In the analog version of Time magazine this week, my Culture Complex column looks at new Comedy Central programs featuring Middle-Eastern-American comedians–including the Axis of Evil comedy special this weekend–and asks: if this ethnic group amounts to “the new blacks,” as the pundits say, are they ready for their own Richard Pryor? If comedy is a nonviolent version of war–comedians kill, slay, bomb–can these comics use it to satirize terrorist stereotypes?
One trick to writing about this group of Americans, as I noted in the column, is that it’s not really a group: it’s several groups, of varying ethnicities and religions, lumped together by popular ignorance and the aftermath of 9/11. Persians are not Arabs, Arabs are not necessarily Muslims, Muslims might be black or Asian.
As a practical matter, it meant using the ungainly adjective “Middle-Eastern-American” in the article, but as far as I know, nobody has a better one. (It also kept me from using my personal favorite potential headline, “Ha Ha Halal.”) And it means that the idea of what is a “Middle Eastern” character in pop culture is thorny, since Middle Eastern actors often play other ethnicities and vice versa, e.g., Indian-English Naveen Andrews as Iraqi Sayid on Lost.
As a side note, I interviewed Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani for the column; after the column went to press came word that his excellent sitcom The Knights of Prosperity (on which he plays an Indian cab driver) has been shelved by ABC. Consider this article your consolation prize.