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Jamil Abu-Wardeh: The Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour

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This talk is about righting writing wrongs. No, the sound's not faulty -- righting writing wrongs. The Middle East is huge, and with all our problems, one thing's for sure: we love to laugh. I think humor is a great way to celebrate our differences. We need to take our responsibilities seriously, but not ourselves. Don't get me wrong: it's not like we don't have comedy in the Middle East. I grew up at a time when iconic actors from Kuwait, Syria, Egypt used laughter to unite the region, just as football can. (Laughter) Now is the time for us to laugh at ourselves, before others can laugh with us. This is the story of the rise and rise of stand-up comedy in the Middle East -- a stand-up uprising, if you will.

Working in London as TV maker and writer, I quickly realized that comedy connects audiences. Now, the best breeding ground for good comic writing is the stand-up comedy circuit, where they just happen to say that you kill when you do well and you bomb when you do badly. An unfortunate connection for us maybe, but it reminds me that we'd like to thank one man for, over the past decade, working tirelessly to support comedians all around the world, specifically comedians with a Middle Eastern background. (Applause) Like my good friends, Dean and Maysoon, at the bottom of the screen, who, two years after 9/11, started a festival to change the way Middle Easterners are perceived in the world. It's still going strong, with positive press to die for. Also, three guys working for years in Los Angeles, an Iranian, a Palestinian and an Egyptian, created the aptly named Axis of Evil comedy act. And wherever they went, they killed.

Now, I didn't start this fire, but I did pour petrol on it. I moved to Dubai as the head of original content for a Western TV network. My job was to connect the brand with a Middle Eastern audience. Now, the American head of programming wanted new local Arabic comedy. In a thick Arabic accent, my brain went, "Berfect." (Laughter) Now, I had friends in the U.S. who had started a successful new tribe. And I had every intention of taking this tribe from being outliers in the Middle East and pushing them over the tipping point towards success. Now, as with any new idea, it wasn't easy. I had four phases to this plan. First, we'd need to buy content from the West and air it. Then I'd bring my friends, and we'd show local amateurs how it's done. We would film that and air it, and then I could work with the local amateurs and write new comedy.

I excitedly presented this to the big boss, and his reaction was, "Um, I don't get it." So I retreated back to my cave and continued to support and produce comedy and let my friends use my couch as a regional operations hub. Now, fast forward two years, to early 2007. The earth rotated, as did our management, (Laughter) and as if by divine intervention, things came together to help this revolution take shape. Here's how the dots connected. First, the Axis guys recorded a Comedy Central special that aired in the States, and it was getting great hits on YouTube. Our new French CEO believed in the power of positive PR ... (Laughter) and ideas du bon marche. Let's just say "value for money." I produced in Dubai a show for Ahmed Ahmed to showcase his new Axis special to a packed room. I invited our new CEO, and as soon as he realized we had a room packed full of laughing infidels, his reaction was very simple: "Let's make this happen. And one more thing: No, don't F it up." So I quickly went to work with a great team around me. I happened to find a funny guy to present it in Arabic, who is originally Korean, a perfect fit for the Axis of Evil. This is all true.

Now, while preparing for the tour, I had to remind the guys to be culturally sensitive. I used the three Bs of stand-up don'ts as I call them in the Middle East: blue content, keep it clean; beliefs, not religion; and the third B, bolitics. Stay away from bolitics in the Middle East. Oh course, you might think, what's left without bolitics, sex and religion, how can you make people laugh? I'd say, watch any successful well-written, family-friendly sitcom in the West for your answers.

Now, were the Axis successful? In five countries, in just under a month, we had thousands of fanatical fans come and see them live. We had millions see them on TV and on TV news. In Jordan, we had His Majesty the King come and see them. In fact, they were so successful that you could buy a pirated copy of their DVD, even before it was released in the Middle East. Anywhere you go. So everywhere we went, we auditioned amateurs. We filmed that process and aired a documentary. I called it "Three Guys and Wonho." It really is his name. And all this TV and Internet exposure has led to a great many recruits to our cause. In Dubai this year, we've just had the first all-women's, homegrown stand-up show. And notice two of them are wearing headscarves, and yes, even they can laugh.

Dubai, to me, is like a hand that supports anyone who wants to make things happen. 20 years ago, no one had heard of it. Look at it now. With an inspirational leader, I think this year, the opening of the tallest tower in the world is like adding a finger to that hand, that points at all those who spread fallacious stories about us.



Now, in three short years, we've come a long way with stand-up comedy shows happening even in Saudi Arabia. These comics are now going to the New York festival. And the Lebanese, brilliant Lebanese, Nemr Abou Nassar, we featured in our first tour, has just been performing in L.A.'s legendary comedy clubs. So clearly, from the inside, we are doing our best to change our image, and it's exploding. (Laughter) So, as for the outsiders looking in, watch the CNN report on the second Amman Comedy Festival. The reporter did a great job, and I thank her, but somebody forgot to send the positive PR email to the person operating the automatic news ticker that appears at the bottom. For example, when Dean talks, the ticker says, "U.S.: Suspect gave 'actionable intel." Well, if you're used to listening to comedians, then I'm not surprised.

Sadly, this leads me to another three Bs that represents how the media in the West talks about us as bombers, billionaires and belly dancers. Enough. We're not all angry fanatics who want to kill the infidel. We have a positive story to tell and image to sell. In fact, one thing's for sure, in my experience, we love to laugh like hell.


Here are three questions that I like to use to test the truthiness of our representation in any media story. One: Is the Middle East being shown in a current time and correct context? (Laughter) Two: Do the Middle Eastern characters laugh or smile without showing the whites of their eyes? (Laughter) Three: Is the Middle Eastern character being played by one? Clearly, there are wrongs that need to be righted. We've started in our region. My challenge to the rest of the world is please, start using positive Middle Eastern images in your stories. For inspiration, go to one of our festivals, go online, drop us a line. Let's change the narrative together and let's start righting writing wrongs.

I'd like to end, before going back to the Middle East, with a quote from one of the greatest Sheikhs to put quill to parchment. As my father likes to call him, "Asheikh Azubare;" as my mother would say, "Shakespeare." (Laughter) "And now we go in content to liberty and not to banishment."

Thank you.


Video Details

Duration: 8 minutes and 40 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 337
Posted by: tedtalks on Aug 19, 2010

Jamil Abu-Wardeh jump-started the comedy scene in the Arab world by founding the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which brings standup comedians to laughing audiences all over the Middle East. He's found that, by avoiding the "three B's" (blue material, beliefs and "bolitics"), the Axis of Evil comics find plenty of cross-border laughs.

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