Comedian Obeidallah doesn't quite live up to hype

by Divya Gunasekaran | 11/13/07 1:09am

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The hook of Obeidallah's act was his political humor and his outlook on being Arab-American in a post-9/11 world. I appreciated the unique focus, which gives Obeidallah an automatic edge over many comedians. No one needs to hear more jokes about the stereotypical bad relationship or the no-brainer differences between men and women.

Though Obeidallah first started off with typical jokes about the states he lived in like New Jersey (he asked what New Jersey did to everyone to make them hate the state so much, the answer to which I, being from Jersey, would like to know) and New York before easing into the hard-hitting material, it was a necessary transition to make. Jokes about terrorism would have been unsettling as an opening.

Once Obeidallah started getting into national issues, it became apparent that he was well-informed, but his take on these issues was too generic at times. For example, he knew that America's anti-terrorism budget included funds to protect an Amish popcorn factory and mule parade in Kentucky (yes, you read that right), which isn't exactly publicized information. However, his discussion of the presidential candidates merely reiterated general stereotypes that the candidates are known for and didn't reach any laudable level of insight.

He also went for the easy target of President Bush, who is admittedly a goldmine for comedians, but one that has been used about a thousand times too many. Bush's mangled pronunciation of almost the entire English language and slowed speech have been punchlines since the start of his presidency, and Obeidallah didn't put his own spin on all of them, but the laughter from the audience was loud all the same.

Another hook of Obeidallah was his merging of politics and pop culture. This aspect of his act had me torn. Obeidallah's transposition of political figures to the medium of pop culture was mildly clever. He joked that Osama bin Laden must be jealous of all of the attention that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been receiving after his inflammatory speech at Columbia University, and he is now just a has-been who will wind up with a reality television show on VH1. Obeidallah took the idea further by comparing Osama to an embittered comic who probably watches Ahmadinejad on television and accuses him of stealing his anti-American lines; Obeidallah even called Osama the "Carlos Mencia of the Middle East."

The pop culture references did kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously making fun of Osama and American television, but at the same time, I feel it undermined the audience's intelligence. Are we really that media-obsessed and television-hooked that even political issues need to be put in the context of pop culture? Maybe that's society's fault rather than Obeidallah's, but I'd like to think we're intelligent and resilient enough to cope without the mention of pop culture for one hour.

One of the positive aspects of Obeidallah's act is an age-old practice of comedians. He interacted with the audience by polling the audience to see how many people were from the region or state he was going to talk about. Though such interaction is not original or deeply engaging, unlike some comedians, he kept it up throughout his performance and I can't say it didn't help the audience members feel as if they were operating on the same level as Obeidallah. Not acknowledging the audience in such an intimate setting as Bentley Theater would have been a faux pas. Furthermore, it led to the discovery that Obeidallah and I grew up in the same county of New Jersey, which, in my egocentric opinion, is almost enough to excuse the superficiality of that interaction.

Obeidallah's greatest material came from his personal experience living with two different religions and cultures. Growing up with a Muslim, Palestinian father and a Christian, Sicilian mother in a homogenous town, there was a culture clash that Obeidallah constantly faced throughout his childhood. Though the culture clash isn't necessarily relatable, it was still interesting to hear truly original material, learn about his unique experience and be entertained at the same time. His use of fairly accurate accents like Middle Eastern, Italian and New Jerseyan to impersonate his parents and friends added to the dynamic, engaging quality of this segment.

There were a few awkward moments during the show, the biggest moment-killer occurring during Obeidallah's spiel about the democratic presidential candidates. He said that Hillary Clinton as president would provide the most material for him as a comedian because Bill Clinton would be bringing "Sexyback" to the White House (addendum: this is not a valid reason to vote for Hillary). With respect to Bill Clinton, Obeidallah said that he would rather hear someone say, "I didn't have sex with that woman" than "I'm going to bomb another country," which was met with approving applause and general agreement. Yet Obeidallah followed this with the statement that he'd rather see semen stains than blood stains. The abrupt silence was noticeable and the sudden discomfort palpable, prompting an explanation from Obeidallah that not everything he says is meant to be funny.

Don't get me wrong; I was laughing with the rest of the audience throughout the show, which I believe was worth seeing. He just wasn't as insightful or thought-provoking as he had been hyped up to be, and his humor was not of the side-splitting variety that I always hope for from comedians.