Friday, October 03, 2008

Allah Made Them Think They’re Funny

After the violent protests and death threats provoked by the publication of a handful of relatively benign Danish cartoons satirizing (Heaven forbid) Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, it is safe to say fundamentalist Muslims do not have a reputation for a sense of humor. However, three practicing American Muslim comedians have banded together for a series of comedy albums and tours, documented in Allah Made Me Funny (trailer here), opening today in select cities for a limited one week release window.

How funny you find the comics seems to depend on how closely you share their world views, which suggests their stand-up routines are less about getting laughs and more about hearing an “Amen” from the audience. The three comics of AMMF are logically presented in increasing order of mirth. I laughed exactly once during Mo Amer’s set, twice during Azhar Usman’s, and a respectable nine or ten times for Preacher Moss.

Clearly, Moss, a former SNL writer, is the class of the film and tour. His strongest material describes his family experiences during his conversion to Islam. It worked so well because it is an experience somewhat unique in the particulars, yet involving the sort of family drama everyone can relate to.

Much of Amer and Usman’s material by contrast, offered up stale Bush jokes that could have come from anyone on MSNBC. They also treat us to jokes about “flying while Muslim,” which even Amer referred to as “obligatory.” Particularly after screening Bliss, the Turkish honor killing film, their frequent riffs on how ferocious Muslim women really are in private seemed disconcerting in a “doth protest too much” kind of way. Though benign, much of their slice-of-life material sounded fairly shop-worn. Amer’s olive oil routine for instance, suggests strong parallels with Chris Rock on his father’s use of Robitussin as a cure-all.

There is no question Islam desperately needs a satirist—one capable of casting a gimlet eye inward as well as outward. At times, Moss showed hints he might have that in him. However, his colleagues were content to simply preach to the choir.

Even with a brief running time under ninety minutes, AMMF still feels padded. The material here would work better edited down for an hour long cable special, if the majority of the time was allotted to Moss. As it is, AMMF never feels like a special event, rather just another night on the tour. It opens today in New York at the Quad, with Moss in attendance for a Q&A following tonight’s 8:00 screening.