Comics use their talents for Evil

Arab-American trio talk shop, stand-up at Dubai

The Axis of Evil is unleashing its brand of multicultural humor on the Middle East.

The comic trio of Arab-Americans — Ahmed Ahmed, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader — are on a five-country tour taking them from Beirut and Amman to Cairo and Kuwait and now Dubai, where they will perform today at a club.

They appeared Tuesday at a workshop session during the Dubai International Film Festival to discuss taking stand-up on the road as well as the personal road they've traveled as American entertainers of Middle Eastern origin.

Showtime Arabia, a satcaster backed by Viacom and Kuwaiti conglomerate Kipco, is funding the group's foreign tour as part of its mission to foster local Middle Eastern talent and to create local programming based on proven Western formats and genres.

In addition, Eric Previn, a Showtime Arabia consultant and longtime U.S. comedy showrunner, said that the company is producing a feature film and a six-part series about the Axis of Evil's forays abroad, both of which will be pitched stateside as well as air in the Middle East.

Previn, whose credits include "Reba," "Boston Common" and localized versions around the world of "Married … With Children" for Sony, led off the workshop with advice for attendees on how to proceed as novice comedy writers.

His main advice: Keep concepts simple; establish the genre quickly; write short, tight scenes — and get feedback.

As for the Axis triumvirate, they spoke principally about their stand-up styles and their positive experiences so far playing to Mideast audiences.

"We've been impressed at how savvy audiences over here in the Mideast are, and we've had sold-out performances practically everywhere," Kader said during the workshop.

Jobrani pointed out that the crowd that came to see them in Amman, Jordan, for example, had already seen the group's routines via bootlegged DVDs in that country.

As for the local talent that Showtime Arabia is trying to encourage, the Axis guys said one crucial problem is that, unlike Los Angeles, with its multitude of underground clubs, there just aren't yet that many places to fail.

"There is, though, a huge hunger for laughter," Jobrani said.

The group tweaks its jokes not to tone them down but to relate to local things that each audience is familiar with. Ahmed has been coming to Dubai for several years and has performed solo here as well.

"Our comedy is about being in the moment and being inclusive," Kader told some 30-odd festgoers attending the workshop. "It's not 'Borat'-like in that we're not about entrapment."

As for their trials and tribulations in the States, all three comics said they've had to make individual decisions to turn down film and TV roles that perpetuate negative stereotypes about Muslims and Middle Easterners.

Jobrani said the U.S. needs fewer terrorist roles for Arab-Americans and more comedies and dramas with normalized families. "It took 10 years for 'ER' to hire an Indian doctor on the show, when in every big-city hospital in the country you can get by speaking Persian or Hindi rather than English."

He told The Reporter he is involved with two other writers stateside in a series idea recently picked up by CBS tentatively titled "The Evil-Doers."

"It's a comedy about Iranian-Americans in the vein of 'Everyone Loves Raymond,' " Jobrani said. But he added that the show is on hold because of the writers strike.
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