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Four Comedians Walk Into a War . . .

Ray Hanania slayed them in Israel--but his friends are costing him gigs back here in the States.

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In troubled times it's comforting to believe all the world enjoys a laugh. I googled "Arab humor" to see if it abounds, and a choice of nations presented itself. I clicked on "Palestine" and found a link to the home page of Ray Hanania. As a Palestinian stand-up comic, he didn't seem to have a lot of company.

Does Hanania, a lifelong Chicagoan who was born Orthodox Christian and raised Lutheran, even count as a Palestinian? He sure did to Jackie Mason, who back in 2002 reneged on the invitation that had been made to Hanania to open for him at Zanies. "Jackie does not feel comfortable having a Palestinian open for him," Mason's wife and manager, Jyll Rosenfeld, explained at the time. "Right now it's a very sensitive thing."

Onstage, Palestine gives Hanania his roots and his shtick. He's just returned from a short tour of Israeli clubs, where he was the sole Palestinian in an impromptu act that also included his black Jewish pal Aaron Freeman; Charles Warady, a Jew from Chicago now living in Israel; and Yisrael Campbell, an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem who was once a Catholic in Philadelphia. Warady was the instigator. He e-mailed Hanania just before Christmas and asked if Hanania had the guts to play Israel.

The tour was groundbreaking, says Hanania--a Palestinian yukking it up with Israelis. That combination was so successful in Israel that Hanania's going back in May. But it apparently offended a lot of Arab-Americans. Hanania came home and promptly lost five bookings for his solo act in Arab venues. "This could cost him thousands of dollars," says Freeman. "Ray and I have been doing this whole Jew-Palestinian thing for years. It's not about Jews--it's about Israelis. For a lot of people in the world it's hard to get more evil than Israel."

An Arab with a mustache, Hanania milks his looks for laughs. "Since September 11 I don't fly much," he tells audiences, "but I still go to the airport and hang out there and scare the crap out of people." ("That'll bring the house down," he tells me.) He talks about his Jewish bride. It was a lovely wedding, he says, though the UN peacekeeping force separating the bride's family from the groom's couldn't prevent 38 casualties. ("After every show," he tells me, "at least one person will come up and say, 'Wow, you're so funny, but too bad so many people were injured at your wedding.'")

Hanania went into comedy three months after 9/11, starting out at an open mike at Riddles, a club in Orland Park near his home. He still considers himself an amateur comedian, a novelty act with 90 minutes of material. But in a club in Tel Aviv full of Israelis--mostly Jews but some Arabs--or a club in Chicago full of Arab-Americans, this material must seem transgressive. Hanania likes to tell Arabs the one about Muslims misreading the Koran: If they die in jihad they don't actually go to paradise and enjoy the favors of 72 virgins. Read the Koran properly, right to left, he explains, and what it actually says is that in paradise they'll be welcomed by one virgin who's 72 years old.

Hanania.com, the Web site that "Arab Humor Palestine" leads to, hustles Hanania's comedy. It hustles his books. It hustles his columns for the Southwest News-Herald, the Daily Herald, Arab News, the American Muslim, and Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli daily. There may be no thought or deed he can lay claim to that his site doesn't pitch. And more power to him--for he's a lowly, overcompensating Chicago newspaper reporter at heart, a product of the City Hall pressroom school of comedy who took his show on the road.

"My first love is Chicago politics," he says. "For a lot of reasons, that became an area I couldn't cover that well." The big reason is that in 1990 he got involved romantically with Miriam Santos, the city treasurer. This soon put him in the middle of a feud between Santos and Mayor Daley and in the position of compromising a Sun-Times expose of city pension funds. So the Sun-Times fired him.

"My next love," he says, "is Middle East politics, the next best thing to Chicago politics. I think Chicago politics is funnier, but there's a bigger audience for the Middle East stuff." When he mentions Chicago in his travels "they're still doing that Al Capone thing with their hands"--the bang bang thing. "Which means the world doesn't know enough about Chicago to laugh at jokes predicated on the fact we have the funniest political system in the world. The City Council is 50 aldermen paid $100,000 to be rubber stamps. The City Council is great material."

He goes on, "I think comedy is probably the toughest and most pointed kind of commentary. You're not only getting people to laugh but you're getting them to accept the criticism." Like the one about taking his Jewish wife to the "Wailing Fence"--a poke at Israel for building walls and calling them fences. "It leaves more of a residue than if you make a serious statement," says Hanania. "You can get away with a lot more."

Mike Royko was a great columnist, Hanania believes, because "he was funny to death." Hanania hardly knew Royko, but he remembers an encounter in 1985, the year the Sun-Times hired him away from the Daily Southtown. Hanania ran into Royko at an awards dinner, and Royko said, "You were the only guy Jay McMullen was ever right about."

It didn't sound like a compliment. Back in '79, when Hanania was covering City Hall for the Southtown, he wrote something critical about the new mayor, Jane Byrne. McMullen, a former Daily News City Hall reporter who was her husband, threatened to punch him in the nose. So Hanania wrote a piece about McMullen threatening to punch him, and that made Byrne so upset that for a day or two she refused to talk to any reporters. When they asked what was up she said, "Why don't you go ask Ray Hanania?"

The reporters in the pressroom could let their sense of absurdity shape their stories, but mostly they had only each other to entertain. "McMullen was Mr. Stand-up comedian in the pressroom," says Hanania. "Bob Davis [Tribune] was literally the funniest person I have met. These were stand-up comedians performing for a closed audience. Harry Golden [Sun-Times] did imitations of Jane Byrne for ten people."

They're all dead now -- Royko, McMullen, Davis, Golden. Hanania learned from those giants. "City Hall was a great training ground for at least recognizing that humor is a great part of telling a story," he says. "I don't see a difference between journalism and stand-up comedy. You're telling a story. Humor is just like crying, really, but the opposite end."

In the early 80s, when Harold Washington succeeded Byrne as mayor and immediately collided with the machine's white City Council majority, their open warfare garnered Chicago the tag "Beirut on the Lake." Hanania played Beirut last year, before the most recent war there, and I asked what he thought about "Beirut on the Lake" as a metaphor. I'm sure some would argue that it disrespects Lebanon's tragic history.

Not Hanania. "Beirut had what I would consider a Division Street that would stay open until four in the morning," he says. "You go to Beirut and these people were partying all night in a row of 30 bars, and a lot were themed with machine guns. Violence was part of their lives, but they wouldn't let it scare them." In fact, bars were named after wars: 1978 was a bar commemorating that year's invasion of Lebanon by Israel. It's probably lost a lot of business to a hot new joint called 2006.

Hanania got his fifth cancellation Tuesday morning. Once again, he says, he was told there was a "scheduling conflict." The first time or two he believed it. But these were the first cancellations of his career, and now he just wishes they'd be honest. "At least Jackie Mason said it to my face," he says.

"These were Arab banquet performances," he adds. "To be honest, if they don't want me I don't want to perform anyway. Arab audiences tend to be the toughest because they're not used to comedy and some of them don't understand English all that well. And somebody always comes up later and complains about the 72 virgins."

For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carolos J. Ortiz.

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