Muslim, Jewish comedians offer a harmony of laughs
Some jokes have more than a grain of truth: some have a whole lafa. Over the course of two 30-minute sets, Scott Blakeman and Dean Obeidallah, both of Standup for Peace, entertained Jewish and Muslim students at the University of Pittsburgh with riffs on culture, family and politics. The event was hosted by Pitt’s Muslim Student Association and Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh
“Our whole show is about common experiences,” said Obeidallah, a Muslim American comedian. “We try to build bridges through comedy,” added Blakeman, his Jewish American comedic counterpart.
So, after explaining to their audience the show’s intent, and detailing prior engagements — Obeidallah is the host of SiriusXM radio’s “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and regularly appears on MSNBC, CNN and other news networks, and Blakeman taught the Standup Comedy Workshop at The New School for 25 years and frequently contributes to The Huffington Post — Blakeman took first crack at the mic.
“Maine is very diverse,” he said. Unlike the eclectic mix seated in the William Pitt Student Union, in Maine, “there are very different shades of white.” But there was a student with a tan. “He is on scholarship.”
Blakeman re-enlisted the diversity trope during a comment on President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
“People say it’s not diverse.” In fact, it is, said the comic: “It’s diverse in the different ways they’re unqualified.”
As his vignettes and punchlines illustrated, the skeleton of Blakeman’s onstage persona is a liberal leaning, self-identified neurotic New York-centric Jew. However, despite the character’s familiarity, Blakeman injected the bit with darkness and depth when describing problems Jews encounter while purchasing heroin.
Because of their anxiety, Jews have a difficult time with needles, he told the students.
“What happens if the needle falls? Does the five-second rule apply? The date on the bag says March 5. Is that use by? What if I freeze it? Is it kosher for Passover?”
Blakeman’s small spiel on drugs was as shocking as the show got. Neither performer cursed or told salacious stories. Blakeman mentioned a former relationship — “I just broke up with someone recently, which is my way of saying she broke up with me” — and mused about online dating but largely kept to an anxious appearance.
Obeidallah countered with a more confident demeanor.
One of his first quips was about a student loan officer who phoned him regarding outstanding charges. To the caller’s fiscal threats, Obeidallah responded, “What are you going to do, repossess the knowledge?”
The humorist then tackled geography by asking if anyone was from New Jersey, his home state. After a few hands raised, he commented, “It’s easier to get people to like Muslims than people from New Jersey.”
Like his Jewish partner, Obeidallah took aim at presidential xenophobia.
“Are there any international students here? It’s OK, I’m not Trump,” he said.
The performer then imagined an impromptu introduction made by the country’s first Islamic president.
“It is my great pleasure to introduce you to my first lady … and my second lady and third lady.”
Adding to the students’ amusement was a particularly acute barb later in the act when Obeidallah advised Muslims what to wear when traveling: “Dress white, make your flight. Dress brown, never leave town.”
For those seeking a further example of the former, the entertainer identified a student dressed in khakis and a tucked-in button down shirt seated in the front row. That visual cue greatly met the crowd’s approval.
While some of the evening’s jokes required prior cultural knowledge, most punchlines were equally discernable and appreciated.
“We believe comedy can bring people together,” said Obeidallah.
“This is a great message,” agreed Meital Rosenberg, a senior studying economics and international studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
“It breaks the whole stigma that Muslims and Jews can’t do things together,” noted Yosra Kandil, a sophomore studying history.
Added Blakeman, “The best way to start a conversation is with laughter.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.