Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Just Like Us

Western stand-ups regularly mine their Christian and Jewish faith for comedic material without the fear of violent reprisals. Jokes inspired by Islam have been an entirely different proposition altogether, considered “Haraam” or “forbidden” as the Danish cartoon fatwas all too clearly demonstrate. However, a group of multi-faith comics were able to gingerly address such subjects in a first of its kind comedy tour of the Middle East, documented in tour headliner-director Ahmed Ahmed’s Just Like Us (trailer here), which screens during the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

Ahmed and the tour impresario frequently assure viewers the mere possibility of such an endeavor proves how much the Islamic world is loosening up. Perhaps, but until a Jewish Israeli comic can safely join the tour, their effusions seem a bit premature. Still, unlike the slavishly politically correct (and decidedly unfunny) material heard in from the stand-ups featured in the Allah Made Me Funny tour-documentary, many of the JLU performers are actually funny.

In addition, Ahmed and his tour-mate Omid Djalili (also represented at Tribeca in the surprisingly brave The Infidel) actually satirically address Islamic topics directly, offering some understandably cautious but still pointed commentary on the state of their faith. For instance, in a neat pivot, Ahmed subverts the clichéd “flying while Islamic” joke by turning the focus of his bit on the wanted terrorist who unfortunately happens to be his namesake, thereby putting his name on every “no fly” list.

Ahmed and Djalili are indeed quite funny and frank on-stage, leading them to half-jokingly fear their routines will get them banned in Dubai. Overall though, the line-up is a decidedly mixed bag. Probably the best known participant, In Living Color’s Tommy Davison, is easily the least funny (though he seems to kill with some highly partisan material). Still, that is pretty much par for the course for such large ensemble tours.

There are a fair number of legitimate laughs in JLU, primarily from Ahmed and Djalili, but there is far too much extraneous travelogue sequences. The audience really does not hear the beautiful virtues of each city on the tour extolled over and over again. It starts to sound a bit forced, particularly in Riyadh, where the comics must perform in an underground club. As a result, at 72 minutes, JLU is relatively brief by feature standards, yet it still feels padded. Certainly, it is encouraging to see the reception granted to the haraam comedy tour, but it ultimately seems like more of a halting test of prevailing limits, than a watershed cultural event. Reasonably amusing, it screens during Tribeca on Monday (4/26), Tuesday (4/27), and Friday (4/30).