The Los Angeles Times

Arab and Jew Comedy Team Hopes to Heal Saturday, June 8, 2002

    LOS ANGELES -- Tell me if you have heard this one before. Two guys, a rabbi and an Arab, are on the phone. Both are professional comedians, who get laughs by poking fun at their heritage.
    So the rabbi says to the Arab, "Maybe we can defuse a little of the tension between our people if we developed an act together. We can bill it as 'One Arab, One Jew, One Stage.' "
    The punch line: Rabbi Bob Alper and Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed will perform together twice in Southern California this month at synagogues in the San Fernando Valley and Orange County. They hope laughter can bridge the gap between the historically warring religious and ethnic factions -- at least for a night.
    Ahmed's opening line to his Jewish audiences: "Don't worry. They patted me down before they let me in."
    Alper said the idea takes some getting used to.
    "An Arab in a synagogue?" he said. "People think we're crazy. There's a war going on."
    But that's the point, says Rabbi Allen Krause, who agreed to hold the pair's show at two Los Angeles-area synagogues.
    "Some people will not appreciate it," Krause said. "But to me, religion is about reconciliation and recognizing that we're all children of God. The other side, whoever it is, is not the devil."
    This unlikely match wasn't made in heaven but in Los Angeles by a publicist looking for ways to increase bookings for Alper. The 57-year-old Reform rabbi, who lives in the tiny Vermont town of East Dorset, liked the concept and in February hooked up with Ahmed after searching the Internet for an Arab comic and watching his videotape. Alper became a comic in 1986 after practicing for 14 years with joke-laced sermons "before a hostile audience."
    Both comedians say that in the nearly two months since they started working together, the idea has grown from a novelty act to something more weighty, especially as violence has escalated in the Middle East.
    "It became a calling," said Ahmed, who grew up in Southern California. "It's a gesture of peace, a gesture of healing."
    Ahmed's name and looks -- dark skin, thick brown hair -- led to a lot of stereotyping, especially after the 31-year-old let his beard grow after Sept. 11 to enhance his comedy act and chances for landing movie roles.
    "I've decided to go for the whole Taliban look," he said.
   Nearly a decade in the business, he was still "scared to death" before his first performance in April with Alper in a Philadelphia synagogue.
    He faced more than 300 Jews packed into the temple, many of them elderly with hearing aids. And, worse, no cocktail waitresses circulated through the crowd to provide fuel for the laughs.
    But Ahmed soon won them over with his material, much of it retooled since Sept. 11. He now makes jokes about the difficulties of being an Arab American during the war on terrorism.
    The Alper-Ahmed act has only one rule: no political jokes. Both comedians stay away from each other's religion, though Ahmed makes comparisons. "We don't eat pork, we don't celebrate Christmas, we both say 'Chhh' a lot, and we're both hairy creatures of God."