In 2005, with wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq, comedian Albert Brooks set out on a sort of fact-finding mission. The film he came back with, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, was widely panned, but it spoke to an essential truth: Americans had such a wholehearted misunderstanding of Middle Eastern culture that they actually wondered if Muslims could find it within themselves to laugh.
"I tried to watch that movie," says Iran-born, California-raised stand-up comic Maz Jobrani. "It was not that great." In 2007, Jobrani and three other comics with Middle Eastern roots made their own trip. They called themselves the Axis of Evil.
"We went to the Middle East and did shows," says Jobrani. "We found comedy in the Muslim world. What Albert Brooks was looking for, we found it."
In 30 days they played 27 dates in seven countries, including Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, and beyond. The shows themselves were a hit, though some locales were more welcoming than others.
At times the comics had to submit material to censors before performing. In places like Saudi Arabia, where stand-up isn't allowed, they played on the protected soil of foreign embassies. There were private events that resembled scavenger hunts, where locations were announced only at the last minute. Before a show in Egypt, the comedians were warned by their promoter that a reporter had recently been jailed for writing that then-President Mubarak was "looking older these days."
But the performances were not always frowned upon. "The king of Jordan actually came to our show," Jobrani says. "The next day he invited us to the palace. He couldn't have been cooler—a real nice guy."
Partly driven by the internet revolution, Jobrani says, the sizable youth culture of the Middle East has a growing appetite for an American style of comedy.
"People on that side of the world were aware what's going on on this side of the world," he says. "They know about Lindsay Lohan. They know about Justin Bieber."
Aside from a taste for Western pop culture, there is a hunger for free expression, as borne out in the recent string of protests and revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. While he is hopeful, Jobrani, whose family left Iran after the fall of the Shah, says the events of the day are no new wellspring for his act.
"I think it's been a pretty interesting time for the last 35 years, to be honest," Jobrani laughs. "I first came to America when I was six years old. Maybe a year or two after I arrived the whole hostage situation happened. So that, right off the bat, started this ball rolling of always being associated with Iran and terrorism and all this other stuff." It's a role Jobrani has embraced.
"You can talk about a lot of things in comedy that you can't say in a serious conversation," he says. "If you're making 'em laugh you can sneak in a message in there and get away with it."
In addition to opening their arms to American comedians, Jobrani has witnessed a homegrown scene building throughout the region. Though the censorship is harsher and the penalties more brutal, young Middle Eastern comics are poised to wage battles for free speech, not unlike those fought by Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. As Jobrani puts it, "Comedy is a very subversive way of getting at some serious issues."