Bob Alper, a rabbi turned comedian, mines a new vein of shtick performing with Arab and Muslim comics
By MORDECAI SPECKTOR
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A rabbi and a young Muslim guy walk into a synagogue and do some stand-up comedy.
What’s the punch line? Read on.
Bob Alper, a former Reform pulpit rabbi turned stand-up comedian, hired a publicist some years back to raise his visibility in show biz. “She basically got me into the witness protection program,” Alper recalls.
Speaking to the Jewish World last week from his home in the snowy woods of Vermont, Alper mentions that the publicist also annoyed him with a suggestion that he team up with an Arab or Muslim comedian.
“I said, ‘Do you have any other ideas?’”
The publicist persevered and found Ahmed Ahmed, a 30-something comedian who was born in Egypt and came to California with his family when he was one month old. Alper and Ahmed debuted at a Philadelphia shul in 2002, and performed about 20 times together in a show they called “One Muslim. One Jew. One Stage.”
Ahmed has since branched out into movie acting, appearing most recently with Adam Sandler inÂ You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and inÂ Iron Man. (Film buffs also might remember him as “Terrorist #4” in the 1996 filmÂ Executive Decision.)
Alper, who’s 65, continued to work in a duo format with three other Arab and Muslim comedians, performing around 170 shows across the country. (He also has expanded to a comedy trio for some gigs, performing with Susan Sparks, a former Manhattan lawyer turned Baptist minister and comedian.)
One of Alper’s comedy partners is Mohammed “Mo” Amer, a 28-year-old veteran funnyman who fled Kuwait with his family during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Amer’s parents came from Burin, a Palestinian village near Nablus.
Alper and Amer bring their “Laugh in Peace Tour” to St. Paul this month. They will be the featured entertainers Feb. 21 at the annual fundraiser for Talmud Torah of St. Paul at Temple of Aaron Synagogue. The event will include a comedy performance that will have the audience plotzing from laughter, and a dessert reception.
The American Jewish World is a media sponsor of the benefit event.
“I could do his act,” Alper comments, about his comedy partner. “He’s really funny.” Then Alper does one of Amer’s jokes, about taking his nephew to Disneyland and browsing in a store that sells the miniature license plates with kids’ names: “Billy, Teddy, Mark, Susan.” The punch line: “I don’t think there’ll be one here for you, Khalil.”
Amer, who has become a popular comic on the college circuit — and has performed in USO shows for U.S. troops around the world, including in Kuwait and Iraq last year — also spoke to the AJW last week. He was in Pittsburgh, where he had performed an afternoon show at the University of Pittsburgh.
The personable young comic, who was raised in Houston, Texas, is one third of the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour, with another Alper partner, Azhar Usman, who’s a Chicago native from an Indian Muslim family; and Preacher Moss, an African American Muslim. Their onstage routines comprise a 2008 film, Allah Made Me Funny: Live in Concert, directed by Andrea Kalin.
During a discussion of the difficulties Amer encountered traveling abroad with a refugee travel document (Palestinians are mainly stateless, so they use a laissez-passer, a travel document issued by a country or an international organization), he mentions that the Allah Made Me Funny troupe will be performing in Scandinavia in the spring. He also comments that he became a naturalized U.S. citizen last July, which will make his upcoming travels a bit easier.
Amer has overcome a number of obstacles in his life. His father died when he was in the ninth grade — around the time he started doing stand-up comedy. He has been performing professionally, starting off in Houston comedy clubs, since the age of 19.
Asked about his performances before Jewish audiences, like the Feb. 21 show at Temple of Aaron, Amer explains, “To me it’s always been very important to be open, all the way around; especially with my Palestinian background, I think it’s important to be in tune with the Jewish community. My sister-in-law is Jewish; so, I was even asked to co-officiate the wedding with her brother.”
That wedding likely could provide rich material for a comedy film; but Amer, on the serious side, says, “A lot of hatred comes from lack of understanding, misconceptions; because if you really sit down with a person that you ‘hate’ supposedly, you’ll realize that you have so much in common that you really can’t hate each other. If you do laugh with somebody, you do have an intimate moment with somebody, if you actually get to know them, that hatred really shouldn’t exist. You’re the same human being.”
Amer also comments that his brother researched their family tree and found Jewish ancestors who lived in Saudi Arabia centuries ago. It’s a small Jewish world.
On the theme of promoting interethnic understanding through comedy, Alper says, “Very honestly, we got into this thing for visibility, for business purposes; and from the very first show we realized that there’s a lot more to it. I can remember that very first show, where Ahmed was sweating bullets — you know, first time performing in a synagogue. And, unfortunately, all his Jewish friends from the Comedy Store in L.A. told him he’d be in physical danger if he walked into a synagogue.”
Alper told his Arab comedy partner that the Jews in the audience spend “a lot more time” in comedy clubs than they do in synagogues.
“He was in the physical danger,” Alper adds. “At the reception afterwards, he was surrounded by 12 Jewish women who wanted to fix him up with their daughters. That was the danger.”
“We found immediately that an affable Arab Muslim comedian goes a long way to break down stereotypes, and that’s a wonderful thing that happened,” observes Alper. “It goes the other way, too. Last summer I performed at Muslimfest 2009 in Toronto. They had six Muslim comedians — and me. And there I am, onstage all by myself, in front of 2,000 Muslims. So, I looked at the audience and said, ‘I feel strange here; I feel really odd, so out of place. Think of it: all of you are Canadians, and I’m American.’ And they went nuts. That was one of the highlights of my career.”
Rabbi Bob Alper and Mo Amer will perform an evening of nonpolitical comedy 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21 at Temple of Aaron Synagogue, 616 S. Mississippi River Blvd., St. Paul. This is a benefit for the Talmud Torah of St. Paul. General admission tickets are $54, and include a live auction, the Laugh in Peace Tour performance and a dessert reception. For information and tickets, go to: www.ttsp.org or call 651-698-8807.
The American Jewish World is a media sponsor of the event.
(American Jewish World, 2.5.10)