Ramy Youssef, standup comedian and star of Nickelodeon’s “See Dad Run,” appeared recently on Steven Colbert’s “Late Show.” Ramy’s performance reminded us that although there are certainly Muslims in the world, there are no “Muslim comedians.” Or at least none that are funny.
Humor is a form of human communication that entails surprise, playful judgement, and truth.
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“Humor is the good natured side of a truth.” – Mark Twain
It is that last ingredient that is especially missing from the work of the wave of “Muslim comedians” such as Ramy Youssef who are coming our way.
For humor to be successful, it needs to have a bass line, an integrity.
As Twain put it:
“…humor cannot do credit to itself without a good background of gravity & of earnestness. Humor unsupported rather hurts its author in the estimation of the reader.” – Mark Twain
Ordinarily, ambiguity is not good for a comedian, who wants to avoid the “I don’t get it” response. Andy Kaufman used ambiguity in his humor, but he was actually funny and there was never any doubt that he was not advancing a political agenda.
Muslim comedians, by contrast, are almost always political. Islam is a political movement. “Muslim comedian” is a political designation.
The term “Muslim comedian” is not analogous to “Jewish comedian.” Jewish culture had a well-established literature and tradition of humor long before the arrival of mass media. There is nothing comparable to this in Islam.
Qualify the term “comedian” with other political movements, or things that are perceived to be political, and you come up with parings such as “white comedian,” “Christian comedian,” and “Nazi comedian.” None of these things would succeed unless they were done as satire, such as Colbert’s Republican comedian shtick.
With Islam, you don’t get any satire. You get your subtext served straight up, with no chaser.
Humor and truth are closely related. The truth that Islamic humor reveals consists of puns, pranks, ridicule, throwing melon rinds at each other, and practical jokes. Tricking people and jokes that are made at other people’s expense is typical of Muslim humor.
This is the dualistic nature of Islam, in which the humor is barbed: wounding on one end, and flattering on the other.
Islam doesn’t have a real tradition of what we would call good humor.
The truths reveled by Muslim humorists are Islamic truths, and will only be applicable to Muslims. The more Islamic a comedian becomes, the less humorous he will be.
There are three points at which Ramy Youssef became a Muslim instead of a comedian:
This seems to be an invitation to participate in bigotry, not humor. Additionally, it opens the door to some hard truths that could lead to some sophisticated humor. We very much need to have a discussion about this difficult subject, that is, the fact that Allah, the god of Islam, is not the same god as Yahweh.
When Ramy senses he is losing traction, he shifts gears, and begins talking about his roots.
Youssef touches on the deadly collision between gay Muslims and their larger community, and there is a great deal of truth to be spoken here. In the right hands, a humorous message could be conveyed, but not from Ramy Youssef. As if he were in a Mr. Magoo cartoon, he flips a u-turn and heads back down the way he came, referencing himself, and says:
Ramy is a Muslim oppressed by homosexuals? “Religious person”? Jews aren’t killing gays, and neither are Christians. But Muslims are – daily. Flipping the script is a familiar rhetorical device used by Muslims, but it is not funny.
Ramy’s soliloquy about joining ISIS is fraught with ambiguity. He says that looking at the news has him wondering if he will “do something.” He imagines being contacted by ISIS members who remind him of his obligations as a Muslim, and he agrees. Ramy says he would join ISIS for a wand, because a wand is cooler than democracy.
We are all gravely concerned about Muslims who live among us suddenly flipping out and killing people with cars, bombs, and/or knives. Where is that reality, that truth in Ramy’s humor?
This performance was like an Islamic version of an Andy Kaufman routine, in which the whole dynamic was turned around, and he was laughing at us. Isn’t he laughing up his sleeve because we don’t get the joke?
When the subtext is this close to the surface, it can be mistaken for a joke, but he just got the audience to applaud their own annihilation.
He is not cracking a joke, he is telling you the naked truth from his heart.
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