EAST LANSING — The comedian who made his name on the "Axis of Evil Comedy Tour" made one thing clear when he opened a recent set at Michigan State University: "Tonight, it's not Islam 101."
For every joke Dean Obeidallah made about his Arabic heritage or Muslim faith, there were others about student loans, Asian-American basketball phenom Jeremy Lin, the presidential race and full-body scans at airports.
The last topic might seem like fertile ground for a Muslim comic, but the punchline goes to another time-honored funny topic: male anatomy.
"They're looking at my image on the monitor," he said. "All I can think of is, 'please don't laugh, please don't laugh.'"
Arab-Muslim stand-up comedy is flourishing more than a decade after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While comics like Obeidallah, Ahmed Ahmed and Amer Zahr differ on approach — and there are disagreements among some — they're all trying to do more than just lampoon themselves or their people for easy laughs.
"I think our own community pushed us a little bit. They were tired of hearing jokes about ... having problems at the airport. ... They wanted a more nuanced approach to comedy," Obeidallah said during a multi-city swing through Michigan.
"You want to be dynamic. The same act, it's boring. People will not come back to see you a second or third time."
For example, he drew big laughs for a joke about the U.S. media's current obsession with Lin: "He's a testament to all of us. If you work hard, believe in yourself and graduate from Harvard, anything can happen." Later, he poked fun at many Americans' blissful ignorance of the world beyond its borders: "We don't know much about other countries. ... We're busy — we have to keep up with the Kardashians. That takes up a lot of time."
Muslim and Arab humor didn't begin with 9/11, but it marks an important turning point for the way many Muslims looked at themselves as Americans and how they joked about it with others, said Mucahit Bilici, an assistant professor of sociology at New York's John Jay College.
"The discrimination, prejudices and stereotypes from which other Muslims suffer are a godsend for the Muslim comedian," Bilici wrote in a chapter he contributed to the book "Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and Friend."
Obeidallah, 42, a New Yorker who started in comedy a few years before 9/11 while working as a lawyer, said most U.S. Arabs — himself included — "just thought they were white people" before 9/11. He said some in society thought differently afterward.
Amer Zahr, also originally a lawyer, began stand-up shortly after the attacks. The 34-year-old of Palestinian heritage grew up in the Philadelphia area in a Christian-Muslim household. He was in his first year of law school in 2002 at the University of Michigan when a group of Arab comedians, including Obeidallah, came to campus.
"At that point the shows were so small, so (someone asked), 'Is there anybody who wants to get on stage to ... fill some time?'" he said. Now he tours internationally and lives in Dearborn.
"I told a couple stories about my Dad, and everyone loved it," he said. "So I thought, 'OK, this is kind of cool.'
"In the beginning it was just, 'Let me be very vanilla. We're in the spotlight and people want to hear about us,'" he said. "Later on, I was getting into really making people think twice ... about how they feel about us."
Ahmed Ahmed, 41, a comic and actor who launched what would become the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, was born in Egypt and moved to southern California soon after. He found a champion fairly early on in Mitzi Shore, who ran the influential The Comedy Store in Hollywood. He recalls some prescient conversations with Shore.
"Before 9/11 I had been doing comedy for about seven years and the year before 9/11 was when Mitzi hired me," Ahmed said. "She had an epiphany that there would be a war between America and the Middle East. ... She said, 'Arab comics are going to be necessary in the world to break down misconceptions and stereotypes.'"