can’t make jokes about regional politics.
Keeping that in mind, there are still the few who take offense to some of the material. “Being offended by a joke is more stereotypical than the joke itself, Kader said.
“It is so bizarre that some Arabs and Muslims get offended when we’re trying to show the world that we can laugh at ourselves . it is almost stereotypical of them to criticize me when all I’m trying to do is break stereotypes, Ahmed added.
The three boys from the Axis of Evil found that comedy is the best approach to get the world to listen. “We put a show on American TV about four Middle Easterners . the audience is full of Middle Easterners laughing, we’re smiling the whole time, Jobrani said, “that sends a message to the world; ‘hey, those are good people’.
He cited a conservative website that criticized Middle Easterners on which they found comments referring to their show saying, “I never knew people in the Middle East laughed.
“We are putting a face – a happy face – to the enemy, Kader said.
Jobrani sometimes incorporates an Iranian chant that is done in football matches into his act. “Someone told me you had an American audience cheering for Iran . so we’re pushing the envelope that way, he said.
Touring the Middle East is described by the boys as very “surreal. Ahmed felt especially proud to be back in Egypt and performing with the group.
“There are two reasons we’re doing this, Ahmed explained, “we want to show the west that we can do things like that out here, and we want to introduce comedy to the Middle East and show people that we can laugh.
As part of the tour, the Axis of Evil, along with Showtime Arabia (the tour producer), were holding auditions to search for talented comedians from the region. Around 40 men and women came out to El Sawy Culture Wheel Wednesday morning to perform in front of a panel of judges – comprised of the Axis of Evil boys, Jamil Abu-Wardeh producer of the show as well as Chung – who critiqued the acts in a very American Idol fashion, minus Simon Cowell’s heartlessness.
“We actually prefer Arabic acts, because we want to have the same kind of shows in Arabic, Abu-Wardeh, said. “We don’t know what we’re looking for, so we might eventually hire you as a writer for example, he added.
Several attempts by Abu-Wardeh to describe what stand-up comedy is failed to keep many from singing, dancing and impersonating Egyptian actors on stage. The concept was lost on several people who were likely passing by the Sawy center when they heard they can have two minutes on stage and decided to sign up.
Out of the 40 contestants, around six can be called funny and they all seemed to share common features; they are of different backgrounds (most of which grew up in the US) and they performed in English.
George Azmi, a contestant who auditioned in Arabic, seemed to be what the competition is looking for. Azmi’s material poked fun at very local issues like eating Foul (beans) and his experience with taxi drivers in Cairo.
Maybe there is hope for comedy in the region.
Having their act described as “Stand-up diplomacy by Time magazine, the Axis of Evil boys are a force to be reckoned with, who leave you wondering if comedy really is the remedy the region needs.
“The rest of the world will laugh with us when we laugh at ourselves, Ahmed said.