American TV slowly breaking biases against Middle East characters

Ray Hanania

Posted Jan 13, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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American TV slowly breaking biases against Middle East characters

By Ray Hanania

Comedy is the greatest form of communications and the Arabs and Muslims don’t use it enough.

Yet finally, an “Arab-like” character has made it back to a TV sitcom in a positive, humorous role in the new ABC TV Sitcom “Knights of Prosperity.” because humor is almost always funny. Maz Jobrani is a up-and-coming Hollywood actor and standup comedian who is helping to break the taboos on placing Arab or Middle East looking characters into positive roles.

There are very few like him, but they are out there and not surprisingly work with Jobrani.

Jobrani performs with the only real national Middle Eastern comedy show in America, “The Axis of Evil,” headed up by fellow Hollywood actor Ahmed Ahmed.

Ahmed and Jobrani perform with a collection of Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern and Persian comics including Palestinian Aron Kader at clubs and banquets around the country. Their comedy is right on. The last major “Middle Eastern character we had was the fascinating and funny Omid Djalili, who played the hotel handyman “Nasim” in the TV sitcom “Whoopi” with Whoopi Goldberg. That show only lasted one season, a few years back.

What I enjoy about Jobrani and Ahmed is they are way above the politics that consumes other Arab comics, entertainers and even community celebrities and causes internal friction and conflict.

Arabs in America are exposed to a cultural disease where the biggest enemies are themselves. So many Arabs and Middle Eastern performers and activists won’t network or partner with everyone because they use politics as the measure, rather than pure talent.
Jobrani and Ahmed are pure talent.

Previously, the group performed in Los Angeles as the Arabian Knights, breaking all kinds of stereotypes. I was amused that part of the original title made it onto the new ABC Sitcom.

The sitcom stars Donal Logue who plays a janitor tired of getting the wrong end of the mop. He convinces a collection of others to join him in a heist of the $25 million New York City home of rock icon Mick Jagger.

One reviewer called the show a TV comedy “Ocean’s 11.” And it’s funny. Co-actors include Latin stars, Sofía Vergara who is originally from Baranquilla, Colombia, which has a major Arab American (mostly Palestinian community); Lenny Venito, who played the unfortunate car mechanic in Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” remake; Kevin Michael Richardson who is best known for his cartoon voices; and Josh Grisetti who plays a college intern hoping to gain experience at a company but ends up as the quirky out-of-step foil for many of the groups jokes.

And while audiences can debate the real ethnicity of Jobrani’s character, he looks Arab to me—although his sitcom name is Gourishankar ‘Gary’ Subramaniam—maybe a little Indian, maybe a little Middle Eastern but definitely loads of talent.

The official ABC web site for the show offers this detailed background on Jobrani’s career:

“Maz Jobrani is best known for his big screen role as “Moly” in Ice Cube’s “Friday After Next.” He also played Jennifer Garner’s colleague, Glenn, in “13 Going on 30,” and was seen in the Sydney Pollack thriller “The Interpreter,” opposite Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman. Additional film credits include the critically acclaimed “Maryam,” touted by Roger Ebert as one of the most overlooked films in 2000, the Kevin Costner drama “Dragonfly,” and independent films “Season of Madness,” “Something Borrowed” and “Bug.” He will next be seen in the much anticipated indie film “Moonpie,” directed by Drake Doremus.

“Television audiences may recognize Jobrani from his recent role as “Mr. Hut,” the angry owner of a fast food stand in the town’s mall on the Fox sitcom “Life on a Stick.” He also appeared in recurring roles on “24” (Season Two), “Life with Bonnie” and “Cedric the Entertainer Presents.” His numerous guest appearances include both popular comedy and dramatic series such as “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Still Standing,” “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue,” “Without a Trace,” “ER,” “Law & Order,” and a memorable turn as “The Sikh” in the hilarious 2004 season finale of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

A San Francisco native, Jobrani began as a political science major who found himself attracted to theater. Amazingly, his career rise only began in 1994. His future is bright. His humor is hilarious. And his show is worth watching every Wednesday night at 9 PM EST (8 PM Central).

It’s very impressive. And Jobrani si doing far more than most tohelp break the stereotypes that hold back Arabs who refuse to work with each other, or discriminate because of internal and petty political divisions.

It’s too bad not all Arabs or Middle Easterners in America can follow the precedent setting leads set by Jobrani and Ahmed who are helping to remold the way Americans view our community.

Some might brush off television as insignificant entertainment. That may be the case in other countries, but in America, television is the temple of power and a major part of the communications and mass media structure that defines how Arabs and Middle Easterners are viewed in the West.

It shouldn’t be overlooked. And one day, we’ll have an entire TV show dedicated to exploring the cultural richness of positive Arabs and Middle Easterners, played by, hopefully, veteran Hollywood Actors like Jobrani and Ahmed.

(Ray Hanania was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist 2006/2007” by the New America Media. He can be reached at )