Although I have a beard, mustache and a Semitic cast to my face, only twice in my life have I been mistaken for a terrorist. The first time was on an Alitalia flight from JFK to Milan when I was 13, my very secular parents having decided that we would take a family vacation to Europe in lieu of a bar mitzvah. As we settled into our seats, a representative for the airline rushed onto the plane and approached my father. “Mr. Meerwin, your luggage is teeking,” he blurted out. My face fell; I had bought an alarm called a “panic button,” which you could hang on the back of your hotel door and it would go off if someone tried to open the door in the middle of the night. The man took us to a hangar filled with baggage, and, indeed, it was my suitcase that was, if not ticking, then certainly ringing with loud whoops. I disarmed the device, and we were on our way.
The second time was just last summer. A B-17 bomber was being flown around the country so that people could tour the inside and take rides in it. I tried to find the location of the plane and ended up in a military installation on the other side of the airfield. I drove up to the guard booth to ask for directions. “Do you know where the bomber is?” I asked. The guy in uniform glared at me. “Do you know that you’re on a military base? And that you probably shouldn’t be using that word?” I apologized profusely, and gamely tried again. “Sorry, sir. Do you know where the plane that drops bombs might be?” I was told to get lost in no uncertain terms, or face immediate arrest.
This theater season has witnessed a plethora of plays about terrorism — ranging from Ayad Akhtar’s Broadway drama “Disgraced,” about a prominent Muslim-American attorney in New York who helps a terror-sponsoring imam, to Misha Shulman’s “Martyrs Street,” about a group of Jewish settlers in Israel who seek to blow up a more dovish group of fellow Jews. But these plays are all deadly serious. Aren’t we ready for a comedy, whether on the stage or screen, on this subject?
Perhaps it is still too soon after 9/11. After all, it was more than two decades after the end of WWII when Mel Brooks first joked about Hitler and the Nazis in “The Producers.” That sendup helped to pave the way for other comedic cinematic takes on the Shoah, from Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” in 1997 to Peter Kassovitz’s “Jakob the Liar,” starring Robin Williams, in 1999. (Then again, Charlie Chaplin anticipated Brooks, and our involvement in World War II, in his 1940 satire, “The Great Dictator.”)
Muslim-American stand-up comedians often joke about how Muslims are feared. Dean Obeidallah, a comic of Palestinian-Italian descent, complains that instead of getting a whole month to celebrate their accomplishments (á la Jewish American History Month), Arab-Americans get “Orange Alert.” But we have yet to see a full-fledged play, film or TV show that mines terrorism for laughs — despite Iranian-American comedian Max Jibrani’s just-published memoir, “I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV.”
There is a dearth of terrorism-themed comedies in American pop culture; perhaps the recent brouhaha over Seth Rogen and James Franco’s “The Interview” — about two entertainment reporters who are sent by the CIA to assassinate the leader of South Korea — has made producers gun-shy.
In Great Britain, stage and screen comedies about terrorism have been popular. Benjamin Scheuer and Zoe Samuel’s “Jihad! The Musical” premiered in 2007 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and later ran in London; it ITS signature tune was “I Wanna Be Like Osama.” And Christopher Morris’ critically acclaimed black comedy, “Four Lions,” was a success in Britain, although it received very limited release in America. The film is about a group of Pakistani-British jihadists who bungle their plans to blow themselves up at the London Marathon; when one of them inserts screws in a bomb, he specifies the intended target of each: “Jew. Gay. Fed. Sodomite. Gynecologist. Leonard Cohen.”
Julian Schlossberg, a well-known film, theater and TV producer, speculated that a comedy about terrorism would simply be too risky to produce — not because of the outrage that it might cause, but because it would be too unlikely to earn a profit. Producers care about revenue, Schlossberg noted, and comedy is even more difficult to pull off than tragedy, as summed up in the old theatrical adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Then, Schlossberg said, “Add on top of that the theme of terrorism. Now that’s scary.”
Ted Merwin directs the Hillel at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa.), where he also teaches religion and Judaic studies. His website is tedmerwin.com.