Comedy Festival

“We All Need a Laugh”: 20 Years of the Arab American Comedy Festival

In a devastating moment, comedians and festival cofounders Maysoon Zayid and Dean Obeidallah find a way to celebrate a milestone.
Maysoon Zayid
Rick Kern/Getty Images.

Comedian Maysoon Zayid is not interested in proving her humanity to others. “I don’t believe in humanization,” she quips. “If you don’t think I’m human, I can’t even start that conversation with you, because I’d much rather be a cat.” A Jersey-born comic of Palestinian descent with cerebral palsy, Zayid is full of one-liners as we talk in the weeks leading up to the Arab American American Comedy Festival, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday, November 19, at Town Hall in New York.

Zayid cofounded the fest in 2003 with comedian, lawyer, and SiriusXM host Dean Obeidallah, who’s also from New Jersey and of Palestinian descent. “We’re probably the only comedy festival in the country—if not the world—that started in response to a terrorist attack,” Obeidallah tells me in a separate conversation. “But that’s the blunt reality of why this festival started.” In the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq war, “the negativity about Arab Americans on mainstream media, it was off the charts.”

So, Zayid and Obeidallah decided to do something about it. “Since day one, we have been combating the negative images of Arabs and Muslims in the media,” Zayid says. And they’ve stayed the course in uncertain times. “We started this vessel in the run-up to the Iraq war. And then [in 2012] we had it after Hurricane Sandy, when we didn’t know if we would even have electricity. We had it in 2021 when omicron was hitting and we didn’t know if they would close the clubs. We had one on Zoom. We’ve had them during the Yemen genocides, the Arab Springs, we’ve had them on days that mass shootings have happened.”

Now, of course, the festival comes in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, as well as the subsequent monthlong war in Gaza. “We are in the shadow of a moment in history where I thought I had seen it all,” Zayid says. “The show must go on, but I’ve never been in an atmosphere like this.”

“If you watch the media, there’s very little humanity of the Palestinians, the innocent people who are dying,” says Obeidallah. “Most of the stories are about Hamas and that somehow all Palestinians are Hamas, which is vile to say; Hamas is a terrorist group. The result is the pain that so many in our community are feeling.”

That community is banding together this Sunday. Zayid and Obeidallah will be joined by a bevy of comics of Arab descent, including Mohanad Elshieky and Dave Merheje, as well as Tony and Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub, who will sit for “a fireside chat.”

Born in Windsor, Canada, to Lebanese parents, Merheje plays Ahmed on Ramy Youssef’s Emmy-nominated FX series, Ramy. Over the phone, he tells me he’s finding it hard to motivate himself to tell jokes at a time like this. “Some days, honestly, I just don’t really feel like going up, like, I’m not as super-motivated,” he says. “It’s just so heartbreaking. ”

Still, Merheje plans to perform new material this Sunday. “I went to the Middle East for the first time over the last two years,” he says. “I went to Lebanon, where my parents were born, last year, and then I went to Egypt and Dubai.” Merheje says he was enamored by the region’s beauty. “I just felt this thing I never felt before. I’ve been trying to share that experience, because it was very beautiful. The people were great. The people were so welcoming, and there was such care and love and empathy that I saw there that I’ll never forget.”

Elshieky, who served as a digital producer on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee and has appeared on Conan and Comedy Central, was born and raised in Libya, but has not been able to return home since coming to the US in 2014 for what was supposed to be just a six-week exchange program. “I used to do a lot of translation work for journalists and whatnot who came to Libya to cover the civil war that was going on,” Elshieky says. “Because of my visit to the States—especially that it was sponsored by the US Department of State—I think some of the groups back home that were in control at the time assumed that I was somehow involved with the US government.”

“I can’t go back to Libya because I applied for political asylum and all of that stuff,” he adds. “I do not think it’s safe for me, personally, to go back. Hopefully, in the future, things change. Who knows?”

Like Merheje, Elshieky is having a hard time motivating himself to tell jokes right now. But he also believes that in doing so, he’ll find the strength he needs to persist in trying times. “I’m doing it so I can have some energy, because I feel like everything has been just absolutely fucking terrible,” he tells me. “A lot of the people who attend the festival are Arabs, Muslims, and brown people. Everyone has been having a bad time, but especially people who are in that community. This is good for me and good for them as well—just to be in a space with people who look like them, and maybe help take their mind away from just how terrible everything is.”

While there’s a cathartic element, at the end of the day, this is a comedy festival. “I need a laugh. We all need a laugh,” says Merheje. “The stress level has been off the charts for the last three weeks. I’m a human being too, I need some laughter, adds Obeidallah.

“You’re not coming in for a lecture,” says Zayid. “The level of talent—I cannot stress enough how fricking funny this show is and how accessible it is to everyone. You don’t have to be Arab. You don’t have to be happy. You don’t have to be from New York. There’s jokes in this for everybody.”

As proof of concept, Zayid tells me that she’ll be breaking out tap shoes at one point during her set. “I’m really excited. I’m going to be tap dancing,” she says. “I’m going to tap dance on Broadway, because if you grew up in Jersey dreaming of being on Broadway and then you’re on Broadway, and you happen to be a tap dancer, you’ve got to tap dance.”

Zayid relishes challenging preconceived notions, whether they’re about people with disabilities or people of Arab descent. “The conversation I want to have is with the parents who have a disabled kid, and they’re pining for that perfect kid that they didn’t have. I want them to be like, ‘Oh, wait, I think my kid could actually be dope.’ Maybe I should actually pay attention to what I have. Or someone who’s like, ‘Did you know that Muslim women are not allowed to blow their noses?’ And then I come on stage and they’re like, ‘I saw a tap dancing Muslim.’ It opens their eyes up.”