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Bob Alper and Mo Amer: Don't be afraid to be funny

Humor is a universal language that helps bring understanding to each other’s humanity, say a Jewish and a Muslim comedian who have teamed up for the “Laugh in Peace” tour.

Photo courtesy of Bob Alper
Bob Alper, left, and Mo Amer

April 5, 2011

A decade ago Rabbi Bob Alper hired a publicist to help raise his visibility as a Jewish comedian. She suggested he do a tour with a Muslim comedian. Alper wasn’t interested.

“It wasn’t the Jewish/Muslim idea,” said Alper, who earned a doctor of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the author of “Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This” and “A Rabbi Confesses,” a cartoon book. “It was the idea of working with another comic,” he said with a grin, “because comedians are neurotic, and you have to travel with them, you have to spend time with them, and you have to do interviews with them.”

But the publicist persevered and introduced him to Ahmed Ahmed, a Muslim comedian. In April 2002, they did their first show together, “One Arab, One Jew on Stage: Two Very Funny Guys.” Ahmed has since ventured into acting and directing films and only occasionally performs with Alper, but Alper has continued the interfaith comedy tour with other comedians.

It’s now called the “Laugh in Peace” tour. Among the comedians who have joined Alper on the tour is Mo Amer. A Muslim born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, Amer moved with his family to Houston when he was 9. He has performed as part of the “Allah Made Me Funny”  and “Legally Homeless: Trials of a Refugee” comedy tours. He began performing with Alper’s interfaith comedy tour in the late 2000s.

Alper and Amer spoke with Faith & Leadership about the role of comedy in faith and how leaders can use humor. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Why an interfaith comedy tour, and why use humor when dealing with a topic that can be considered serious, such as faith?

Amer: Humor is a universal language. Remember [this] the next time you have a really serious conversation, and [observe] how it actually starts. I almost guarantee you that 90-plus percent of the time, it’s going to start with humor. And why wouldn’t you want to sit together and laugh together? Don’t forget [the old proverb] that “most truth is said in jest.”

Alper: There’s the story in the Talmud that I sometimes share. Elijah the prophet and a friend walked into a marketplace, and Elijah pointed across the area. He says, “See those two men over there? Well, they’ll have a share in the world to come.” The friend asked, “Why is that?” Elijah replied, “It’s because they’re comedians. When people are sad, they cheer them, and when people are angry with each other, they bring peace between them.” That’s kind of what we try to do.

I did a show a couple of nights ago with [Muslim comedian] Azhar Usman at the University of Michigan, and you looked out and saw a sea of faces of Muslim and Christian students not only laughing together but hanging out together before and after the show. These are little steps to bring understanding of each other’s humanity.

Amer: I always tell Bob the mere fact that we’re working together already does that. That’s why the name -- “Laugh in Peace” tour -- is so brilliant. It has kind of neutralized all that as well. It kind of disarms the audience right away.

Q: Why bring these two faiths -- Judaism and Islam -- together?

Alper: The Jewish/Christian thing has been done often and successfully. There’s a lot of it.

Amer: Yeah. Get over yourselves already. I’m just kidding. Let the record show I was joking when I said that statement.

Alper: This is where it’s needed. These are two communities that really have so much in common but don’t know each other and fear each other a lot. I sometimes use a joke -- it’s not such a great joke, but I wish I could use it more -- where I talk about how the Muslim immigrant experience in America is parallel to the Jewish immigrant experience in America in many ways.

One-hundred and fifty years ago, Jews came to America with nothing. They’d put a pack on their back and go from town to village to city peddling, and if they were successful, they’d get a horse and wagon. If they continued to be successful, they’d settle in the towns and the villages and the cities and open a store. And now Muslims are coming to America and they’re all going to the towns and the villages and the cities … as radiologists.

Amer: That’s funny. I never heard you do that. You should pick another word than radiologist maybe. Pick a funnier word maybe.

Alper: But I thought about that. I was in Laramie, Wyo., and I said to a Muslim student at a university, “How did your family get here?” He said, “Well, my father is a radiologist.”

Amer: That’s funny. That’s funny.

Alper: That’s how it came to be.

Amer: For me, [humor] can neutralize all the stuff that does exist out there, and I think there are a lot of negative perceptions that [obscure] how Jews and Muslims are alike. There’s just so much similarity; it’s just off the charts. There should be no reason why we don’t speak or talk more often. There are people all over the world that have good relationships. Muslims and Jews live fine.

[Comedian] Azhar Usman has a joke, “Muslims and Jews have been living in New York for so many years that I’m sure you could find a halal hot dog on a kosher bun.” It’s totally spot-on.

This is a great remedy for those places that do have that tension. My greatest hope is for us to both do a show in Jerusalem. That would be amazing.

Alper: Yeah. That would.

Q: Is there any risk in using humor to bring attention to a serious issue?

Amer: There’s risk-reward in all of stand-up.

Alper: We don’t try and be funny about group relations or politics. We don’t do that. We just do our own thing. The medium is the message. People see us up there and they know that we hang out together. That’s enough. I think that’s what comes through. And we want [our audiences] to know that we don’t just meet, talk, pick up our checks and say, “All right, we’re going back to our separate hotels.”

Amer: Yeah, it’s not, “See you later.” No.

Alper: Last night, we were at a synagogue, and it was a predominantly Jewish audience. I don’t know how often Jews have an opportunity to understand the tensions in an Arab/Muslim family, like over a child’s choice of a career such as Mo presents in an hysterical comedy bit. There are similar tensions in Jewish families.

Amer: Yeah. Absolutely.

Alper: And it’s identical. Mo comes from a family of all professionals, and his mother was skeptical about him being a comedian. That happened with my family, too.

Amer: In my family, there is someone with a Ph.D., a pilot, a Microsoft-certified engineer, a telecommunications engineer. And I say, “I want to be a comedian.” That made people laugh.

Alper: And it’s really so humanizing, because it’s the same thing, you know.

Q: What role does humor have in faith?

Alper: It’s humanizing, and it has a very, very positive effect spiritually. In fact, I’m writing a book now called “Thanks, I Needed That,” subtitled “The Spirituality of Laughter,” because humor has a hugely important role in helping cope with sadness, illness, diversity, grief, all the difficult parts of life. It has a very effective way of helping people cope with challenges like raising teenagers. It’s laughter that helps them through it.

Amer: Absolutely. Historically, in Islam, the Prophet Mohammed -- peace be upon him -- used to commission jesters and poets to entertain the people. That for me is a prime example of how humor was used to lift spirits historically in Islam.

Laughter comes from the heart, just as weeping and crying do. It all comes from the same place. Sometimes you laugh too much and you start crying, and sometimes you cry so much [that] at the end you start laughing. So they’re all connected, and this is all an emotion that we all experience. That in itself is very, very spiritual.

Q: What are the keys to being funny, especially for leaders?

Amer: Stop talking! No. I don’t know. I mean, you either have it or you don’t. George Burns said, “I wasn’t funny. I learned how to be funny.” He’ll say that, but what I think he did is learned to be himself. I think that’s what he meant when he said “I learned to be funny.” That’s the biggest thing for comedians: be yourself on stage.

Imagine a brick wall, and you’re removing a layer of brick constantly throughout your career [until] eventually you are yourself on stage, and therefore people from all different backgrounds will be attracted to you, because it’s the universal language of truth. People can see that. You can tell when somebody is full of it.

Alper: One thing is, don’t be afraid to be funny. Prefacing that, spiritual leaders have to understand the value and the effectiveness of humor and appreciate it, because if they’re sneering at the use of humor or condescending to the use of humor, they’re not going to be very good at it themselves.

But if they value it and if they understand how enormously effective it can be in reaching people, that’s the first step. Then what goes after that is learning how to use humor, and that’s difficult.

Q: What are your suggestions for how to use humor?

Alper: One quick suggestion is keep it short.

Amer: Amen.

Alper: Sometimes people do long, long stories and just go on and on and on, and it’s terrible. No payoff is worth listening to something for three minutes.

There’s a technique that some people might use already, but maybe they don’t realize it, and others might want to adapt it. It’s called target painting. It means instead of drawing a target first and then shooting to try and hit the target, shoot first and then draw the target around the arrow, and you’ve got a bull’s-eye.

So if I come up with a really good joke or story that I want to use, I’ll make that the centerpiece, and I’ll figure what can I say around it. What lesson can I draw out of the story or joke? How can I use this very effective story and make it into a sermon or lesson?

I almost always use humor in sermons at some point. Recently, I took a spiritual journey to visit Auschwitz, and I wrote the sermon that I’ll be delivering on Yom Kippur this fall. Believe it or not, the sermon begins with some very mild humor. The congregation doesn’t know where I’m going with the sermon. What they do know is they’re relaxing into it. They’re having a smile or two. You have to set people up and prepare them to ingest the serious message of your sermon. If you start right away hitting them over the head, they won’t respond.

There was a teacher in the Talmud called Rabbah who always began his lessons with a joke. After students were relaxed, he then imparted the more profound wisdom of the lesson.

Amer: I think it’s also observing what the needs are. You must recognize the needs of the particular people whom you’re speaking to and articulate a message that goes directly to their hearts instead of something that’s non-relatable. It’s really, really important as well to be OK with silence.

My mentor taught me that you must be OK with silence, but most comedians are terrified of silence. That’s why you see some comedians rush, rush, rush, rush, rush. They just pound through the material without really connecting and without being themselves. They’re just churning it out.

You’ve got to have no fear. Take a risk, like Bob said. It’s OK. But to me, I think either you have it or you don’t; and if you don’t have it right now, you just don’t know how to tap into it, because we all have some type of humor inside. Well, some people I’ve met, I’m not really sure about.

Alper: And we don’t want the competition anyway, so never mind.

Amer: Yeah. Don’t do it.