Update, November 1, 2023: While the Town Hall show is still on for November 19, the slate of shows initially scheduled for Gotham Comedy Club in November have now been moved to this spring. The information is updated below.
When Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid hosted the first New York Arab American Comedy Festival shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they expected it to be just a one-time event. Now, the annual show is celebrating 20 years with a continued dedication to cultural expression and fostering understanding through laughter.
For two decades, the festival has worked to combat negative portrayals of Arab Americans and Muslims, while showcasing a powerhouse lineup of comedians. This year's festival runs on November 19 at an iconic NYC venue.
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When the festival started in 2003, the organizers had to convince their actor friends that they could be comedians. Some venues didn't even want them to use the word "Arab."
“Now it’s so internally diverse—you have diversity in religion, you have diversity in age, we have LGBTQ people, we have women wearing hijab, we have women who are going full Kardashian,” Zayid tells Time Out New York. "You can never see this caliber of comedians all on one show. These are all headliners."
You have diversity in religion, you have diversity in age, we have LGBTQ people, we have women wearing hijab, we have women who are going full Kardashian.
Zayid and Obeidallah met through comedy decades ago.
For Obeidallah, comedy wasn't on his path, though he always enjoyed making people laugh. While working as a lawyer (and hating it), he tried participating in the New Jersey Bar Association's Funniest Lawyer Competition and soon decided to pursue standup comedy.
Zayid, who calls herself “a total drama queen,” felt inspired to explore standup comedy. While taking classes, her teacher encouraged her to mention her disability (cerebral palsy), and that has led to her extremely powerful work—and to making the festival a deeply inclusive and accessible event.
"A year after I started comedy, 9/11 happened," Zayid said. "We got thrown into this, like 'we're public enemy number one.' Let's make people laugh."
Obeidallah wanted the festival to "counter the negative narrative."
“We’re two years after 9/11, here are a bunch of Arab Americans doing comedy and telling their own story through a very American form of art—standup comedy,” he said.
The show found success, and over the years, it's grown and evolved.
"Internally, the comedy has evolved over 20 years mirroring what the community's gone through," he explained. "Even myself, pre-9/11, I really identified as a white guy," Obeidallah explains. "September 10, I went to sleep a white guy; September 11, I woke up an Arab because America changed. The very first jokes I did after 9/11 about being Arab were just how everything was changing around us.
“The early years were very much about, ‘Hey, we’re just like you. Don’t beat us up, like literally don’t attack us. We’re like you, we’re Americans. We were born here, some of us have an accent, some don’t,’” he continued.
The 2023 New York Arab American Comedy Festival
For the 20th anniversary celebration, expect a night of big laughs on November 19 at Town Hall on Broadway with a packed lineup of comedy veterans, plus some special surprise guests. Additional shows are scheduled for February 29-March 2 at Gotham Comedy Club. Get tickets here.
Performers include Eman Morgan (Showtime, Netflix, Funny or Die); Atheer Yacoub (Comedy Central Special, Gotham Comedy Live); Mohanad Elshieky (Comedy Central, Conan, Lemonade’s "I'm Sorry" podcast, "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee"); Dave Merheje (Comedy Network, MTV Live, CBC, and co-starring in "Ramy"); Aron Kader (Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, "The Muslims are Coming!" documentary); Laura Laham (Best of the Fest in 2022's Burbank Comedy Festival); and Nataly Aukar (Netflix Is a Joke Festival, opened for Ramy Youssef, Hasan Minhaj and Gad El Maleh).
Of course, Zayid and Obeidallah will also perform. You may know Zayid from her record-setting TED Talk “I've got 99 Problems… Palsy is Just One" and as a regular on CNN, MSNBC, OWN and General Hospital. Obeidallah is known for "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on SiriusXM radio as well as his appearances on MSNBC, CNN, Comedy Central’s "Axis of Evil," and the award-winning documentary "The Muslims are Coming!"
We can embrace a true diversity and show our fellow Americans something they've never seen before.
When they founded the festival, part of the motivation was to encourage Arab communities to consider going into the arts. At first, they didn't have enough comedians, but now they have so many they have to turn away applicants. The organizers work to nurture young comedians, ensuring the longevity of the festival for years to come.
“It’s not a religious festival—there are Arabs who are Christian and Jewish and Muslim and Buddhists and atheist, it’s everything. It’s an ethnicity,” Obeidallah said. "We can embrace a true diversity and show our fellow Americans something they've never seen before. This true diversity that tells our story through comedy. It's funny, you're going to really enjoy it and you're going to laugh a lot and learn something at the same time."