In the mainstream American media, the face of Islam is often scowling or – at the very least – deadly serious.
For a few funny nights in downtown Washington this month, three Muslim comics aim to dispel that image through comedy. “Allah Made Me Funny: the World Domination Tour,” featuring three of America’s leading Muslim comics, comes to the nation’s capital Sept. 14-17 for a showcase at the new Riot Act Comedy Theater in Penn Quarter.
The timing of the Washington show is significant, coming just a few days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, an event that had a deep and lasting impact on the way many Americans perceive Islam. The comedic trio of Mohammed “Mo” Amer, Bryant “Preacher” Moss and Azhar Usman try to dispel stereotypes and foster understanding across cultures by using laughs as their “weapon.”
Moss, a DC native, and Usman, who grew up in an Illinois suburb populated mostly by Jewish people, each told On Tap that Sept. 11 and the hostility and suspicion toward Muslims that it bred was an important impetus for the creation of the original “Allah Made Me Funny” documentary in 2008. The film, spawned from the longest-running comedy tour in America, was directed by independent filmmaker Andrea Kalin.
“I always wanted our contribution after 9/11 to be about the spirit of the American people – a spirit that can’t be dominated,” Moss said. “I don’t care if you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, whatever. This is America, the greatest country in the world.
“Extremists, racists – they can’t keep the goodness of the American people down,” he added. “Allah Made Me Funny is a protest movement, man! And the name world domination is kind of a play on people who are Islamophobic.”
In the documentary, the comics mine material from everyday life and the unique aspects of Islamic tradition. Amer riffs on the uncomfortable feeling he got yelling out for his nephew “Osama” when he disappeared at a Wal-Mart. Usman jokes about how some Iranian businessmen are making a killing manufacturing US flags to burn. Usman also talks about the challenge of getting kids excited about a religion that requires them to fast for a month.
The “Allah Made Me Funny” tour employs all new material, but strives to demonstrate that people – even practicing Muslims – are simply people, often to funny effect.
“We’re Muslims, but we’re American Muslims, so it’s a very American show,” Usman said. “We’re an African-American, an Arab-American and I happen to be Indian-American. All of those experiences find their way into the show. A very small percentage of the show is about something religious, per se. It’s more about the differences in our cultures.”
Moss, the founder of the show, said the inspiration for it was two-fold.
“Number one, there were really a lot of issues within the Muslim community — this community is not really connected to one another,” he said. “And then there was the other issue of the Muslim community as a whole not being a part of the mainstream.
“As an African-American Muslim I felt like I had the insight to galvanize both groups,” he added, pausing with a comic’s timing before delivering the punch line with a laugh. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into!”
Moss said some of the more sensitive and devout Muslims in the American Islamic community were not initially thrilled about a comedic tour based on their religion and way of life.
“You had those who did feel that way, absolutely, but they were few and far between,” Moss said. “We’ve been extremely fortunate and blessed that the Islamic scholarship here in the US and around the world has congealed an opinion that this is a good thing to do.
“As comics, we can get into nooks and crannies of our society that a lot of clerics can’t get into,” he continued. “We can be very effective with the youths and the younger Muslims who don’t come to mosque. We can be very effective with non-Muslims because we’re speaking their language onstage with the humor. We’re meeting people at a medium where they feel comfortable.”
Asman, a lawyer by training, concurred, suggesting that he got involved in the tour after realizing that his own upbringing in Muslim community organizations would lend unique insights and credibility to the tour.
“There were some [Muslim] guys trying to make it in the Hollywood scene as comics, but none of them had a meaningful connection to the American Muslim grassroots organizations,” Asman explained. “Or, there were guys who were doing it inside the bubble of the Muslim community organizations but none of them had a footprint in mainstream entertainment, nor did they really have a path to get there.”
Asman also said that the very name of the tour is a shout out to Allah, or God.
“It kind of gives credit to God for making us funny, and that’s something that is deeply ingrained in the tradition – the idea that everything is from God,” he said. “One of the greatest talents and gifts we have is the ability to make people laugh. It’s giving credit where credit is due. I believe it’s a very blessed and beautiful name.”
Riot Act Comedy Theater
The transformation of Penn Quarter over the past decade from sketchy to spectacular is pretty much complete with the arrival of Riot Act, a state-of-the-art comedy club.
With Verizon Center as an anchor, this downtown neighborhood has seen a steady infusion of high-quality restaurants, bars and shops over the past decade. Until recently, however, there was virtually no live entertainment outside of the sprawling arena. That changed this year – first with Hill Country, a Texas barbecue joint that features nightly live music downstairs, and now with Riot Act, a gleaming, two-level, 13,000 square foot comedy showroom with 330 seats, a movie screen backdrop and digital recording and broadcast capabilities.
The man in charge of making the magic happen at Riot Act is owner John Xereas, a genial 42-year-old Pittsburgh native who has spent the past 15 years learning the stand-up comedy business from the ground up at the Improv comedy theater across town. Xereas (pronounced Ex-ear-ee-us) said he had no doubt that a second comedy club could thrive in Washington.
“Most major cities have at least two comedy clubs, so there was definitely a need for it,” said Xereas, who ran a much smaller version of the Riot Act club on 14th Street NW for a couple of years before opening the new and much-improved version.
He said the club plans to book lots of local comedians, as well as better-known national names.
“People like T-Rex and Big Al and Rob Cantrell and Charles Fleischer – they’re all DC people but they haven’t had a chance to play their hometown,” he said. “There is so much talent here and there aren’t enough good places for them to work.”
Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, killed during his opening night performance at Riot Act in mid-August.
“He’s a great performer and a great person,” Xereas said. “I was really proud to have him as my first comic.”
Another Riot Act staple will be a weekly open-mic night on Tuesday nights. True rookies will each get three to five minutes stage time, while more experienced comics will get six to eight minutes. The first night drew 20 would-be comics and 150 people.
While comedy is the lifeblood of Riot Act, the space has a multi-purposed functionality that will help its bottom line. Two bars outside the performing space allow patrons who aren’t seeing a show the chance to check out the club and have a drink.
“We have good space and an open flow,” Xereas said. “It’s a nice big area for people to move around and do their thing.”
Meanwhile, state-of-the-art audio-visual capabilities make the venue attractive for conferences or other events.
“We can do everything from teleconferencing to Power Point presentations to simul-casting to film festivals,” Xereas said. “We’re primarily a comedy club but it’s a perfect place for a conference. We have all the options.”
Asked about early criticisms of the club, Xereas pointed to the mostly-bare walls.
“We’ll get local artists to do renditions of comics,” he promised. “We’re just trying to bring positivity and laughs and good things to the neighborhood.”
So far, mission accomplished.
Riot Act Comedy Club: 801 E St. NW; 202-697-4900; www.riotactcomedy.com.