Funny Muslims: New York Times runs a humorless advance on a comedy festival

One funny thing about the planned Muslim Funny Fest is that such things are still considered news. The New York Times introduces the idea as if it doesn't go back more than a decade.

Another funny thing is that the story has so few funny things.

"We should be able to tell our own story, and our story is that Muslims are hilarious," says Negin Farsad, one of the organizers. Unfortunately, they don’t get to tell that story here. Not in an article this suffocatingly serious.

Maybe, in GR terms, it's a Laughing Ghost.

The article also strains at the seams trying to advance the comedy festival and to tell of efforts to publicize it in bus and train stations. One topic is funny; one is not.

A quarter of its 17 paragraphs tell of the tussle with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority over ads that Farsad and co-organizer Dean Obeidallah want to post on its bus and train stations. Only in the fourth paragraph, in fact, does the Times get to the news of the three-day Funny Fest, set to start July 21.

Then it segues into Obeidallah's background and how he met Zayid. They founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival back in 2003, focused more on ethnicity but still related to Muslim Americans. They produced a semi-serious documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, back in 2013.  It was to advertise that film that they wanted to advertise on buses. Also to counter what they considered anti-Muslim ads by the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

This section has the sole slivers of humor. The Times quotes one of the posters the comedians wanted on the buses -- "The ugly truth about Muslims: Muslims have great frittata recipes." They also say they won't censor any Funny Fest comedians who want to "talk about the fact that you love bacon sandwiches." That's pretty much all the laughs here.

Now, it's true that the organizers use humor for serious reasons:

In recent years, they said, they began to feel it was their faith as much as their ethnicity that set them apart, so they decided to host a separate event featuring professional Muslim comedians from various ethnic backgrounds.
Ms. Zayid and Mr. Obeidallah perform regularly for a variety of audiences. “We didn’t start doing the ethnic comedy and Muslim comedy until we felt our community was under siege and that we could no longer just step onstage and be treated as an equal,” Ms. Zayid said in a phone interview.

But the background, too, has at least one empty spot: awareness of other American Muslims who have used humor.

Azhar Usman released the pioneering album Square the Circle: American Muslim Comedy of Distortion back in 2003. The following year, he and two other comedians -- Preacher Moss and Azeem Muhammad -- joined for the Allah Made Me Funny act. That show went through several forms, culminating in 2012.

Usman did another tour in 2009, Laugh in Peace, with Vermont-based Rabbi Bob Alper. The rabbi had previously done 150 shows with still another Muslim comedian, Ahmed Ahmed of California. None of this is in the Times article.

It would have been enterprising for the paper to ask those comedic veterans what good they think their shows may have done. Some of them have steered away from controversy. Usman told me in 2009 that he and Alper agreed to say nothing about the rocket attacks from Gaza and the Israeli counterattacks, ongoing at the time.

And what of more conventional Muslim leaders?  How do those at the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamic Society of North America see the comedy shows? How about the imams at some of the many mosques in New York City?

The comedians themselves voice such concerns in the trailer for The Muslims Are Coming!. "I wish I had more support from some subsets of the Muslim community, and I don’t," Negin Farsad says. That's not in the Times article, either.

It would have also spiced up the story to get the views of Pamela Geller, whose Draw Mohammed contest literally drew fire in Texas. After all, it was because of Geller's group that the Muslims wanted to put up their ads. In fact, she is now suing the Transit Authority over their decision to ban all political ads -- the same reason Zayid and Obeidallah are suing it.

This is the kind of background many such stories lack -- including, I have to say, the one I wrote for the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2009. Quotes from the performers and organizers are, of course, vital. But also important are those of the stakeholders, both pro and con.

Even the basics of the station ads muddy the matter of Muslim humor -- or, if you prefer, the Muslim humor muddies the matter of the ads. The Times would have done better to break the story of the ads into a separate sidebar.

As it is, the newspaper commits what should be a sin in Islam, and in all religions: being unfunny while dealing with humor.

Video: Trailer for the 2013 documentary The Muslims Are Coming!

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