Comic Relief: Punch lines come easily to an unlikely standup team: an Arab and a Jew | Comedy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Comic Relief: Punch lines come easily to an unlikely standup team: an Arab and a Jew


Published July 31, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A Vermont rabbi walks into a bar and announces that, in the wake of 9/11 and continuing troubles in the Middle East, he’s going to perform a series of comedy shows — with an Arab-American comic as his partner.

The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”

If the rabbi in question is Bob Alper of East Dorset, he’s perfectly serious. A rabbi by training and a stand-up comedian by profession, Alper — who bills himself as “the world’s only clergyman doing stand-up comedy… intentionally” — doesn’t like to go for cheap laughs. Instead, he believes humor can be used as a comfortable medium to poke fun at Arab and Jewish stereotypes, to humanize people of different cultures and to bridge a gap of misunderstanding that’s grown all too large since the World Trade Center attacks.

And with Ahmed Ahmed, an Egyptian-born comic and actor working out of Los Angeles, he’s putting his theory to the test. This summer, Alper and Ahmed will make five stops in Vermont and northern Massachusetts, playing festivals, a town hall theater and — hang on to your yarmulke — Jewish synagogues.

What might sound strange, disrespectful, or even dangerous to some is to Alper “a very good example of what America’s all about.”

“I always used jokes and funny stories in my sermons in front of my congregations. Which gives me over 30 years experience performing in front of a hostile audience.”

Bob Alper

On the surface, Alper, 57, seems like a nice guy. Talk to him for a while and you discover he’s a really nice guy. That characteristic helps shape Alper’s material; he stays away from political humor and he won’t use stereotypes to make fun of people.

“That’s who I am,” he says. “I find that people are particularly appreciative of unhurtful comedy. There are a lot of other comedians who will disparage other people and then say, ‘ha ha, just kidding.’ Well, they’re not just kidding. It hurts.”

But being nice doesn’t translate into fewer jokes. “I’ve been doing this 16 years, and I have a wealth of material that no other comedian can touch,” Alper says. He cites his experience delivering sermons, officiating at weddings, struggling to learn Hebrew in Israel, raising teen-age children and being married to his wife Sherri for more than three decades — all situations rife with comic potential. “A 22-year-old comic in a black T-shirt can’t do those,” he notes.

It was in 1986, after 14 years as a full-time rabbi, that Alper left his congregation. Although he opened a counseling office, he never actually saw any patients. Instead, he entered the “Jewish Comic of the Year Contest” in Philadelphia. Alper took third place behind a chiropractor and a lawyer, but he recalls, “The audience laughed and I was hooked.”

The career change allowed the Alpers to move to Vermont, where they had enjoyed vacationing. Bookings were slow at first, and there were discouraging moments — one comedy-club owner told Alper after his act, “Now you know what polite applause sounds like.” These days, Alper is doing 80 to 100 shows per year. He works mostly synagogues but has also played the Improv and been on Comedy Central.

“You guys have it easy, you non-Arabs. You guys get to the airport an hour, two hours before your flight. It takes me a month and a half.”

Ahmed Ahmed

It wasn’t Alper’s idea to team up with Ahmed. An L.A. publicist suggested the pairing as a post-9/11 way to raise his visibility, and Alper did not warm up to the proposal right away. Then he watched tapes of Ahmed’s appearance on ABC’s “The View,” where he put people at ease with jokes about what it’s like to be an Arab-American.

“I called him,” Alper says simply. “We hit it off well on the phone, and we decided to try it out. And it worked.”

Ahmed, 33, remembers things a little differently. “Are you crazy?” he said when Alper floated the idea of playing together in synagogues. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Some of Ahmed’s friends warned he might even be putting himself in physical danger.

But Alper assured him the audiences would be welcoming, and Ahmed took to heart something Mitzi Shore, owner of The Comedy Store in Hollywood, had told him: “The only thing — the only thing — that will heal what’s going on in the world today is a gesture of laughter.”

Shore, a Jewish woman who helped Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and David Letterman launch their respective careers, had begun promoting Arab comics even before 9/11 as a way to bridge the cultural gap. Ahmed became a regular performer there about a year and a half ago.

Still, that didn’t prepare Ahmed for his and Alper’s debut in April. It was Ahmed’s first time playing a Jewish audience, his first time in a synagogue and his first time wearing a yarmulke. He was, understandably, a little nervous. “For me to go into a synagogue and get these people to laugh is a challenge,” Ahmed concedes.

But he and Alper survived. “People actually laughed at the show,” Ahmed marvels. “After I had a lot of people from the audience close to me shake my hand and say, hey, this is great, coming out here and starting a dialogue.”

Together on stage, Alper and Ahmed are the odd couple of comedy. With his silver hair and warm smile, Alper looks like a cross between Steve Martin and Alan Alda. Ahmed is the bigger man, taller and more physically imposing, especially with the long hair and full beard he cultivates for occasional movie roles — he played Terrorist No. 4 in Executive Decision, a Kurt Russell action flick.

Ahmed’s material tends to be edgier than Alper’s; he jokes about the difficulty of getting on an airplane with the name Ahmed, and how when the cops pull him over, he just tells them he’s black. But he sees a connection with Alper’s gentler stories about family and being Jewish. “We have different topics,” Ahmed says, “but we’re similar in that we’re talking about our uniqueness.”

So far, the pair has played together only four times. Alper starts off their shows and then returns at the end of the evening to close, while Ahmed plays the middle. “The more shows I do, the less scared I get,” Ahmed declares. “There’s always that fear of being an Arab up in front of 300 Jewish people, but they all got it.”

Rabbi Allen Krause helped organize one of their shows at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo in June. Cosponsored by Muslim and Christian groups, the show was a hit, attracting more than 400 people.

“It was as much an important statement to the community as it was a night of comedy,” Krause says.

Alper admits that not everyone is wholly comfortable with the humorous approach. “I’m sure there are people who feel that, on the face of it, any humor is inappropriate, because look what’s going on,” he says. “And I can understand that. But my experience has been that people appreciate humor as a device to cope with sadness around them.”

Ahmed agrees that what they’re doing is more than just comedy: “I think on the spiritual level Bob and I are trying to have Arabs and Jews understand each other.”

Their message should be well received at Burlington’s Ohavi Zedek on August 6. The Burlington synagogue’s administrative assistant Anne Jennings expects between 50 and 75 people, maybe more — there’s no precedent for an event like this. Rabbi Joshua Chasan adds via e-mail, “Here at OZ we tend to want just and secure peace for both peoples, and look forward to Rabbi Alper and Ahmed Ahmed being with us.”

The comedians both say they enjoy their partnership, and additional shows — perhaps at Muslim centers or college campuses — are in the works. With tensions still high in the U.S. and abroad, the show’s message of tolerance remains relevant.

“What we’re doing is our attempt to heal wounds,” Alper explains. “And that takes a while, because the wounds are very deep. I don’t think we’re going to be out of business . . . soon.