NYC Arab American Comedy Festival returns for a diverse and vital 17th year

Actor, comedian and festival co-founder Maysoon Zayid.
Photo by Michelle Kinney Photography

The NYC Arab American Comedy Festival, or “COVID can’t stop Arabs from being funny,” will be dolling out the laughs virtually this weekend. Actor and comedian Maysoon Zayid and co-founder and “partner in comedy crime” Dean Obeldallah are launching the festival in a particularly difficult year for both New York City’s comedy and theater scenes, given that enclosed performance spaces with food, drink, company and laughter have all the makings of a COVID super-spreader. The festival was launched 17 years ago to combat “negative images and stereotypes of Arab culture in post-9/11 America,” and has since launched many careers, including that of Golden Globe-winner Ramy Youssef of Hulu’s “Ramy” fame.

For Zayid it is important to recognize that the festival will categorically not, “be a bunch of hummus jokes,” as the incredibly diverse array of performers from all other the states and globe each bring “their own brand of comedy, viewpoint and story.” In the case of Zayid that story includes facets of being a “ disabled Palestinian woman of color who just got divorced on Labor Day,” and so the comedy she tells will be different from that of say, Eman El Husseini, who will be performing as part of Friday’s festival line-up and who is a gay Palestinian woman drawing on, amongst other things, her personal life and marriage to a Jewish-Canadian woman.

In her TED talk “I got 99 problems… and palsy is just one”, Zayid remarks, “If there was an oppression Olympics I would win the gold medal. I’m Palestinian, I’m Muslim, I’m a woman, I’m disabled and I live in New Jersey.” In conversation with amNewYork Metro, Zayid emphasized the persistent difficulty of fighting the “nasty rumor” that “women aren’t funny.” As well as inclusivity to different faiths and ways of life, the New York Arab American Comedy Festival proudly boasts equilibrium between male and female performers. Zayid spoke of comedy circuits relegating women to “ladies nights” or having one female performer—a “token woman”—per show. All in all, the level of inclusivity of mainstream comedy can be boiled down to a Netflix search of stand up comedy, in which the first ten hits are for the shows of white men.

For all of these reasons, Zayid sees the festival she co-created all of those years ago as essential. One silver lining of the virtual show platform is that the audience is not exclusively in New York, but viewership is rather international. This does present some barriers for Zayid in terms of maintaining a shows energy, “You have to hear them clapping inside of your head” and “I’m like Tinker Bell, I die without applause.” That being said, having shifted to online shows in March, all of the performers are pros at the new format and the bar is especially high.

According to Zayid, the negative stereotypes against Arab-Americans persist to this day, and those hateful flames were fanned by the presidency of Donald Trump, meaning that the election of Joe Biden serves as a light on the horizon—“I never thought I needed a white savior, but I did, I needed Joe Biden”—for both democracy and for the uncertain future of performing spaces in New York City and beyond. Zayid is an incredibly self-assured performer, “I love being onstage, I don’t get nervous, I never choke.” And in her success, although she hopes the president-elect and powers that be will help the New York City performance scene and Broadway get back on its feet once it is safe to do so, Zayid is already thinking of ways in which more successful comics can fundraise for the revival of live performance, “And not just for the big clubs in NYC. But for all the mom-and-pop clubs throughout the U.S. that have launched the careers of so many comics.”

Although it remains sad for Zayid that her comedy family cannot convene this year at its home venue, Gotham Comedy Club, celebrating the “new world order” and triumph over Trump’s fascism—an embrace of tyranny Zayid describes as a “such a middle-eastern dictator move”—will enliven the festival in a special way this year. And if that means there “might even be too much Trump material,” then so be it.

The Arab American Comedy Festival is running shows Friday Nov. 13 at 8 p.m., Saturday Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday Nov. 14 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10 and on Facebook www.facebook.com/NYAACF or at www.arabcomedy.com/shows