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Odd couple of comedy

A Muslim lawyer and a rabbi use humour to defuse tensions between their faith groups

Apr 28, 2007 04:30 AM

Ron Csillag
Special to the Star

So a Muslim and a Jew walk onto a stage.

Er, that's it.

What sounds like a set-up to a punchline is actually the point of "The Laugh in Peace Tour," featuring Muslim comic Azhar Usman and Rabbi Bob Alper, who will team up this Tuesday night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in "an evening of non-political laughter."

 
  Comedians Bob Alper and Azhar Usman have become adept at deflecting the inevitable queries about the Middle East in the question and answer session after their show.

No rimshots, please. The show will benefit a serious cause, Regesh Family & Child Services, which serves youth and families at risk in the Toronto area. The following night, the duo plays Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton.

Alper, billed as the "world's only practising clergyman doing stand-up comedy – intentionally," is a preppy 62-year-old Reform rabbi who still has a foot in the pulpit. He lives in white-bread Vermont, where he once heard a voice saying, "If you build a deli, they will come."

Usman is a burly, bearded 31-year-old former lawyer dubbed "Osama Bin Laughin'" and the "Ayatollah of Comedy." Asked which is funnier, being a lawyer or comic, Usman says with a chuckle, "Definitely a lawyer."

The odd couple of comedy, both subjects of national media exposure in the United States, agree on one main point: humour is a great way to defuse tensions between two groups that have known their share.

"When you laugh together, you can't hate each other," says Alper in an interview. "It's totally humanizing. When we are helped to laugh by a person, particularly of a different background, that person becomes much more human in our eyes."

Usman concurs. "Humour is such a wonderful tension reliever. It's hard to hate somebody who makes you laugh."

What's it like for an ordained rabbi to tour North America with a devout Muslim in a still-combustible post-9/11 world? Alper weighs the query, then proffers a Talmudic response: "You know, travelling around with Azhar ... People respond to him with anger, fear and hatred because he is, of course ... a lawyer."

A native of Providence, R.I., Alper was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1972 and was the first Jew ever to earn a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served congregations in Buffalo and Philadelphia, where he continues to conduct High Holy Days services.

He still does the odd wedding and funeral. "I was leaving a funeral home," he quips, "when a man approached me and said, `Rabbi, your eulogy for my aunt was wonderful. She would have loved it.' And to think: What a shame. She missed it by just two days."

But seriously, at the local university, Hebrew, Russian, and German are located in the same building. "It's called the Department of Semitic and Anti-Semitic Languages."

In 1986, Alper entered a Jewish Comic of the Year contest in Philadelphia and came in third, behind a chiropractor and a lawyer. Being a rabbi was a great warm-up for becoming a stand-up comedian, he reasoned: "All those years of performing in front of a hostile audience."

He did lots of amateur shows before hiring a publicist. "She was not particularly successful," he cracks. "She got me into the witness protection program."

But she also had a great idea: Teaming Alper with a Muslim comic. The rabbi's response: "Do you have any other ideas?"

It worked. Alper was paired with comedian Ahmed Ahmed (which triggered a Who's-on-First-type bit involving the line, "I'm Ed"). They did about 100 shows together, to rave reviews.

Searching for a replacement for Ahmed about 18 months ago, Alper found Usman, a Chicago-born Muslim whose parents emigrated from India. A University of Minnesota law school grad, Usman was a full-time stand-up comic and co-founder of the internationally acclaimed "Allah Made Me Funny" comedy tour.

Fully aware of the stereotype of the dour Muslim (witness the less-than-funny reaction to those Danish Muhammad cartoons), Usman's opening line is deadpan but spot on: "Most of you have never seen someone who looks like me smile before."

That, he says, often yields "laughs of relief."

Usman has always just returned from somewhere and has noticed that, "In America, I'm used to people hating me for being a Muslim. Over there, it's kinda nice to be hated just for being an American." It's a joke he concedes gets laughs pretty much everywhere outside the States.

Both comics have their limits.

"I'll talk about everything," Usman says, "but no sexual material or cursing, nothing blasphemous or heretical." Also, no jokes about terrorism (though in the past, his set has included the line, "Me? 9-11? 7-11, maybe ... ")

Usman does find humour, of a sort, in a "very overblown and misguided policy regarding terrorism. I think the war on terror is a war on an abstract noun. (It) has created more terrorism than less."

As for all those "Death to America" signs at Muslim and Arab rallies, "is that even grammatically correct? I've never been so angry at somebody (as) to say, `Death to you.'"

Alper's no-go areas include anything homophobic, racist or dirty. "I won't do circumcision jokes," he says. "They're too easy and it's a sacred ceremony. I use humour almost all the time and when I don't, it's a signal that this is a very serious issue."

He still uses humour in sermons. "When I give a sermon, I hope I move people spiritually. When I make people laugh, I know I've moved them spiritually."

The Jewish funny bone is legion. But it turns out Muslims also have a long history of levity.

"There's tons of (Islamic) literature and commentary on the role and benefits of humour," Usman explains. "One of the things I draw inspiration from is that the humour tradition goes back to the Prophet himself. We have recorded traditions of him laughing, which we would expect because he was a human being, but also joking. He was very fond of word play and puns.

"It's a very lively humour tradition and it's intact."

The comedians each do a 35- to 40-minute set, then take the stage together for questions and answers. Both men have become adept at deflecting the inevitable queries about the Middle East.

If it comes up, "I say, `Look we're comedians,'" Alper says. "Our job is to make people laugh. We're not politicians or social psychologists."

Plato was on to something when he remarked that "even the gods love jokes." There are 42 references to laughter in the Bible. The Hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions, contain many references to the Prophet smiling and laughing.

Alper summons the story of Elijah, a prophet in both Islam and Judaism, who, legend has it, went to a marketplace one day and pointed to two men, saying, "they have a share in the world to come." Asked why, he is said to have replied: "Because they're comedians. When people are sad, they cheer them up and when people are angry with each other, they make peace between them."

Says Alper, quite seriously, "That's our job."

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