When Americans think of the Middle East, they think of terrorism, conflict, war and suspects. Laughter is rarely an association.
But a new Comedy Central online show might help change that. "The Watch List" is the first show ever released by a major American media company starring comedians all of Middle Eastern descent. It pokes fun at misconceptions about the Middle East, as well as Middle Easterners themselves.
On the show comedian Nasry Malak jokes about how his family tried to become as patriotic as possible after Sept. 11. "So my family and I have been discussing it, and we're actually thinking about turning in my father. It's not because he did anything wrong, it would just make us look so patriotic." A comedy sketch follows, showing the family plotting against the father in the kitchen, dropping the Koran and Arab newspapers in a box labeled "Evidence against Dad."
The show deals with a variety of issues facing Middle Eastern-Americans post-Sept. 11.
Comedian Ahmed Ahmed jokes about not being able to fly anywhere anymore. Maz Jobrani's humor centers around how the media rarely reports positive news from the Middle East.
One of his sketches depicts a news correspondent reporting breaking news from Iran. "Iranian bakes a cookie," the correspondent reports.
"I've been to Iran," says Jobrani. "We have cookies."
The title of the show is "a play on the concept of the watch list employed by the U.S. government in monitoring potential terrorists -- many of which are Middle Easterners," notes comedian and co-creator Dean Obeidalla.
The title is also intended to encourage people to watch the show. "Not because we are terrorists, of course, but because we are funny," he adds.
Co-creator Max Brooks, the son of famous comedian Mel Brooks, believes that "The Watch List," in its unique way, can help fight terrorism. He uses Europeans of Middle Eastern descent as an example to make his point.
"They will always be considered outsiders, so, of course, a few of them will have their frustration manipulated by extremists. We can't let that happen here. We've gotta give everyone a piece of the pie, so they have as much to lose, and fight for, as the rest of us."
The comedians working on the show believe that "comedy can truly foster understanding," says Obeidalla.
Brooks, of course, is Jewish, and he was asked how it feels to be working on the show. "You mean, what is it like for a Jew? No, it's cool, you can say it. I can't think of anything more Jewish than helping my fellow countrymen fight hatred and ignorance."
According to Comedy Central's Dan Powell, the station decided to give the show a shot because it is both funny and relevant. "Not only is it funny, but it's a great vehicle for a group of comedians who have a really unique perspective on how their lives have changed in post-9/11 America," says Powell.
Whether the show will make its way to television depends on how successful it is online. So far, "The Watch List" has attracted more press interest than any other show on Comedy Central's Web site. "We find this idea very intriguing and we are definitely considering developing it for television," notes Powell.
Obeidalla believes the time is right. There's been a general curiosity about the Middle East following Sept. 11. The success of shows like "Chappelle's Show" and "Mind of Mencia," both airing on Comedy Central, is also encouraging. "These shows make use of edgy, race-based comedy to be funny and to raise issues that are of concern to their race. Our show would follow that model," says Obeidalla.
"The only way this show is going to work is if we can build a common ground with our audience," says Brooks. "We need people to walk away saying, 'hey, that could have easily been me.'"