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