When Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid created the Arab American Comedy Festival in 2003, they weren’t expecting it to be around 20 years later. They had more pressing concerns, like presenting Arab Americans in a positive light in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But here they are. And now, they are expanding their mission and taking the festival on the road, beginning with a show Saturday at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre.
Traditionally held in New York, the festival will be coming to four different cities in the coming months. It kicks off in Boston, with the main festival in New York in November, then plays San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in 2024. “The festival is 20. It has to be celebrated,” says Zayid. “Dean and I, when we started this . . . we didn’t know if we would even pull off a festival the first year.”
In those early days, it was all they could do to fill the roster with comedians, scouring social media to find performers. This year, the Boston date alone features six comedians. Joining Zayid and Obeidallah will be Eman Morgan, Atheer Yacoub, Mohanad Elshieky, and Nina Kharoufeh. “We probably had six or seven comics in the first year,” says Obeidallah. “Now we have 25 and 30 in the big New York show and have to turn people away. And it really is a testament to how much it’s grown.”
Though the festival has activist roots in promoting Arab American comedians, Obeidallah and Zayid say the emphasis is on the comedy. “I hope that people who don’t know anything about being Arabic but like comedy take a chance,” says Obeidallah. “It’s a professional-level comedy show. It’s not ‘Arabian Idol.’”
Zayid points to the diversity of perspective among the comics on the bill. She calls herself “an Arabic Golden Girl,” speaking from the vantage point of an older divorced woman, and she also addresses life as someone with cerebral palsy. Obeidallah is the more overtly political of the two, a regular on CNN and host of the “The Dean Obeidallah Show” on SiriusXM.
Zayid describes Morgan as having “Kevin-Hart-esque energy.” Yacoub, she says, “is young and single and still has hope.” Kharoufeh wears a hijab, even when she’s boxing, and is a matchmaker on TLC’s international dating show “Match Me Abroad.” Elshieky, who was a digital producer on “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” was born in Libya and is based in New York.
That range of perspectives would have been harder to come by from Arab American comedians when the festival started. Obeidallah was a young comic in 2001 and remembers changing his name for some shows post-9/11 at the suggestion of a booker and consciously avoiding talking about the Palestinian side of his ethnicity (he is also part Italian). Some of the material he is preparing for the festival deals with his personal arc post-9/11 as he became more defiant of the bigotry thrown his way. “When it became political, then it became of interest to me,” he says. “The idea of using a vehicle like comedy to try to tell people our story and who we are has always appealed.”
Obeidallah says he has seen a shift in the entertainment business over the last 20 years toward more inclusivity for Arab Americans. Ramy Youssef, who was featured in earlier editions of the festival that included sketch comedy, has seen success with his Hulu show “Ramy.” Mo Amer, who has also performed at the festival, has his own Netflix show. “I think overall the industry has become more supportive of Arab-American comics,” says Obeidallah. “It took time. In the beginning it wasn’t like that at all.”
Though less politically focused onstage than Obeidallah, Zayid is an activist offstage. She has a graphic novel called “Shiny Misfits” coming out in April 2024 that centers a character with a disability. Though she does have a recurring role on the soap opera “General Hospital,” she has fought her share of battles with the television industry to tell stories about being a woman of color with a disability, which she details in her memoir, “Find Another Dream.” But she has found that stand-up is an antidote to those struggles. “That’s why comedy is so much fun,” she says. “Because I don’t need Hollywood to love me. I don’t need to audition. All we need is, like, a microphone, and a speaker. And we get to wild out.”
She’s also wary of the idea that her story is “inspirational” to others. " I always say, if you’re inspired by the fact that I wake up and choose life every day just because I’m disabled and you’d rather be dead than disabled, then I don’t want to inspire you,” says Zayid. “But if you’re inspired by me because I’m a brown chick in a predominantly cis-gendered, able-bodied, straight white man world, and somehow I’ve managed to get where I’ve gotten, then yeah, like, be inspired by me.”
Zayid and Obeidallah want the festival to continue to grow and provide opportunities for comedians to be seen. Obeidallah would like to see the festival play in more cities and bring the talented performers greater recognition.
“I just hope that there are more comics who are regulars in the festival that really have success in the entertainment industry and become household names,” he says. “And I think we’re on the verge of that happening. And to me, that would be the greatest accomplishment, to see the success of people who started in the festival, and that this was a nurturing place for them. They continued in it, and then became famous. And then don’t forget us.”
ARAB AMERICAN COMEDY FESTIVAL
At the Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. $25-$30. www.arabcomedy.com
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.