How many Jews does it take to produce an Arab American and Muslim American comedy show?
Only one, provided that the Jew in question is Mel Brooks’s son.
From the folks who brought you “Springtime for Hitler” (well, folks descended from those folks, anyway) comes a new Web broadcast on Comedy Central’s Web site (www.comedycentral.com), “The Watch List.” The broadcasts — a new one will be shown every week — consist of two-minute segments of standup and sketch comedy by various Arab American and Muslim American comedians. “The Watch List” is the brainchild of Arab American comedian Dean Obeidallah and Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.
And unlike similar endeavors (like, say, the movie “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World”), this one is actually funny.
“I wanted American comedians of Arab descent,” Brooks told the Forward. “I didn’t want some comedian from the Middle East who didn’t know how to work an iPod.”
Brooks and Obeidallah found comics who, although they grew up listening to the same bands, watching the same TV shows and eating the same food as WASPs, blacks, Hispanics and Jews, suddenly found themselves cast as outsiders. (And, it should be noted, the words “Jewish” and “Israel” do not appear in the broadcast a single time.)
When Brooks and Obeidallah (who is half-Italian and half-Palestinian) were discussing the project, Obeidallah mentioned that until the September 11 attacks, he always considered himself Italian rather than Arab; overnight he was transformed into an outsider.
Brooks replied, “Now you know what it’s like to be a Jew.”
For Brooks, 34, this is only the latest in a string of wildly successful projects.
Brooks has a new, best-selling novel out, “World War Z” (Crown, 2006), about a future war between zombies and humans; it’s a virtuoso performance of faked accounts, affidavits and documents collected after the war. The book has garnered rave reviews.
“It’s a sequel to ‘The Zombie Survival Guide,’” said Brooks, referring to his 2003 novel (published by Three Rivers Press) that lays out basic tips on how the average citizen could cope with an encounter with rabid zombies.
“You know how when you go to a horror film there’s always some nerdy kid in the back row saying, ‘That would never happen, because yada yada…’?” Brooks said. “I was that kid.”
Brooks describes his childhood in California as surprisingly typical.
“There wasn’t as much comedy in my house as you’d expect,” he said. “It’s like the oil worker doesn’t come home and begin drilling in the living room. When my father got together with his friends, they would tell war stories.” (Real war stories, not stories from his days with Carl Reiner or Sid Caesar.) Brooks attended Claremont College, where he studied history and political science and was in ROTC. He then studied film at American University before becoming a writer for “Saturday Night Live.”
“I was one of the writers on the ‘King Kong’s Dong’ sketch with Tracy Morgan,” Brooks noted. “I feel we brought comedy to a classier level.” The idea for “The Watch List” came about after Brooks met Obeidallah when the two were both writing for “SNL.”
“The Watch List” is filled with jokes as schlocky (and funny) as you’d find in the Catskills. Consider comedian Ronnie Khalil’s routine: “There’s not a lot of standup comedy in Egypt, right? You’re like, ‘Hey, two Muslims walk into a bar — just kidding, it’s against our religion, thank you!’” And many of the accompanying sketches are truly inspired.
Persian comedian Maz Jobrani gives a riff on what the clerics in Iran could possibly be thinking when making threats to America, given the fact that America has just gone to war against Iran’s neighbors. “It’s like being in a nightclub and the bouncers knocked out your friends and you’re still talking trash!”
As he’s speaking, the picture dissolves into a scene outside of a nightclub where a drunken Middle Eastern actor — wearing a T-shirt reading “Iran” — sticks out his chest and screams unintelligibly at the bouncer.
When Brooks and Obeidallah screened the film for friends, the audience erupted in peals of laughter.
“We showed it to [Mel Brooks],” said Negin Farsad, the Persian comedian who directed and acted in several of the shorts. “He gave us notes.” Farsad described her awe of the experience of getting notes from Mel Brooks with an expletive that is unprintable in these pages.
Indeed, one finds it slightly difficult to believe Max when he says that a childhood with Mel Brooks was typical.
When asked what was the funniest thing his father ever said to him, Max immediately recounted what his father said 21 months ago when he brought his newborn son, Henry, home from the hospital. Upon being presented with his infant grandson, Mel looked into the child’s eyes and said delicately, “You know — I’m very famous.”
And the jokes keep coming. Mel has been known to entertain young Henry by putting a comb up to his nose and impersonating Adolf Hitler. “The other day, we had the History Channel on,” Max recalled, “and they were showing films from World War II, and Henry sees a picture of Hitler on the screen, and he shouted, ‘Grandpa!’”
Max Gross is a writer for the New York Post.