By Pat Launer
A Jew and an Arab walk into a theater. Nope, it’s not a joke — though it’s teeming with them.
“One Arab. One Jew. One Stage: Laugh in Peace” features two standup comedians who’ve appeared together around the world, hosted by Jews, Muslims and interested, open-minded others. Now, they’re coming to San Diego for one night only (two shows), Tuesday, January 27, courtesy of the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla.
It all began in 2001, when Alper’s publicist had an idea for a collaboration. Alper leapt on it. The publicist searched for a Muslim comedian and immediately found the much-admired and acclaimed Ahmed Ahmed.
“We swapped videotapes,” Alper explains, by phone from his home in rural Vermont. “We each liked what we saw.”
Within two months, they had their first gig together, and have now logged more than 250 performances as a duo. They “tag-team,” as Alper puts it, each doing a separate standup set of about 30 minutes; then they come together to answer questions from the audience.
“People are curious,” Alper admits. “We’ve done churches, mosques, theaters, tons of colleges. People of all faiths appreciate what we do. There’s a spiritual aspect of laughter.”
Since Ahmed is so busy in Hollywood, Alper has two other comedians he works with: an Indian and a Palestinian. Like him, all his partners are “totally non-political.”
“We’re comedians, not politicians,” Alper explains. And that’s just what they answer when audiences ask for their opinions about current events or the Middle East.
Ahmed has had plenty of experience in the Middle East. He was born in Helwan, Egypt, “a small, primitive farm village outside Cairo.” But his family emigrated when he was just one month old, and he was raised in Riverside.
In 2007, he took ten American comedians (including African Americans, German-Americans, and Middle Eastern-Americans) to the Middle East where, over the course of 30 days, they made history, performing for a total of 20,000 Arabs and Muslims, in five countries. Ahmed made a documentary of the experience, “Just Like Us,” which was selected at 30 international film festivals, winning several Best Director and Best Documentary awards. Now he’s editing the sequel, describing another comedy tour, this one visiting Syria, Jordan, Oman and the Palestine territory.
Ahmed is in high demand. He was hand-picked by Vince Vaughn for his touring “Wild West Comedy Show” (2005-present) and he also appeared in the film of the same name. He’s the winner of the first annual Richard Pryor Award for Ethnic Comedy, and he continues to be a regular paid performer at the Comedy Store in L.A. and in La Jolla. He performs around the country, and spends ten months a year on the road.
When he first got the call from Alper’s publicist, talking about a rabbi-turned-standup-comedian, he says, “I thought someone was playing a joke.”
Now, after 13 years, their relationship is still fun — for them and for the audience. “Funny is funny,” Ahmed says. “We’ve never gotten any negative feedback.”
Some of the questions that surface in the Q&A section of the show ask Ahmed if he would ever perform in Israel (“Yes, but it hasn’t happened yet”), and if his parents agree with what he’s doing? (Yes, more or less).
“I was always a prankster in school,” Ahmed admits. At age 19, he moved to Hollywood “to pursue this crazy business.” He became an actor, producer and director. In 2014, he appeared as “Ahmed” in TBS’ comedy series, “Sullivan and Son,” which was cancelled only a few months ago. He’s been in the films “Swinger,” “Iron Man,” “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” and “Executive Decision.”
“I want to spread my message,” he says. “Comedy in the Middle East just cracked open less than ten years ago, and I’m honored to say I was able to witness and be part of that. They never had live, public standup before. But, thanks to Facebook and youtube, they were primed and ready to hear American comedy. They totally got it.”
There are definitely some jokes that he would do here but not in the Middle East: “anything too racy or about religion, sex or politics. I call it doing my ‘Tonite Show’ set: clean and family-friendly.”
In his 90-minute shows with Alper, Ahmed says, “Bob always goes first, so I watch what people are laughing at. I really make my decision about what material to use ten minutes before I walk up onstage. I touch on some current events, but most of my stuff is personal.”
Alper’s background as a rabbi prepared him for his second career. “Being a rabbi gave me 25 years’ experience performing in front a hostile audience!,” he jokes.
Having been ordained, and obtained a doctorate at Princeton Theological Seminary, he served as a congregational rabbi for years, in Buffalo and Philadelphia. Then 27 years ago, he made the transition to standup comic (though he still conducts High Holy Day services every fall). A preternaturally funny guy, he’s had SRO crowds and standing ovations at many of his performances, including for 2700 people at New York’s famed adult education center and summer resort, the Chautauqua Institution. Alper has appeared on “The Today Show” and “Good Morning, America,” among others. He’s written inspirational books of humor, wisdom and warmth (“Life Doesn’t Get any Better than This,” “Thanks. I Needed That”), and has produced two popular comedy CDs and a DVD.
When Alper performs around the country with Ahmed, he says, the response is “homogeneous and universal. People think there are regional differences, but there aren’t. It’s a fast-paced evening, and it’s lots of fun. I certainly defy expectations. People hear that I’m a rabbi/comedian and they think I’ll tell really long stories with a punchline that requires translation. Then they find that it’s pure standup and they’re pleasantly surprised.”
As Ahmed puts it: “I truly believe that laughter heals, and that comedy can bridge the gap between communities around the world.”
Amen to that, gentlemen. And welcome to San Diego.
- “One Arab. One Jew. One Stage” plays on January 27 ONLY, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Solana Beach
- The 7:30 p.m. show is already sold out. A second show, at 9:15 p.m., has been added
- Tickets ($20-$25)are available at the JCC Box Office only: 868-362-1348
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.
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