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Not black or white: It's 'brown' comedy

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
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Comedy and race relations collide
  • "Big Brown Comedy Hour" stand-up show has Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, others
  • Diverse group united by status as new American "others," says Dean Obeidallah
  • Group aims to upend stereotypes, define itself through comedy, he says
  • Writer: Minorities have long used comedy to elevate image; it's "brown" comedians' turn

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah is an award-winning Arab-American comedian who has appeared on various TV shows including Comedy Central's "Axis of Evil" special, ABC's "The View," CNN's "What the Week," and "The Joy Behar Show." He serves as the executive producer of the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival and The Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival.

New York (CNN) -- Hundreds of people recently jammed themselves into a basement in New York City to listen to people with names like Mohammed, Nader, Aasif and Maysoon. What were they up to? Should the authorities be contacted? Is it time to raise the terror alert?

Nope, it was just another episode of "The Big Brown Comedy Hour," a stand-up show featuring a diverse group of comedians: Arabs, Indians, Iranians, Pakistanis and others. They had roots in different countries, religions and cultures, but they all had one thing in common: They aren't black, Hispanic or white. They're brown.

Our comedy shows are in essence a brown "Def Jam" comedy hour -- a celebration of our cultures through comedy. Many non-brown people come to hear a unique comedic point of view. But for the many brown people who attend, it's practically cathartic.

What unites this diverse group is not religion -- our comedians span the gamut: Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. We are are all the "others" in American society -- not black, white, or Hispanic. Some of us may look white, but we don't fit neatly into those check-mark boxes for race and ethnicity on job applications or medical forms, and we don't all fit neatly into American society.

Our comedy is fueled in great part by our outside status -- from jokes about our parents' foreign accents to the "exotic" foods we brought to school as kids. Sometimes it's about how we were demonized for our heritage or religion. As the children of immigrants -- and in some cases, immigrants ourselves -- we aspire to define ourselves accurately to our fellow Americans, through comedy.

We believe stand-up can be more effective than speeches for teaching other Americans about our heritage -- and more fun.

This story by Hari Kondabolu, an Indian-American comedian, is far from isolated: After Hari told a person he was Hindu, not Muslim, the man responded: "Isn't that the same thing?" Hari then explained the difference, leading the man to apologize politely but comment: "Well, you have to admit, you do look like a Muslim."

Then there was the time I told a New Yorker I was of Arab heritage, to which he responded: "What a coincidence -- I love Indian food."

Brown comedians are simply following in the footsteps of past American minority comedians, who famously used comedy to define their people in a good light. Comedy legends like Milton Berle, Jack Benny and Sid Caesar brought being Jewish into the homes of millions of non-Jews through the radio and television.

Later, it was African-American comedians like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby who shared their experience with the rest of America -- both the challenges of being black in America and the similarities of black and white families.

"The Cosby Show" brought into the homes of millions of Americans a successful, funny and likable black family. The show also elevated the self-image of many young African-Americans. More recently, Hispanic comedians have followed, with pioneers like George Lopez and Paul Rodriguez.

Now it's our turn -- at least, we want it to be our turn. It is undisputed that the media can be used to demonize -- just look at propaganda films made by governments during wartime -- and I believe they can also be used to humanize.

The brown comedians, and our community, dream that one day there will be an American television show starring a typical brown family being funny. For now, though, the brown comedians are still, for the most part, only seen in the basement room of a comedy club.

But my hope is that like the other minority comedians who came before us, we can one day climb the steps up from that basement and into the homes of millions of Americans.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.