For Muslim comedians in the US, Trump is a mixed blessing

Sunday 14/05/2017
Sharper edge. Hasan Minhaj (R) of Comedy Central walks past veteran Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward (C) and Reuters Editor-in-Chief Steve Adler as he takes the lectern to perform at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington.

Washington - Comedian Hasan Minhaj has a keen sense of irony, so he was quick to remark on the fact that he, as a Muslim, was chosen to poke fun at US President Donald Trump at a high-profile get-togeth­er in Washington.
“No one wanted to do this, so, of course, it falls in the hands of an immigrant,” the 31-year-old, who is of Indian descent, said at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington last month.
Minhaj and other Muslim co­medians in the United States are trying to come to terms with the mixed blessing of a populist presi­dent who gives joke writers plenty of material but is seen by many as a dangerous politician who targets minorities and wants to ban Mus­lims from America.
“Trump is already the worst president in my lifetime,” said Dean Obeidallah, a comedian with Pal­estinian and Italian roots. “Trump used hate to win the White House especially directed against Latinos and Muslims. He’s truly a danger to the fabric of our nation,” Obeidal­lah wrote in an e-mail in response to questions.
Political comedy has acquired a sharper edge under Trump. Tel­evision comedian Stephen Colbert faced demands to step down after he attacked Trump with a lewd re­mark during his “Late Show” on the CBS network.
The White House Correspond­ents’ dinner provided another op­portunity to crack jokes about the head of state.
“Only in America can a first-gen­eration, Indian-American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the president,” Minhaj told the tele­vised event on April 29. He also said he could not resist adding a refer­ence to a political climate marked by a sharp polarisation between sup­porters and foes of the president. “My name is Hasan Minhaj, or, as I will be known in a few weeks, Num­ber 830287,” he said.
With Trump skipping the tradi­tional dinner, the first US president to stay away since the 1980s, Min­haj got plenty of laughs with a joke about the commander-in-chief and his tanned look. “I get why Donald Trump didn’t want to be roasted to­night,” he said. “By the looks of him, he has been roasting non-stop for the past 70 years.”
Conservative commentators ac­cused Minhaj of spreading insults. Ben Stein, an economist speaking on Fox News, a channel that is generally supportive of Trump, criticised the comedian for “throwing up, spitting on, dumping on the president of the United States.” Stein called Minhaj a “tenth-grade comedian” who had delivered comments that could be considered defamatory.
Comments on Twitter went fur­ther. “Another racist trash Muslim bashing America and white people,” read one tweet about Minhaj.
Trump and the controversies he stirs have heightened interest in comedy. Obeidallah said his show on SiriusXM satellite radio was ex­panding from one to three hours every weekday and moving to a more popular section. Satirical tel­evision shows such as “Saturday Night Live” have also seen a boom.
“There is a reason why ‘Satur­day Night Live’ is seeing its high­est ratings in decades and Stephen Colbert’s ratings are skyrocketing,” Obeidallah wrote. “People are look­ing to political comedy to learn about issues and for a cathartic re­lease from the stress.”
There are also negative side ef­fects to the Trump boom on com­edy stages. “I have seen Trump supporters heckle comedians who mock Trump,” Obeidallah recount­ed. “I have not been heckled myself but I can see the anger in the faces of the Trump supporters when I tell jokes about him.”
Maysoon Zayid, a comedian of Palestinian descent, said she has felt the change personally. “It is no pic­nic being a Muslim in America right now,” she wrote via e-mail. “The amount of hate I’ve received online has multiplied exponentially since Trump began his ill-fated run. The Muslim ban is proof he wasn’t just spewing bigotry to get elected, he is actually a dangerous bigot.”
Zayid said her stage routine re­flected the changed political atmos­phere since Trump’s election last November. “The one thing that has changed in my comedy is that I am a lot more angry and a lot more po­litical,” she wrote. “I don’t feel like telling jokes about my cat while my country is being destroyed.”
That feeling is echoed by Zahra Noorbakhsh, a Muslim comedian of Iranian descent who said she and her colleagues should “illuminate for everyone what is a moment of crisis” instead of trying to reassure non-Muslim Americans with tame jokes.
Writing in the New York Times, Noorbakhsh supported Minhaj’s sharp attacks on bigotry at the White House Correspondents’ din­ner. “The idea that jokes will stop the tide of fear, hate and misunder­standing about people who practise Islam is seductive,” she wrote. “As a comedian, though, I’m not con­vinced. We have tried this before.”
The Muslim Funny Fest, a 3-day comedy festival in New York sched­uled for mid-July and co-produced by Zayid and Obeidallah, is ex­pected to take a tough line. “Amid a political culture dominated by fear-mongering, xenophobia and rampant racism, some of Ameri­ca’s top Muslim stand-up comedi­ans test the limits of free speech,” said a statement on the festival’s website.