Walid Hassan, the 47-year-old host of the sketch-comedy show “Caricature” on Iraq’s al-Sharqiya television, spent years helping his fellow Iraqis laugh at the vagaries of life during wartime — Sunni insurgents, Shi’ite militias, American troops, blackouts, bumbling or corrupt bureaucrats. The tragic punch line came November 20, 2006, when he was gunned down on a street in west Baghdad.
On Monday night, about 7,500 miles away, comedians and writers gathered in San Francisco to celebrate Hassan’s life with laughter, raising $1,800 at a benefit for his widow and five children via a special fund set up by Reporters Without Borders.
Co-organizer Nato Green — whose Web site describes his own shtick as “bookish, leftish, urbanish, and Jewish” — is known in the city for his “Iron Comic” show, a take-off on the “Iron Chef” competitive cooking program, and for producing a local offshoot of the “Laughing Liberally” political comedy showcase.
The 31-year-old San Francisco native says he had “a familiar, secular, Jewish intellectual upbringing,” and that he found the local comedy community to be upset, humbled and inspired by Hassan’s life and death. It’s easy for an American comic to be cocky about having an edgy act, he said, but to mock those who might kill you is “a whole different level of courage and artistic commitment to the craft of comedy.”
Stephen Elliott of LitPAC, a political action committee raising money for liberal candidates through authors’ readings and other literary events, helped Green organize the show. Daniel Handler of “Lemony Snicket” fame, Andrew Sean Greer (“The Confessions of Max Tivoli”) and Tom Barbash (“The Last Good Chance”) were among authors reading from their works.
“This is part of America saying, ‘We’re sorry, we screwed up, we blew up your country,’” Elliott told the crowd that had packed into a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, adding that it’s time to start making good, being constructive and moving forward to help rebuild Iraq — even if it’s one family at a time.
In his stand-up segment, Green riffed on American policy in Iraq being inspired by the Clash’s song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — “If I go there will be trouble, if I stay it will be double” — and on U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, being sworn in on a Quran. “I’m a secular Jew — can I take the oath of office on The New Yorker? How does this work?”
Mark Day noted in his thick Scottish brogue that quitting a job is like invading Iraq: It feels great for 48 hours, and then you’re stuck there watching Fox News all afternoon. Iranian American comedian Ali Mafi noted he’s gay, fat and Muslim — either one minority short of earning a handicapped parking placard, or about to be deemed a weapon of mass destruction.