Zahr said his evolution since 9/11 hasn't been about going beyond culture and religion so much as refining it: moving past "my Dad says funny things" and "we smell like garlic" to talking about the New York Police Department's surveillance of Muslims and his encounters with Israeli soldiers.
"In the beginning it was just, 'Let me be very vanilla. We're in the spotlight and people want to hear about us,'" he said. "Later on, I was getting into really making people think twice ... about how they feel about us."
Ahmed Ahmed, 41, a comic and actor who launched what would become the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, was born in Egypt and moved to southern California soon after. He found a champion fairly early on in Mitzi Shore, who ran the influential The Comedy Store in Hollywood. He recalls some prescient conversations with Shore.
"Before 9/11 I had been doing comedy for about 7 years and the year before 9/11 was when Mitzi hired me," Ahmed said. "She had an epiphany that there would be a war between America and the Middle East. ... She said, 'Arab comics are going to be necessary in the world to break down misconceptions and stereotypes.'"
Ahmed said Shore told him she wanted him to open her club's show four days after 9/11. He resisted, but she told him, "You need to go up there and get it out of the way — you'll know what to do."
He obeyed and set about entertaining "a very somber" audience of about 40 people. He asked for a moment of silence for the victims and families, then: "For the record my name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I had nothing to do with it. I'm just saying that so nobody follows me out to the car after the show."
"We sort of broke the chain of hesitation of what was OK, what was not OK to speak about," he said.
Over the decade, he saw Arab comics "come out of the woodwork," which he considers a mixed blessing. Ahmed said it "started becoming watered-down and competitive," and "ugliness" emerged within the growing community of comics.
Some are "using religion as a platform for recognition," says Ahmed, who had a strict Muslim upbringing and considers himself one "on my good days." He said he has had disagreements with a few other Arab comics, including Obeidallah.
Of course, disputes among comedians are nothing new. Bill Cosby has berated other black comics for using the N-word. He twice turned down the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor before accepting it in 2009 because he said he was disgusted with that and other profanity thrown around by performers honoring Richard Pryor, the award's first recipient in 1998.
If that's progress, it's the kind Ahmed could do without — or find much humor in.
"It's disappointing when it's Arab or Muslim comedians ... because we're such a new sort of novelty," he said. "You would think that one would wait for several years until we've had a real voice as a comedy community."
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