What I Learned After My Joke About Israel-Palestine Went Viral

Sammy Obeid performing stand-up in a now-viral clip. Photo: Sammy Obeid/YouTube

In 2019, I was invited to perform at the Comedy Store for a famous, over-100-year-old organization with an impressive track record of fighting for civil rights … except for an, at best, troubled history with Palestinian organizations. I knew about this going into it and had my qualms. I respected that they had booked me, but I figured they didn’t look me up, since my YouTube is filled with bits about being Palestinian and my support for a free Palestine. I asked myself, Should I acknowledge this onstage? The event was a celebration of fighting hate, so it seemed like I would be wrong not to, right?

I did the math in my head: If I bring up my heritage and it goes horribly wrong, I’ll bomb on one of the most renowned stages in Hollywood, and that’s not a good look. I’ve performed here many times, but I want to be asked back, so my career’s at stake. But if I don’t bring it up and still bomb, that will be worse. I was breathing deeply, pacing fast, sweating. Sarah Silverman, who was also on the lineup, noticed I was frazzled and asked, “You all right?” We laughed, and then I felt at ease. I decided to play it by ear.

I went onstage and talked about silly stuff for five minutes. A joke about my name. Being a math major. How Amazon trucks drive too fast for comfort. Once the audience was on my side, I made the announcement: I’m Palestinian American and proud. It got tense for a little bit — nearly everyone there knew the history between the organization and Palestine. But tension is good for comedy, so I kept going and did my riskiest bit, on the geopolitics of Bethlehem in occupied Palestine (I know, sounds like a crowd-pleaser).

When the conflict in Jerusalem and Gaza broke out this month — plus with the May 15 day of remembering the Nakba (the day of massive displacement of 300,000 Palestinians in 1948, including my grandma) — I started posting my Palestinian bits online and remembered I had this one. I captioned it and posted it on May 16, even though I was a little self-conscious about the quality of the recording, since you see more audience neck than me. Prior to posting the bit, I’d been hovering at 5,000 Twitter followers for nearly ten years. Over the course of four days, my followers doubled. It got nearly 1 million views.

When I started performing comedy, I was scared to talk about all of this (but that was mostly because I wasn’t funny). My parents raised me and my sister apolitically. But when Rachel Corrie was killed in 2003, something changed in them, and suddenly our family became passionate about justice in Palestine. Since I was 19, my family and I started going to rallies and hosting vigils. Some of my family members got arrested a few times. My dad was put on all sorts of “lists.”

When I moved to L.A. in 2011, I learned that you have to play the middle if you want the Israel-Palestine jokes to work. The first joke I told that pulled that off was (based on a true story): “I’m Palestinian and my roommate is Jewish, so we’re always fighting over where his room starts and mine ends. He pays more rent, but I’ve been there longer.” I told this joke on Conan in 2013 and NBC’s Last Comic Standing in 2015. Wanda Sykes told me she selected me because of that joke, saying the world needed to hear it. (I wish she said the same about my math jokes, but you can’t win them all.)

A turning point came in 2014, when the siege on Gaza caught the world’s attention. For the first time in my life, people outside of hippie and Arab circles started to feel sympathy for Palestinians. So my roommate and I released a sketch we had made in 2013. Similar to my now viral stand-up bit, we didn’t know what to do with it after making it because the story wasn’t topical. But when Gaza happened, we knew it was time, so we posted it, and it went viral on WorldStarHipHop. After that and getting praise from Roseanne (who has a history of being staunchly pro-Israel) for my joke on Last Comic Standing, I knew that I had a knack for bringing this narrative to the mainstream, which, in my belief, is the path to change. So I kept writing.

In 2018, the story became topical again as Palestinians protested for their 70-year right of return. I released a three-minute bit about my grandmother and why if Israel and Palestine had baseball leagues, America would be more invested. It went viral on NowThis Politics. A bunch of pro-Israel people told me that I spoke in a way that engaged them and made them see it differently; many others said it inspired them to learn more. Meanwhile, Arabs, Palestinians, and supporters of the Palestinian cause condemned me for making jokes at a moment when children were dying in Gaza. That experience made me aware of how careful I have to be with wording my posts, which largely influenced how I approached it this time around. The key is letting people know that you are aware that the humanitarian crisis is not funny, but at the same time, you think it’s important that people in the mainstream keep hearing our voices. And comedy is a vehicle for that.

Is the Israel-Palestine conflict complicated? It absolutely is, because if it wasn’t, it would be over by now. I grew up knowing that I was Palestinian and that my grandma lost her home in 1948 but for reasons I didn’t understand, so my whole early understanding of the situation was the “It’s complicated” narrative. At the same time, we all need to remove the layers of complexity and see that it’s ultimately an issue of right and wrong, and we need to take action to bring it to an end. My brother and fellow comedian Ramy Youssef summed it up perfectly: “Maybe this is politically difficult, but it’s not morally difficult.”

Comedy can be a tool to help humans digest unsettling topics, so it’s the perfect medium for talking about Israel-Palestine. It’s also extra important when it comes to spreading awareness about it, because so many news outlets and public figures won’t cover it (or at least not accurately). The more I learned about it, the more I understood it to be a story of governments abusing power.

The experience of this bit going viral reminded me why I make material on the topic, and why I will continue to do so. Every time I post a video about the conflict, I receive a message or comment along the lines of, “I knew nothing about this, but your video made me want to read more, so I did and WOW. Thank you.” But increasingly, I’m also realizing that I have a goal. In some sense, I’ve always known it: I want the conflict to stop. I want peace in Israel and Palestine. I want all the “complicated” to be uncomplicated and solved to the best of our ability. I’m not saying I’m special — no matter what my mom says — but I know that I have the motivation, knowledge, and comedy chops to make this topic accessible to the masses, so I should keep doing so. And sure, once there’s peace in the Middle East, I’ll go back to telling jokes about math.

What I Learned After My Israel-Palestine Joke Went Viral