Odd couple of comics: Jew, Muslim
Saturday, January 15, 2005
By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret Morning News
It has been said that tragedy plus time equals comedy.
And it was, in some sense, the unlikely interplay of tragedy and comedy that brought a Jew and a Muslim together on stage to make others laugh within a year after 9/11.
They're bringing their act to Salt Lake City later this month with the hope that some who have viewed diverse viewpoints and lifestyles as divisive will think again.
Rabbi Bob Alper said he knew it was time to follow his passion for comedy when he found himself "really looking forward to the announcements" at the beginning of services for his Reform congregation. Religious worship and philosophy weren't fulfilling compared to the way he felt when he made people laugh.
He started devoting more time to his one-man show, and shortly after 9/11, Alper called a publicist in Los Angeles to help raise his visibility. She told him to do a show with an Arab comedian. His response: "Any other ideas?"
At first the suggestion annoyed him, but she kept insisting, and found a Muslim comedian named Ahmed Ahmed who had performed at the renowned Comedy Club in Los Angeles and had received some high-profile media attention.
"He sent me a copy of a tape of himself with Barbara Walters, and he came across as warm, affable and funny." Their first show in a town outside Philadelphia found Ahmed "sweating bullets."
"He said he couldn't believe he was doing comedy at a synagogue and wondered whether he might be in physical danger." Alper believed the only hazard was that they would "probably love him to death, which is exactly what happened."
Though Ahmed had been doing comedy before 9/11, Alper said, he had to change his entire act after that and has been able to parlay the resulting suspicion directed toward some Muslim Americans into a reason to laugh. One of his classic lines: "You know how they always tell you to be at the airport an hour before your flight? I'm there for days before."
He tells of being in St. Louis to do a show sponsored by both a pro-Palestinian and a pro-Israeli group. They were waiting for Ahmed to show, but "he never made it through the airport. It was the day before the elections. They cuffed him at the airport and threw him in jail for eight hours. . . . I tried to bail him out with my credit card. He was on stage the next night at the Comedy Club in L.A. doing a show about it."
Though some find it odd that the two would perform together — and that they actually like each other — Alper said he rejected the idea of doing the show with an Arab at first not because of his faith or ethnicity, but because he was another comedian. "Most of us are neurotic, and I'm thinking, 'Do I want to spend that much time with him? I'm a lone wolf here — I do one-man shows.' "
But once they met, it didn't take long before they became friends. The consummate odd couple, Alper will turn 60 this month and is 5-foot-8, while Ahmed is 34 and stands 6-foot-3. He tells audiences "the only thing we have in common is both of us are exceptionally good-looking. They laugh, which makes me feel bad."
After one show they did together in Chicago, they found a bar afterward, and while Ahmed parked the car, Alper entered to pay the cover charge and told the hosts his friend was following behind. They asked for his name. "Ahmed," he replied. They asked again. "Ahmed."
"OK, we know your name's Ed," said the host. "What's his?"
Alper said he and Ahmed want their audiences — from London to Harvard to Oklahoma City — not only to laugh, but to know the two of them are friends and proud of it.
There have been some ramifications for both, Alper said, noting his e-mail to a rabbi in London last year asking if the synagogue might consider hosting the pair for a show. He was told that couldn't happen because of the political implications — not because of Ahmed but because an Orthodox synagogue could never host a Reform rabbi.
Ahmed gets critical e-mails from fundamentalist Muslims who accuse him of defaming his faith, Alper said. "He tends to take them to heart because he's a serious Muslim. It's important to both of us that we're both serious about our faith."
But along with some criticism, they got a payoff recently, Alper said, after a performance at American University when a Muslim man came up after the show to tell them how much he enjoyed it and how important their work was. They later learned the man was Akbar Ahmed, one of the world's leading authorities on Islamic civilization. "To have someone like that be supportive takes the wind out of the blow-hards' sails."
Overall, he's found Jewish audiences "very relieved."
"For them to see our relationship and just be in a room with a Muslim or Arab person who is Ahmed's type, when they have seen so many threatening and horrible images, to be able to see and interact with someone like Ahmed is very healing."
While they "don't touch" current political dialogue in their act, Alper said the two have talked about how they would love to perform in Israel or a Muslim nation. "Ahmed usually says we'd like to do 'Live from the Gaza Strip' with 5,000 Arabs and 5,000 Jews together and roast a pig. Seriously, we would love to do it, but don't think it's realistic right now."
As they close their show, they remind the audience there are serious issues that divide Americans, and say in addition to their comedy they've come up with one idea that could help bridge the divide: "If all of us could simply learn Irish dancing. So the music comes up from 'Riverdance' and we do the end of it."
Both men agree — and hope their audiences will too — it's hard to hate someone you've laughed with.
Alper and Ahmed will perform Sunday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 2 N. Medical Drive. Adults and children over 11 are welcome. Call 801-581-0098 for ticket information.