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Sunday September 11, 2011

Let there be laughter

Not a time for jokes? On the contrary, in the right hands, comedy turns out to be a source of strength for those who lived through 9/11.

AFTER the traumatic events of 9/11 in 2001, Hollywood went through a phase when anything to do with terrorism, Islam or violence was frowned upon.

As for comedy... forget it. Even showing the twin towers was a big no-no.

Sam Raimi’s first Spider-man movie had to pull its teaser trailer from cinemas because it showed a helicopter being caught in a spider web between the two towers. The poster was also recalled because it showed the towers reflected in Spidey’s eyes.

In the years since the attack, big-budget explosions have made a comeback and there have been a lot more films about terrorism, but these tend to be documentaries or dramas like World Trade Center and United 93, and TV’s 24 (Jack Bauer saves the world one day at a time!) and Rescue Me (about the lives of New York City firemen in the aftermath of 9/11).

Comedies that touch on the subject directly are still rare. However, there have been some notable examples of shows that went against the grain. One of the earliest and most direct responses to 9/11 on TV was by animated comedy South Park, which released an episode, called Osama Bin Laden Has Farty Pants, a mere two months after the event.

It was the first episode of South Park after 9/11, and saw Cartman, Stan, Kyle and Kenny heading to Afghanistan to return a goat sent to them by Afghan versions of themselves. Inadvertently, they infiltrate Osama’s lair and kill him. The episode was nominated for an Emmy award for outstanding animated programme, believe it or not!

Never afraid of being controversial or stepping on other people’s toes, the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, then went on to release the hilarious puppet feature film Team America: World Police in 2004, which satirised America’s foreign policy (at this point, the United States was knee-deep in the War on Terror, and embroiled in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Filmed using Thunderbirds-style marionettes (and a few real life pussycats), Team America left no stone unturned (or unsullied). It poked fun at almost everything, from pompous politicking Hollywood actors and big-budget action flicks (the team accidentally destroys the Eiffel Tower and Egypt’s pyramids while fighting terrorists), to Kim Jong II, suicide bombers, the United Nations and, er, ... porn. The puppet sex scene has to be the strangest and most disturbing “sex scene” between inanimate objects ever committed to film.

Other than these two outright examples, there haven’t been many comedies that actually touched on 9/11 or mentioned terrorism or Islam. Most either mentioned the attacks in a more solemn manner or avoided the subject all together.

The ones that did address it, tended to use the “Muslims are terrorists” stereotype for comedic purposes, as evident in the US version of British TV comedy The Office, which had an episode in which Steve Carell’s character mistakes a Muslim employee for a terrorist. The Sarah Silverman Program also featured an episode in which she uses her car to run over men whom she mistakes for Osama.

One exception to the rule was the short-lived sitcom Aliens In America, which ran for one season in 2007-2008. The show revolved around an American family that decides to accept an international student to help boost the popularity of their teenage son. Expecting a good-looking European student, they instead get a 16-year-old Muslim from Pakistan.

For more examples of shows that further explore Islamic culture, you’d have to look outside America. For instance, Canadian sitcom Little Mosque On The Prairie, which has been on air since 2007, revolves around Amaar Rashid (Zaib Shaikh), a former lawyer who decides to take a job as imam of a mosque in a small town called Mercy. The show has been praised for putting the Muslim community in a positive light, and has even been optioned by a US TV network for an American version.

Across the pond, last year saw the release of Four Lions, a black comedy about four Muslim men from Sheffield, Britain, who decide to become suicide bombers. Directed by rookie Chris Morris, the movie has added poignancy because it was written about the same time as the July 7, 2005, London bus bombings that killed 52 people and injured more than 700 others.

Far from glamorising suicide bombers or coming up with bad, tasteless comedy, the movie won accolades for the way it explored the humanity of its lead characters while providing a more down-to-earth look at their motivations. Time magazine even named Four Lions in its list of top 10 movies for 2010.

For the most outright outrageous exploitation of the subject ever, however, one has to head further east to Bollywood where the comedy Tere Bin Laden was a hit in 2010. It stars Bollywood pop star Ali Zafar as a young reporter who is so desperate to emigrate to the United States that he comes up with a fake video featuring an Osama look-alike and tries to sell it to TV stations in hopes of raising money for his trip to America.

Despite the comedic premise, the film was praised for its smart satire and its depiction of a post-9/11 world.

Funny is funny

Post-9/11, comedy became an important tool for comedians of Arab-American descent – it was a way for them to break stereotypes by, well, talking about stereotypes. Two years after the attack, these comedians went around the country to share with average Americans how their world had also changed.

Dean Obeidallah, from New Jersey, is an American with a Palestinian father and Italian-American mother. He summed his experience up eloquently when he said: “I went to bed on Sept 10 white, and woke up on Sept 11 an Arab. And it’s weird being an Arab in a different world – people say weird things to my face about my heritage ... like, ‘Oh, you’re Arab? But you look so nice’ and ‘Oh, you’re Arab, what a coincidence. I love Indian food’.”

In his early shows, Obeidallah cited many excessive exercises put into effect post-9/11 to point out just how ridiculous they were.

For example, the Patriot Act, which allowed the US government to invade the personal space of an individual and collect information about said individual – like finding out what books they are reading (“because President Bush is jealous,” Obeidallah joked). Or the extra vigilance at the airports against anyone with a “suspicious” name at immigration checkpoints: “More people would rather fly with snakes on the plane than Middle-Easterners at this point.”

In an interview with Time magazine in 2009, Obeidallah said: “I started to use comedy to talk about my world and how it had changed. People are at a comedy club to laugh, but at the same time we’re trying to teach them something about who we are.

“In the beginning, it was ‘We’re not terrorists’ jokes, making fun of racial profiling. Now it’s evolved ... it’s saying, really unapologetically, ‘This is who we are, this is our culture’, and having fun with it.”

Now a CNN online columnist, Obeidallah co-founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival in November 2003, which has about 50 Arab-American comedians as members. In 2005 and 2007, he and fellow Arab-American comedians – Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader and Ahmed Ahmed – went on a comedy tour called Axis of Evil Comedy Tour around the United States and to a few Middle-Eastern countries like United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon.

His current project is a free comedy tour in Middle America entitled The Muslims Are Coming. He was quoted in levantinecenter.org (a website for an organisation that presents the arts and cultures of the Middle East and North Africa) that he would be “going to areas in the country ... where polls show Islamophobia is at its worst”.

After 2001, Maz Jobrani and Ahmed Ahmed found themselves typecast as Middle-Eastern terrorists in Hollywood projects – in which their lines went something like “kill the infidels” in a mock-Arabic accent, and punctuating their sentences with “Habibi”.

Fed up, Ahmed decided to take a break from acting and focus his energy on doing stand-up comedy. He also directed a touching and funny documentary entitled Just Like Us, which partly revolves around his parents (who emigrated from Egypt to the United States when he was very young) and partly on comedy tours to the Middle East.

According to Ahmed, his intent with the documentary was to show that Middle-Easterners and Americans laugh at the same jokes because comedy is universal.

“The media only shows one side of the story. Yes, there are Muslims who are bad people but that’s a small group. How about the other people? You never see that,” he argued.

Besides Arab-Americans, people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have been championing the cause to right wrongs with political humour. Stewart, especially, brings all of his passions – for New York, politics, intelligent discussions and the biased content on the Fox News channel – to his show.

When the 9/11 First Responder Bill vote (meant to provide benefits for ailing Ground Zero rescuers) was held up by Republicans, Stewart ripped into them. He said: “The party that turned 9/11 into a catchphrase are now moving suspiciously into a convenient pre-9/11 mentality when it comes to this bill.”

When the Senate okayed the tax cut extension for all Americans (including the wealthiest), Stewart sarcastically pointed out the obvious: “Yes, that is astoundingly good news for firefighters that make over US$200,000 (RM604,000) a year.”

Apparently, before Stewart brought it up on his show, a lot of Americans did not even know about this issue because the mainstream media neglected to report it.

“There was one network that gave the 9/11 Responders Bill story the full 22 minutes of intense coverage it deserved. But that network, unfortunately, was Al Jazeera,” said Stewart.

“(American) networks were scooped by the same network that Osama bin Laden sent his mixed tape to! This is insane!” he said.

Whether Stewart had an effect or not, the 9/11 Health Bill was signed early this year. Such is the power of humour.

Someone once said, truth goes down so much better when it’s marinated with humour – that was definitely the case right after Sept 11, 2001. Although most people were understandably sombre, with no desire whatsoever to laugh, some wisely realised the recovery process required both a gargantuan amount of strength and the soft touch of humour, if anyone were ever to feel normal again.

On his first day back to do the show, Stewart made an emotional speech peppered with tears and words of hope. “They said to get back to work. There were no jobs available for a man in the fetal position under his desk crying, which I would’ve gladly taken. So I came back here,” he said.

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