Code Switch
3:03 pm
Fri November 15, 2013

A Jewish Comic And A Muslim Researcher Walk Into A Party ...

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 7:07 pm

This is a story about a pair of unlikely partners.

One, Dalia Mogahed, is a Muslim policy analyst who advised President Obama in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The other, Judy Carter, is a Jewish comic and author who teaches people to make use of humor in public speaking.

Their introduction might sound like the setup to a corny joke.

Judy Carter: Dalia and I meet in the weirdest place for a Jew and a Muslim to meet or even be — Omaha, Neb. We're both speaking at this conference. I'm speaking on how to use humor to decrease stress and just being funny. And Dalia's doing a presentation on the Arab uprising. And when I see her at the cocktail party, I'm so excited to talk to her, because she's the most interesting person in the room; she's the only one wearing a Muslim head covering.

Dalia Mogahed: Within the first 30 seconds of meeting me, she said, "You know, I'm really excited to hear you speak because I've never heard a Muslim woman speak before. I guess I just associate you guys with being submissive and silent."

Carter: I take my foot out of my mouth and I tell her that I'm so excited to hear her presentation, because I want to hear her story. But that's not what happened, because her presentation was all these PowerPoint graphs and all these numbers and charts. So I go back to California and I get a call from Dalia who is in Cairo and she tells me that she was unhappy with her speech and she wants my help.

We're going to stop there. This is a story best heard, not read. So if your interest is piqued, click on the audio player above to listen to the story. (If you can't listen, you can also click the "Transcript" link on the lower-right-hand side of the player to read the exchange.)

After you listen to the story, you might be curious to see Carter and Mogahed in action. Take a look:

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Now, a story about unlikely partners. One is a Muslim policy analyst, the other a Jewish comic. The analyst is Dalia Mogahed. She advises President Obama in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The comic is Judy Carter. She started her career doing standup and now teaches people to use humor in public speaking.

But enough background, let's let Judy Carter explain how the two women came together.

JUDY CARTER: Dalia and I meet in the weirdest place for a Jew and Muslim to meet or even be - Omaha, Nebraska. We're both speaking at this conference. And I'm speaking on how to use humor to decrease stress and just being funny. And Dalia's doing a presentation on the Arab uprising. And when I see her at the cocktail party, I'm so excited to talk to her, because she's the most interesting person in the room; she's the only one wearing a Muslim head covering.

DALIA MOGAHED: Within the first 30 seconds of meeting me, she said, you know, I'm really excited to hear you speak because I've never heard a Muslim woman speak before. I guess I just associate you guys with being submissive and silent.

CARTER: I take my foot out of my mouth and I tell her that I'm so excited to hear her presentation because I want to hear her story. But that's not what happened, because her presentation was all these PowerPoint graphs and these numbers and charts. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXCERPTS FROM SPEECH)

MOGAHED: I study Muslim societies around the world... 88 percent said moving toward greater democracy... 90 percent thought that the... where as bad as things got, only 4 percent expressed...

CARTER: Anyway, I go back to California and I get a call from Dalia, who is in Cairo, and she tells me that she was unhappy with her speech and she wants my help.

MOGAHED: I felt like I really just didn't connect with my audience.

CARTER: She has a big speech coming up to 7,000 people in New York and she's freaked out because she wants all 7,000 of them to stay awake. And she asked me if I would help her be funnier.

MOGAHED: Judy, I mean, you are funny and I am very serious. And I would like to connect with the audience on a more human level.

CARTER: Oh, boy. I don't know what to do because she is seriously humor-impaired, but she has an important message that I want to help her get out, so I agree to give her a comedy makeover. At our first Skype session, I'm - I'm in big trouble. Dalia is so serious she has actually done research on the value of humor.

MOGAHED: Studies show that humor can help us connect as a powerful tool, but it's also really scary. What if I bomb?

CARTER: Well, it won't be the first time anyone has heard a Muslim bomb. Hey, Dalia, you can use that.

MOGAHED: Oh, no. I could not say that.

CARTER: Is she just afraid of being funny? Is this just Dalia or is this a cultural thing? Maybe Egyptians aren't big kibitzers.

MOGAHED: We're known for being hilarious.

CARTER: Well, tell me a joke. Like, you know, like three Jews walk into a bar? Do you have something where, like, three Muslims walk into a - well, I guess the Muslims wouldn't be going into a bar.

MOGAHED: They - yeah.

CARTER: So we have a problem right then and there.

MOGAHED: It just won't work, right?

CARTER: Well, tell me about the last time you got a laugh.

MOGAHED: Oh, I mean, I'm...

CARTER: Oh, boy. Now, I'm just trying to find something, anything to grab onto. When you speak, you always keep yourself covered, right?

MOGAHED: Yeah.

CARTER: You wear the...

MOGAHED: Hijab.

CARTER: ...the hijab, right.

MOGAHED: Hijab.

CARTER: Hijab. And what do you really think the audience is thinking when they see you?

MOGAHED: What is she doing here? I'm usually the only one, you know, dressed that way in a group of 10,000 people at a conference. And the other thing is, it's July and she must be really hot.

CARTER: (Laughing) Now, that's funny. I see promise here. She's got what it takes. She just doesn't know it yet. So we move on to finding out what happens when she travels.

MOGAHED: When you walk on a plane and people are on their conversation and sort of just stop talking and look.

CARTER: And what are they thinking? Can you do an act-out of what they're thinking?

MOGAHED: They're going, oh, my god, we're gonna die.

CARTER: Not bad. I think there's really some humor buried under her hi - or hijab. But humor is only part of the formula needed to captivate an audience. She also needs to reveal of herself some personal heart stories that dig deeper into her life. I ask her about a pivotal moment in her life.

She tells me about being warned not to go to the mosque the day after 9/11, as it's too dangerous, but she goes anyway and makes a life-changing discovery.

MOGAHED: When we did go to that mosque, I was really surprised because half the mosque was filled with members of other faith communities. They had come to show us support and solidarity. And it was at that moment that I realized that that was America's promise right there in that mosque. And on that day, America kept a promise.

CARTER: You have to tell that story. You have to.

MOGAHED: Well, I'm concerned because my speech isn't about me. It's about what's going on in Egypt.

CARTER: But isn't that exactly what is going on in Egypt? People choosing courage over fear. People risking their life to take a stand. I think you have truly found your message. I think she's got it. She's got jokes, heart, a message, the whole magilla. She returns to the U.S. and the night before her speech about Egypt and the Arab uprising in 2010, I get a frantic call from New York.

MOGAHED: I've never been funny, Judy. I feel terrified. I'm jet-lagged. I'm getting over food poisoning. I have to memorize an hour-long speech and do something I've never done before in front of 7,000 people, so no pressure.

CARTER: I talk Dalia off the ledge and tell her, you're going to be fine, Dalia. They're going to love you. Luckily, she's 3,000 miles away and can't see that my fingers are crossed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The title of her lecture today is, "Why Arabs Rose Up And What They Want Now." Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a warm welcome for Dalia Mogahed at Chautauqua.

MOGAHED: I am absolutely thrilled to be here. Actually, I'm always relieved to clear airport security and arrive anywhere I travel. But, hey, things are getting better. TSA has changed their rules and they no longer select people based on racial profiling. Now it's only by random selection and, shockingly, some of us are more random than others.

Here's the thing, though, being scared of your friendly Muslim fellow passenger makes no sense. If I was going to infiltrate, do you think this would be my disguise?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Uh, wow. I'm so proud. She was even brave enough to tell the audience that she was afraid.

MOGAHED: I have to tell you that this is my first time putting some humor into my talk. I was really nervous 'cause I'm a researcher. I'm an analyst. I'm a consultant. I get paid to be serious. So I asked my friend, comedian Judy Carter, you know, Judy, what if I tell a joke and nobody laughs? And she said, well, it's not like it'll be the first time they see a Muslim bomb.

CARTER: How'd it go?

MOGAHED: Judy, it went phenomenal. It went amazing.

CARTER: I didn't know if you could really do it.

MOGAHED: Yeah, I was, you know, I was thinking yesterday, Judy, how only in America would this partnership be possible. You're funny and I'm serious and you're Jewish and I'm Muslim. You're gay and I'm straight. It's an American thing.

CARTER: This beautiful relationship changed both our lives. Now, Dalia knows how to use humor and heart to share her message and me, well, now when I hear about news in Egypt, it's not about those people. It's about my friend, Dalia.

SIEGEL: Judy Carter is author of "The Comedy Bible" and "The Message of You." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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