09:15
TEDGlobal 2010

Jamil Abu-Wardeh: The Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour

Filmed:

Jamil Abu-Wardeh jump-started the comedy scene in the Arab world by founding the Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour, which brings standup comedians to laughing audiences all over the region. He's found that, by respecting the "three B's" (blue material, beliefs and "bolitics"), the Axis of Evil comics find plenty of cross-border laughs.

- Producer
Jamil Abu-Wardeh believes in the community-building power of a shared laugh -- especially in Arabic. He jumpstarted the Dubai standup comedy scene and produced the Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour. Full bio

This talk is about righting writing wrongs.
00:16
No, the sound's not faulty -- righting writing wrongs.
00:19
The Middle East is huge,
00:22
and with all our problems, one thing's for sure: we love to laugh.
00:25
I think humor is a great way to celebrate our differences.
00:28
We need to take our responsibilities seriously,
00:31
but not ourselves.
00:33
Don't get me wrong: it's not like we don't have comedy in the Middle East.
00:35
I grew up at a time when iconic actors
00:38
from Kuwait, Syria, Egypt
00:40
used laughter to unite the region,
00:42
just as football can.
00:45
(Laughter)
00:47
Now is the time for us to laugh at ourselves,
00:50
before others can laugh with us.
00:52
This is the story of the rise and rise of stand-up comedy in the Middle East --
00:55
a stand-up uprising, if you will.
00:58
Working in London as TV maker and writer,
01:02
I quickly realized
01:05
that comedy connects audiences.
01:07
Now, the best breeding ground for good comic writing
01:10
is the stand-up comedy circuit,
01:13
where they just happen to say that you kill when you do well
01:15
and you bomb when you do badly.
01:17
An unfortunate connection for us maybe,
01:19
but it reminds me
01:21
that we'd like to thank one man for, over the past decade,
01:23
working tirelessly
01:26
to support comedians all around the world,
01:27
specifically comedians
01:30
with a Middle Eastern background.
01:32
(Applause)
01:34
Like my good friends, Dean and Maysoon, at the bottom of the screen,
01:37
who, two years after 9/11,
01:40
started a festival to change the way
01:42
Middle Easterners are perceived in the world.
01:44
It's still going strong, with positive press to die for.
01:47
Also, three guys working for years in Los Angeles,
01:51
an Iranian, a Palestinian and an Egyptian,
01:54
created the aptly named Axis of Evil comedy act.
01:57
And wherever they went,
02:01
they killed.
02:03
Now, I didn't start this fire, but I did pour petrol on it.
02:05
I moved to Dubai as the head of original content
02:08
for a Western TV network.
02:11
My job was to connect the brand with a Middle Eastern audience.
02:13
Now, the American head of programming
02:18
wanted new local Arabic comedy.
02:21
In a thick Arabic accent, my brain went,
02:24
"Berfect."
02:27
(Laughter)
02:29
Now, I had friends in the U.S.
02:31
who had started a successful new tribe.
02:33
And I had every intention of taking this tribe
02:37
from being outliers in the Middle East
02:39
and pushing them over the tipping point
02:41
towards success.
02:43
Now, as with any new idea, it wasn't easy.
02:45
I had four phases to this plan.
02:47
First, we'd need to buy content from the West and air it.
02:49
Then I'd bring my friends, and we'd show local amateurs how it's done.
02:52
We would film that and air it,
02:55
and then I could work with the local amateurs and write new comedy.
02:57
I excitedly presented this to the big boss,
03:00
and his reaction was, "Um, I don't get it."
03:02
So I retreated back to my cave
03:07
and continued to support and produce comedy
03:09
and let my friends use my couch
03:11
as a regional operations hub.
03:13
Now, fast forward two years, to early 2007.
03:16
The earth rotated, as did our management,
03:19
(Laughter)
03:22
and as if by divine intervention,
03:24
things came together
03:26
to help this revolution take shape.
03:28
Here's how the dots connected.
03:31
First, the Axis guys recorded a Comedy Central special
03:33
that aired in the States,
03:36
and it was getting great hits on YouTube.
03:38
Our new French CEO
03:40
believed in the power of positive PR ...
03:42
(Laughter)
03:44
and ideas du bon marche.
03:46
Let's just say "value for money."
03:49
I produced in Dubai a show for Ahmed Ahmed
03:51
to showcase his new Axis special to a packed room.
03:54
I invited our new CEO,
03:56
and as soon as he realized we had a room packed full of laughing infidels,
03:58
his reaction was very simple:
04:01
"Let's make this happen.
04:03
And one more thing: No, don't F it up."
04:06
So I quickly went to work
04:09
with a great team around me.
04:11
I happened to find
04:13
a funny guy to present it in Arabic,
04:15
who is originally Korean,
04:17
a perfect fit for the Axis of Evil.
04:20
This is all true.
04:22
Now, while preparing for the tour,
04:24
I had to remind the guys to be culturally sensitive.
04:26
I used the three Bs of stand-up don'ts
04:28
as I call them in the Middle East:
04:30
blue content, keep it clean; beliefs, not religion;
04:33
and the third B, bolitics.
04:36
Stay away from bolitics in the Middle East.
04:39
Oh course, you might think, what's left
04:42
without bolitics, sex and religion, how can you make people laugh?
04:44
I'd say, watch any successful well-written,
04:46
family-friendly sitcom in the West
04:49
for your answers.
04:51
Now, were the Axis successful?
04:53
In five countries, in just under a month,
04:57
we had thousands of fanatical fans come and see them live.
04:59
We had millions see them on TV and on TV news.
05:02
In Jordan, we had His Majesty the King come and see them.
05:05
In fact, they were so successful
05:08
that you could buy a pirated copy of their DVD,
05:10
even before it was released in the Middle East.
05:12
Anywhere you go.
05:14
So everywhere we went,
05:16
we auditioned amateurs.
05:18
We filmed that process and aired a documentary.
05:20
I called it "Three Guys and Wonho."
05:23
It really is his name.
05:26
And all this TV and Internet exposure
05:30
has led to a great many
05:33
recruits to our cause.
05:35
In Dubai this year, we've just had
05:37
the first all-women's, homegrown stand-up show.
05:39
And notice two of them are wearing headscarves,
05:41
and yes, even they can laugh.
05:43
Dubai, to me, is like a hand
05:46
that supports anyone who wants to make things happen.
05:48
20 years ago,
05:51
no one had heard of it.
05:53
Look at it now.
05:55
With an inspirational leader, I think this year,
05:57
the opening of the tallest tower in the world
05:59
is like adding a finger to that hand,
06:01
that points at all those
06:03
who spread fallacious stories about us.
06:05
(Laughter)
06:08
(Applause)
06:11
Now, in three short years, we've come a long way
06:13
with stand-up comedy shows happening even in Saudi Arabia.
06:16
These comics are now going to the New York festival.
06:19
And the Lebanese, brilliant Lebanese,
06:22
Nemr Abou Nassar, we featured in our first tour,
06:24
has just been performing in L.A.'s legendary comedy clubs.
06:26
So clearly, from the inside, we are doing our best to change our image,
06:29
and it's exploding.
06:32
(Laughter)
06:34
So, as for the outsiders looking in,
06:36
watch the CNN report on the second Amman Comedy Festival.
06:39
The reporter did a great job, and I thank her,
06:42
but somebody forgot to send the positive PR email
06:45
to the person operating the automatic news ticker that appears at the bottom.
06:48
For example, when Dean talks,
06:51
the ticker says, "U.S.: Suspect gave 'actionable intel."
06:54
Well, if you're used to listening to comedians,
06:57
then I'm not surprised.
07:00
Sadly, this leads me to another three Bs
07:02
that represents how the media in the West
07:04
talks about us as bombers, billionaires
07:07
and belly dancers.
07:09
Enough.
07:12
We're not all angry fanatics
07:14
who want to kill the infidel.
07:16
We have a positive story to tell
07:18
and image to sell.
07:20
In fact, one thing's for sure, in my experience,
07:22
we love to laugh like hell.
07:25
(Laughter)
07:29
Here are three questions that I like to use
07:31
to test the truthiness of our representation
07:33
in any media story.
07:36
One: Is the Middle East
07:38
being shown in a current time
07:40
and correct context?
07:42
(Laughter)
07:45
Two: Do the Middle Eastern characters
07:50
laugh or smile
07:53
without showing the whites of their eyes?
07:56
(Laughter)
07:58
Three: Is the Middle Eastern character
08:00
being played by one?
08:03
Clearly, there are wrongs that need to be righted.
08:08
We've started in our region.
08:11
My challenge to the rest of the world
08:13
is please, start using
08:15
positive Middle Eastern images in your stories.
08:17
For inspiration, go to one of our festivals,
08:19
go online, drop us a line.
08:21
Let's change the narrative together
08:23
and let's start righting writing wrongs.
08:26
I'd like to end, before going back to the Middle East,
08:29
with a quote from one of the greatest Sheikhs
08:31
to put quill to parchment.
08:33
As my father likes to call him, "Asheikh Azubare;"
08:35
as my mother would say, "Shakespeare."
08:38
(Laughter)
08:40
"And now we go in content
08:42
to liberty and not to banishment."
08:44
Thank you.
08:46
(Applause)
08:48

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About the Speaker:

Jamil Abu-Wardeh - Producer
Jamil Abu-Wardeh believes in the community-building power of a shared laugh -- especially in Arabic. He jumpstarted the Dubai standup comedy scene and produced the Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour.

Why you should listen

After fifteen years working in UK television, Jamil Abu-Wardeh moved to Dubai with a big idea: to bring modern standup comedy to the Middle East. His grassroots efforts to build a standup scene in Dubai, and then across the region, led to the first standup comedy time slot in the programming of Showtime Arabia. And this led to a ground- and record-breaking tour of five Arab countries: The Axis of Evil Middle East Comedy Tour. Lines around the block, performances for royalty -- the tour tapped into a shared desire to laugh.

Standup comedians on the tour avoid the three B's (blue material, beliefs and "bolitics") but are free to poke fun everywhere else. One of Abu-Wardeh's stars, protegé Wonho Chung, is a Korean kid who speaks perfect Arabic and is wildly popular on YouTube in Saudi Arabia -- proving to Abu-Wardeh that lines between national groups can be broken down if you're just funny enough. The impresario is constantly creating content and chances for aspiring comics, and his work has helped touch off a new flowering of standup comedy in the region.

More profile about the speaker
Jamil Abu-Wardeh | Speaker | TED.com