Comedians poking fun of the Middle East isn't the minefield it used to be. The Axis of Evil comedy tour helped spread post-9/11 humor, and clubs now devote entire nights to comics of Middle Eastern heritage. If all good comedy comes from pain, what better material than war, terrorism and bloodshed?
That’s the idea behind iO West’s new sketch show, The Arab Israeli Comedy Hour, which has upcoming performances on July 24 and 31. Roni Geva and Daniel Younathan run wild like two crazy infidels lampooning not only the political and social upheaval in that part of the world — including that biggest of minefields, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but also Arab and Muslim stereotypes, including everything from territorial wars to fetishizing women with guns to the white-washing of ethnic cuisine. (Rosemary in falafel? Scary.)“The Middle East is rife with so many stories,” Younathan says during an interview with Geva at a Hollywood café. “Why not use those and bring those to the forefront and not just focus on one?”
When they enter the stage, Geva and Younathan greet the audience with a loud zaghareet, a high-pitched ululation, which, if you’ve ever heard at a Middle Eastern wedding will have your ears ringing. “Please don’t leave,” Geva says at the start of the show. “Because I strapped a bomb to the back of the door, so if you leave, you die.”
Geva is from Tel Aviv, where she’s done comedy and theater, including performing for Israeli soldiers. Younathan was born in London to an Assyrian-Christian family originally from Iraq. (Assyrians are descended from an ancient civilization that included part of what is now Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.) The two moved to different cities before meeting each other at the Groundlings. They conceived the idea of staging something that explored their seemingly opposite yet very similar backgrounds. (Geva performed a different version of the show at both the iO here and in Chicago in 2003 with another partner, who was of Lebanese descent.) They premiered The Arab Israeli Comedy Hour at iO West’s improv festival in June.
Geva and Younathan zip through more than a dozen skits, putting a comedic twist on even the most heady of subjects. In their hands, conflict over land is akin to fighting over a chair, each booting the other off with props like a dollar bill, dynamite and a machine gun, all set to the soundtrack from Jaws.
“If you boil it down, it can become juvenile and dumb and embarrassing on both sides,” Geva says. “So in my mind I thought of it as two kids fighting over the last cookie or a chair.”
“You could emote more with physicality,” Younathan says. “It's more intelligent that way, because what could we possibly say that hasn’t been said.”
Other sketches take place at a Syrian voting booth, a Baghdad Holiday Inn Express, a terrorist cell with two, bickering terrorists and a UC Berkeley poetry slam, where two girls — a Jew and a Muslim — bemoan the West's misappropriation of falafel.
“It doesn’t just represent food, it represents how we treat people,” Younathan says. “We change the food like we're changing the people.”
Geva and Younathan even perform a couple of musical spoofs, including one in which they change lyrics to Katy Perry songs: “I kissed a girl and I got stoned” and “’Cause, baby, you’re an atom bomb.”
“These songs are super popular and super catchy, and they’re just burned into your psyche,” Geva says. “So when you change the lyrics people are immediately surprised,” Younathan adds. “And for a comedian, that's what you look for — the element of surprise. We wanted to juxtapose the happiness with the sadness of these characters.”
In another, a West Side Story send-up called “West Bank Story,” they change the lyrics in “Somewhere” to: “There’s two states for us/Right here, two states for us/Peace and harmony fill the air/Drop your uzies and we’ll take you there.” (Though this concept isn't completely fresh — there's also an Oscar-winning short film called West Bank Story.)
Geva and Younathan don’t have any misgivings about satirizing such polarizing topics. They hope to — inshallah — take the show to different cities and upload bits onto Youtube, with the exception of one called “Epic Rap Battle” that involves the two dressed as Moses and Mohammed smack-talking each other.
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“We got very strong advice against putting it on Youtube, so as to not get a Fatwa on our lives,” Geva says. “And I wanna live.” Younathan says.
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