Wednesday, September 04, 2002

IS THIS FUNNY? An up-and-coming standup comedian, Ray Hanania [Ha-na-NEE-ah] thought that he was about to get his big break last week, when he was scheduled to open for Jackie Mason at Zanies, a popular Chicago comedy club.

That much of the story, everyone seems to agree upon. Beyond that, things get very foggy.

The Chicago Tribune [link requires onerous registration and activation procedure] offers up the story in what seems like a fairly straightforward and well-documented manner:

Zanies in Chicago canceled a comedian of Palestinian descent as an opener for Jackie Mason [a Jew who uses Jewish subject matter in his comedy] ... because of the local comic's take on Arab-Israeli relations and because he violated protocol about pre-show publicity." [Emphasis mine]

Protocol? More on this a little later. Meanwhile, The Washington Post, picking up the Associated Press wire story, put things a little differently. Attributing Jackie Mason's manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, as their source, AP reported:

"Hanania ... was told hours before the show he couldn't perform because he is Palestinian." [Emphasis mine] -- also copying the AP story nearly word-for-word, including the misspelling of "Zanie's" with an apostrophe -- went on to report that Zanies' general manager, Linda Moses, apparently not having yet reconciled her story with the line Mason's people were promoting, claimed to have bounced Hanania largely because of his "inexperience."

"It's just the fact that he is an unknown," Moses said. "(Mason) is just not comfortable with having an unknown act. It's understandable. In cases like this, the club must defer to Mason's wishes."

One wonders, then, what Linda Moses was thinking when Hanania was booked in the first place. But directly contradicting her kinder, gentler cover story, CNN quotes Jackie Mason's manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, as saying:

"It's not exactly like he's just an Arab-American. This guy's a Palestinian. ... Jackie does not feel comfortable having a Palestinian open for him. Right now it's a very sensitive thing, it's just not a good idea. ... Nothing personal against this fellow ... Jackie doesn't even know him."

Well, well, well. Things look pretty bad for the three supporting actors in this narrative, while Hanania appears to be the innocent victim of a racist conspiracy. Shall we play the obligatory word-substitution game? Imagine if it was Dave Chappelle whose opening act was cut, and Mason's manager had explained it away by saying: "It's not exactly like he's just an African-American. This guy's a Frenchman!"

But wait. It gets worse. CNN reported further:

"Members of Chicago's Arab-American community did take it personally. ... "I'm outraged," said Ali Alarabi [president of the United Arab American League]. "It is an act of hate and racism against Palestinians, and we demand an apology."

Why, Hanania couldn't have gotten better publicity if he'd orchestrated the whole thing.

Almost as if he'd planned the appearance in advance -- almost as though he'd set his alarm clock expressly for this purpose -- Ray Hanania began his counterattack campaign by phoning in the "Curtis and Kuby" radio show on New York City's WABC-AM very early last Wednesday morning, at about 6:00 a.m. (5:00 Chicago time). Here, I don't have the benefit of links or transcripts, so I'm going from memory -- but the gist of Hanania's complaint was that Mason had personally signed off on having Hanania open for him, and was personally responsible for his being fired after he had second thoughts about being associated with a Palestinian. Hanania insisted that his comedy act included no content that would inflame Arab-Jewish relations. All he wanted to do was to tell a few jokes and bring us all closer togther.

Later that morning on WABC's John Gambling program, guest-host Richard Bey took a call from an incensed Jackie Mason, who -- regrettably -- didn't exactly manage to successfully acquit himself. Mason made it sound as though he had been personally betrayed, putting the blame for this incident squarely on Hanania's back, claiming that Hanania owed HIM an apology. To hear Mason tell the story, Hanania had originally presented himself as an "apolitical" comic, but immediately upon getting the Zanies booking, he began aggressively promoting himself as "the Palestinian comedian who was opening for the Jewish comedian." This act of self-promotion was the so-called "protocol" that Hanania had violated, and was itself sufficient pretext for Zanies to fire him.

But Mason further claimed that Hanania's manner of self-promotion had singularly spurred a torrent of angry calls from Zanies patrons and ticketholders. These loyal (if conveniently un-named and unverifiable) patrons, Mason claimed, were prepared to boycott the Mason show en masse if Hanania appeared as scheduled. That left him with no choice.

Mason exonerated Zanies management, repeatedly insisting that it was all very well and good for critics to say that Zanies should "take a principled stand" -- but that those critics were not the ones who would be "going out of business" by keeping Hanania on the bill. No one should be "forced to go out of business" to defend a principle, insisted Mason -- apparently unaware of how many brave, principled individuals have risked or lost their lives to defend his freedom to go on the radio and say any damnfool thing he pleases.

I started taking notes on these events as they began to unfold a week ago -- but as I began to write up a coherent report, it seemed as though something was missing from the story. So I sat on my notes for a few days, to see how events continued to unfold -- and also, to see if any of my Blogbrethren might also weigh in on the story. Unfortunately, Daypop -- the Blog search engine -- seems to be out of commission right now, so I haven't been able to find ANY references or links, other than what has appeared in the mainstream press. (A subsequent updated Chicago Tribune story has Jackie Mason, on damage control, quoted as insisting "I love Palestinians" at a press conference later that day -- but that's about it.)

Let's concede immediately that Jackie Mason and his manager (it's not as if she was "freelancing") -- and to a lesser extent, Zanies management -- come off in a very bad light here. Which is hardly surprising. Jackie Mason is a washed-up Borscht Belt comic whose idea of "funny" consists of inserting a handful of Yiddish words or expressions into his anecdotes -- most infamously, words like "shvartze," which, for the uninitiated, is the functional equivalent of the "n-word." For Mason to further cloak his racism in the guise of a magnanimous gesture -- to avoid inflaming Jewish-Arab animosities and enable Zanies to "stay in business" -- only serves to make Zanies look like a co-conspirator in his own shameful, cowardly act.

That said, I'm glad that I let this story age for a few days. Because it turns out that there's another side which the mainstream media has entirely missed -- or wilfully ignored.

Jackie Mason behaved abominably and gets no defense from these quarters. But so has the mainstream media behaved equally abominably. Once again, they have turned a complicated story into a simple one, for the purpose of serving up a convenient, biased narrative that sells papers and supports their editorial agenda. Once again, mainstream media is complicit in pushing the cultural mythology of the mean, racist Jew putting down the weak, innocent Palestinian.

That ain't the whole story, folks.

Ray Hanania did not materialize out of a vaccuum last week, nor is he the innocent victim he would like you to believe he is.

Ray Hanania has an audit trail.

Ray Hanania is actually a well-known professional media and communications consultant in Chicago, and a senior executive for (what he describes as) a national public relations and public affairs company. He's also a former radio talk show host, and a frequent guest on various local public-interest television news programs.

In other words -- he's a guy who knows all too well how to use the media to his advantage. When he needs to ask the United Arab American League to denounce someone and demand an apology, you can bet Hanania's got their number on speed-dial.

And while he promotes himself as "the Palestinian comedian," his own resume reveals that he is actually a native-born American citizen -- a Vietnam veteran, no less! -- whose parents happen to have emigrated from Jerusalem and Bethelehem. While he obviously feels very strongly about his Palestinian heritage -- and I surely don't begrudge him his cultural identity -- he is no more Palestinian than I am Russian for being descended from Russian immigrants.

Hanania also runs his own very political self-promotional website called "Arab American Media Oasis" -- which, among other things, contains an archive of his political columns written for The Daily Herald. This is apparently a minor regional paper that serves primarily Chicago-area suburbs, although Hanania describes it as a "major American newspaper" -- and further puffs up his resume by describing himself as "the only Palestinian Arab American writing a column on Middle East issues on a weekly basis for an American daily newspaper." (With enough qualifiers, any credential can be made to sound impressive.)

At one time, Hanania was also a reporter and columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, for which he wrote a four-part series on the life of Palestinians under "Israeli occupation" in 1991, a story which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. This, of course, is the ultimate in resume puffery. It may have been an extraordinarily well-written and important piece of journalism for all I know -- but to be recognized with a Pulitzer nomination is no more difficult than coughing up the entry fee, filling out a short application form and mailing it before the deadline.

I've read some of Hanania's columns (here's the most recent one) and I'll reserve judgment on his politics for now -- except to say that, while he is extremely knowledgable about the historical facts that are important to him, he views the Arab-Israeli conflict through an extremely narrow keyhole -- cropping out the "big picture" in favor the tiny image in the center of the screen that reveals only those things he wants to see. Beyond that, I'll add that he and I have more common cause than you might otherwise expect.

But that said, what especially interests me right now is that, three months ago, Hanania began writing -- a blog! And if you're looking for laughs, Hanania's blog -- Arab American Humor & Thoughts -- is the place to go -- that is, if you're into jokes that are as funny as your average Kahil cartoon.

Hanania claims that he only wants to be judged on how funny and entertaining he is ... that if he was fired because he is a "lousy comedian," then he would be satisfied that he was fired fairly.

So -- you be the judge. Here are a few examples of Ray Hanania's written humor, taken directly from the archived pages of his very own blog:

"Poli" -- means multiple. "tic-ians" means a lot of people who bug you and get under your skin. "Bugs that lie" would be a better name for that. But, we'd have to check with the Israelis before making any changes. After all, Congress is Israeli Occupied Territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered that a postage stamp be commissioned to honor his leadership. The stamp was printed and distributed but his aides reported that while stamps were being sold, very few were being used on letters. In fact, Prime Minister Sharon had yet to receive a letter with one of his postage stamp portraits ... Sharon ordered the Mossad, if it could find the time between assassinating Palestinian political leaders, and cultivating Americans to spy for Israel, to investigate why the stamp was not being used. After an exhaustive study, the Mossad reported that the problem was that the stamps were being used improperly. Nearly everyone was spitting on the wrong side.

A TALE OF PALESTINIAN WILL POWER: An old man lived alone in Palestine. He wanted to dig his potato garden, but it was very hard work. His only son, who would have helped him, was in an Israeli prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and mentioned his predicament. Shortly, he received this reply, "For HEAVEN'S SAKE, Dad, don't dig up that garden, that's where I buried the GUNS!"

At 4 A.M. the next morning, a dozen Israeli soldiers showed up and dug up the entire garden, without finding any guns. Confused, the old man wrote another note to his son telling him what happened, and asking him what to do next.

His son's reply was: "Now plant your potatoes, Dad. This is the best I can do for you at this time."

Ha ha.

In closing, a few final points:

What is this promotional "protocol" that Hanania supposedly violated? It should come as no surprise to anyone that success in showbiz depends at least as much, if not more, on self-promotion than on talent. If Hanania has gotten it into his head that he wants to succeed as a comedian, of course he has to promote himself -- and if "The Palestinian Comic" is the hook that works for him, then it's his professional duty to repeat that line at every opportunity.

Now, I don't know the business from the inside -- so it's entirely possible that Zanies actually does have a clause in their contracts that forbids their acts from doing their own promotion of a specific Zanies appearance -- but does anyone seriously believe that such rules are routinely and universally enforced? This was selective discrimination, plain and simple.

On the other hand, Hanania is kidding himself if -- as he was quoted by AP and CNN -- he actually said the words, "I'm upset because I deserve to be on stage." That's more than just a performer's ego talking. Spot-check his collected writings about the Middle East conflict, and it quickly becomes self-evident that this is a cultural conceit -- and an extension of the same mindset that would also insist that "I'm upset because Palestinians deserve to occupy all the land between Jordan and the sea." Everything important in his world view is skewed by what he believes the world owes him. Little or nothing is about what he's earned.

And to imagine that Jackie Mason was not entitled to give Hanania the axe when he learned that his opening act was someone whose political writings are, in fact, both inflammatory and highly visible, is naive in the extreme. Had young Jerry Seinfeld written a highly visible newspaper column in which he routinely made inflammatory remarks about Palestinians, you can be certain that he'd never have gotten his Seinfeld Chronicles TV pilot off the ground, either -- no matter how many well-placed media-controlling Jews were rooting for him.

(Incidently, Hanania claims that his main comedic influence is "the popular television Arab stand-up comic, Jerry Seinfeld." Seinfeld's mother is a Syrian Jew from Damascus -- which, says Hanania, qualifies him as half-Arab. Apparently, it's not enough that the born-in-the-USA Hanania has pasted a "Palestinian" label onto himself; he's determined to apply his own preferred labels to everyone else, too.)

Finally -- if, after all this, you still think Hanania got a completely raw deal from Zanies, think again. He may not have had his shot at opening for Jackie Mason, but Hanania was also scheduled to appear as the featured comedian at Zanies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, sans Mason. That invitation was not canceled, but Hanania nevertheless declined to appear for those weekend shows -- either to protest his treatment at the hand of the racist Zanies comedy mafia, or to garner more sympathy and publicity for his appearances elsewhere. You be the judge.

UPDATE #1: Both Hanania and Mason squeezed in an appearance -- one after the other -- on The Today Show, briefly presenting their positions to Matt Lauer's wider audience -- and there's no getting around it: Hanania comes off as one hell of a slick media operator, while Mason -- having obviously never been blindsided by a publicity stunt like this -- elicits a small amount of sympathy from me. But judge for yourself. (Link requires Window Media Player.)

And while you're at it, here's a blurry video clip of Hanania's actual standup act, as performed at another venue. Is he funny? Inflammatory? A benign teddy bear? You be the judge.

UPDATE #2: Posting to his blog last Friday, Hanania says:

Hi. Does anyone know Jackie Mason? I have a bill I'd like to give him for all the publicity and PR I got him ...

And they say the Jews invented chutzpah?

UPDATE #3: Mark Evanier comments:

The one place I might disagree with Jay is when he says, "Mason having obviously never been blindsided by a publicity stunt like this elicits a small amount of sympathy from me." Not from me. I think Jackie Mason has spent most of his career working the other side of this racket, rushing to the press to claim victimization (and, often, discrimination) every time he's suffered any kind of setback anywhere. He may not have had it done to him before but he certainly knows the drill.


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