Jesters of Different Faiths Use Laughs to Bridge the Divide
By MAREK FUCHS
Published: May 31, 2008
Rabbi Bob Alper, left, with Azhar Usman, center, a Muslim and Nazareth
Rizkallah, an evangelical Christian, at Drew University.
MADISON, N.J. - The Jewish comedian began with a routine about raising
adolescents. "There was a reason Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac at
12 and not 13," he said. "At 13, it wouldn't have been a sacrifice."
A half hour later, the Muslim comedian took the stage, raising his hands
so the Jew could pat him down for weapons. He then urged the Muslims and
Jews in the theater, adversaries on the world stage, to cheer their
commonalities: "C'mon," he exhorted, "let's give it up for lunar
The evangelical Christian comedian also did a half-hour set, observing
that though his children's school teaches abstinence, it also gives out
condoms. "That," he said, "is like a department store saying
shoplifting, but just in case, here's a trench coat.' "
It was only at the end of the program at Drew University here that all
three comedians were on stage together. Operating under the wistful
supposition that a troupe of jesters getting disparate people to laugh
it up together is a first step toward something larger, the Jew, the
Muslim and the Christian sought to ring in world peace in the only way
they knew how: with a shamefully bad if highly enthusiastic Irish jig.
The dance was not pretty, but it had the audience convulsing.
Bridging the religious divide was not the original goal of any of the
participants in this ecumenical performance. The Jewish comedian on the
bill, Bob Alper, a 63-year-old rabbi who is now a full-time comic, said
he had been having trouble getting gigs when a public relations agent
suggested that he begin performing with a Muslim.
Rabbi Alper said he had responded, "Do you have any other ideas?"
It was not, he said, that he considered working with a Muslim
unappealing — just the thought of traveling with a fellow comedian, a
breed in which neurosis and misery surmounts cultural barriers all too
And though the rabbi gave the concept a whirl only in the hope of
drumming up more jobs, hundreds of shows later, he cannot help hearing
in the collective laughter of an audience that is regularly composed of
members of various faiths at least the remote chance for a more
Rabbi Alper worked for years with the Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed, and
they billed themselves as Comedy's Odd Couple. Though the two still
perform together, Rabbi Alper now works more regularly with Azhar Usman,
a 32-year-old lawyer who was able to fold his practice to do regular
comedy jobs at mosques and other Muslim venues. (He refers to it as a
new-age Borscht Belt, or the Kebab Comedy Circuit.)
More recently, the Jewish and Muslim comedians began performing with an
evangelical Christian who grew up in Toledo, Ohio, by way of the Gaza
Strip and Kuwait. His stage name is Nazareth, and his given name is
Nazareth Rizkallah, which the comedian, a resident of California, says
he pronounces Smith.
With his Arab-Christian background, Mr. Rizkallah, 45, defies several
expectations. "I am from the Middle East," he told the audience at the
start of his performance, "but ever since Sept. 11, I feel so Mexican."
Mr. Usman's routine is the most political, but when the comedians take
the stage at the end of their performances to answer questions, they
avoid anything overtly political.
The point of the night, Rabbi Alper said, is not to be ham-handed and
Mr. Usman, who also goes on the Allah Made Me Funny comedy tour, speaks
of having Rabbi Alper to his home in suburban Chicago, where his three
children call his comedy partner Uncle Rabbi Bob. Their goal is to hold
themselves up as the simplest of geopolitical success stories: friends.
The lack of politics, Mr. Usman allowed, can "become like the elephant
in the room."
But Mr. Rizkallah — who was asked during the question and answer session
if he ever tried to convert his partners and replied that he was the
world's laziest evangelical, so, no — noted that they risked failing in
their main task if they edged too close to the verbal trapdoor that is
politics. Their job, after all, is to generate laughs.
Mr. Rizkallah said: "If people ask me, 'What do you think of Hamas?'
Well, I don't like them. But my goal is to have a good show and make a
gesture of peace."
Rabbi Alper added that humor could start the process of warding off
grievances and chronic mistrust, because it was more than simply a
diversion. "There is a holiness to humor," he said.
Many of their shows on college campuses are jointly financed by Jewish
and Muslim campus organizations. When they perform at synagogues, the
Jewish comedian warms up the crowd; at mosques the Muslim.
And if it all leads to a modest and quite possibly fleeting moment of
peace, Mr. Rizkallah said, so be it — but he held out at least the
remote hope for better.
"All the sides live and thrive and pursue happiness," he said, shortly
before taking the stage to dance the jig with the Jew and Muslim.
He shrugged before he took the stage to dance, and said, "Maybe I'm just