Torrents of raucous laughter erupted through the crowd, packed mainly with youths clad in T-shirts and jeans who were eager for some good, clean fun.
“This is great. Everybody’s on time. All the Arabs showed up,” Jordanian-American comic Mike Batayneh said, ribbing the audience of 3,000 about the penchant for lateness in the Middle East.
“Normally, it’s like, ‘What time did you get here?’ Ah, ‘Sometime between 2:30 and Monday’,” the Detroit native joked in English.
The audience in the capital’s plush King Hussein Cultural Center auditorium roared.
Palestinian-Italian-American Dean Obeidallah, 38, didn’t let up on the crowd.
“There’s a reason why there’s no Arab superhero, like Batman or Ironman,” he said. “That’s because he’d be 20 minutes late for every emergency.”
Mr. Obeidallah, formerly of the Axis of Evil comic group, was one of 16 performers at the Arab World’s first stand-up comedy festival last week. The object: to show the humorous side of a region often stereotyped as militant, repressive and depressing.
The Axis of Evil comedians - Americans of Middle Eastern origin - were best known for wielding their humor as a weapon against prejudice until they disbanded a year ago. Aron Kader, Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani are the other members of the group, which reunited for a performance at the festival.
“Comedy in the Middle East is exploding,” Mr. Ahmed said, laughing at the pun. He noted that the comedy initiative started less than a year ago in the region and has taken off with shows in Lebanon, Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Mr. Obeidallah, who co-founded the New York-based All-Arab American Comedy Festival six years ago, said the festival in Amman surpassed his expectations.
Stand-up comedy is a new phenomenon in the Arab world, better known for its centuries-old tradition of storytelling, he said.
“The festival sold out 12 days in advance, breaking a stereotype about Arabs who always wait until the last minute to buy tickets. We were inundated,” Mr. Obeidallah said. “We could have done many, many more shows here. It’s been amazing.”
Amman’s mayor, Omar Maani, spearheaded the five-day, not-for-profit event and is pushing to turn his city into a comedy capital on the model of Montreal and Edinburgh, Scotland, which hold annual comedy festivals that draw top stars.
Other festivals in Beirut and Cairo are planned for early next year. Amman will host a 10-day comedy event in 2009 marking both the city’s 100th birthday and the 10-year ascension to the throne of Jordan’s ruler, King Abdullah II.