Sporting a bushy beard and black skullcap, Azhar Usman bounded onto the stage. "I'm Osama bin Laden's cousin," he declared. "They call me 'Bin Laughin.' "
His audience chuckled, clearly ready for more. They were seated at banquet tables in a Rockville office building. It was a family crowd, immigrant parents with American-born children. Some wore the traditional dress of their native lands in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Others dressed Western.
But they all were there on this Saturday night to laugh -- at Usman, at themselves and at the tricky predicament of being Muslim in post-9/11 America.
"I get some dirty looks walking down the street," the Chicago comedian protested, in feigned amazement. "People looking at me as if I was responsible for 9/11.
"Can you believe that?
"Me responsible for 9/11?
Across the country, Muslim comedians are hitting their stride. Like their Jewish, Irish and African American predecessors, they are embracing ethnic humor, not just to draw laughs but also to promote Muslim acceptance into mainstream American society. By entertaining, they say, they aim to dispel discriminatory stereotypes held by non-Muslims and make Muslims aware of their own, sometimes self-defeating, foibles.
"My goal as a comedian is to make people laugh. But if I can also make them think, then that's an added bonus," said Tissa Hami, 31, an Iranian-born stand-up comic in Boston, whose Web site jokes that "people who disapprove of her act will be taken hostage."
"I want to show we're not all terrorists, we're not all fanatics. That not all Muslim women are oppressed and voiceless," Hami said.
The new prominence of Muslim-oriented comedy is evident in many ways. Muslim stand-up comics are increasingly in demand by both Muslim and non-Muslim groups. Canadian filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz produces what she calls "terrodies," or comedies about terrorism, and has named her company FUNdamentalist Films.
And next month, a new comedy tour -- organized by an African American Muslim who grew up in Lanham -- will debut. "Allah Made Me Funny, The Official Muslim Comedy Tour" was put together by Bryant Reginald Moss, 37, who has specialized in black-themed humor for years under his stage name, Preacher Moss.
The new tour, Moss said, is a way to highlight the diversity of Muslims and the fact that African Americans make up one of the largest groups of Muslims in the United States. The show, which will be at the D.C. Improv comedy club in early June, gives Moss a forum to banter about both his race and religion.
With John D. Ashcroft as attorney general, mused Moss, who now lives in Los Angeles: "I'm worried they're going to put race and religion on driver's licenses. . . . So when I get pulled over . . . I get two tickets!"
Sulayman S. Nyang, a professor of African studies at Howard University and a scholar of Islamic issues, said the emergence of American Muslim comedians is a sign that this community has "assimilated into the American way of self-lampooning or satirizing, which is part of the society."
Muslims say their comics help them by easing the stresses they have faced since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Which is why a young, hip crowd of mostly Muslims -- many of them of Arab and Iranian descent -- filled the Improv one night to laugh at what is normally not a laughing matter: airport security.
Maysoon Zayid, one of five Muslim stand-ups that night, described how she hates flying out of the Newark airport.
"I have cerebral palsy," said Zayid, 27, who was born in New Jersey of Palestinian parents. "So when I walk in, security doesn't just see an Arab. They see a shaking Arab. 'She's nervous!'
"And I'm afraid of flying so I'm crying. So now, I'm a crying, shaking Arab. 'She's guilty!' "
As the crowd roared laughter, Zayid said that, to make matters worse, her father always drives her to the airport and "he looks like Saddam Hussein. Before the hole!"
In his routine, Egyptian-born Ahmed Ahmed lamented that "it's a bad time to be named Ahmed." Once, the 33-year-old comedian from California joked, a ticket agent was skeptical about his occupation. "Oh, you're a comedian,'" the agent purportedly said. "'Say something funny.'"
"Ah-h-h . . . I just graduated from flight school?"
Ahmed, who with two other California-based Muslim comedians forms a comedy team called Arabian Knights, described his idea for a new reality television show: "It's called 'Mideastern Eye for the Midwestern Guy.' . . . Five Arabs . . . bust into a white guy's house and teach him how to make bombs and hate women." (Pause amid laughter) "I'm kidding. Midwestern guys already know how to do that."
Jamilah Shami, 33, a program manager of Palestinian descent who lives in McLean and was at the Improv that night, said that with all the "heavy issues" that are in the news, "we really do need to . . . kick back and have a little bit of fun and laugh."
Several comics said they stopped performing after Sept. 11, 2001, but eventually felt a new fervor for their work, partly because of the new wave of discrimination against Muslims.
Boston's Hami, who does not normally wear a headscarf, uses one in her act. "I thought it would be so funny to see a veiled woman cracking jokes about airport security," she said. "But I also did it to counter people's image of what a veiled woman is . . . to counter that stereotype."
Muslim comedians range from the very secular-minded to the rigorously observant. Reflecting Moss's religious practices, for example, alcohol will not be served when "Allah Made Me Funny" plays in such venues as the Improv.
Hami, on the other hand, calls herself an "irreverent Muslim" and recently learned that her act was dropped from a program organized by a Muslim student group at the University of Massachusetts. "They decided I was not appropriate," Hami said. "I was really dismayed."
Usman, 28, a law school graduate and a strictly observant Muslim, does not use foul language in his routine, which was recently cited as "praiseworthy" by a Muslim religious scholar discussing whether "stand-up comedy is permissible in the Shariah," or Islamic law. He ruled that stand-up is allowed if it is "to make people laugh" and "accompanied by noble intentions."
Though the prophet Muhammad is said to have liked smiling and jokes, Usman said, "there are a lot of very conservative Muslims" who don't approve of having fun.
By contrast, American Muslims "are finally feeling comfortable laughing at themselves and . . . at their fellow Muslims around the world," he said.
Usman's appearance in Rockville, which was organized by the nonprofit Montgomery County Muslim Council and elicited a standing ovation, skewered some widely recognized types in the Muslim community. His skit on "Uncle Let Me 'Splain You" mocked older immigrants who want to explain Islam to a national television audience, even though they haven't quite mastered English.
These self-critical jokes, and ones from what Usman calls his "Muslim shtick," got some of the night's biggest laughs. The requirement that Muslims wash their face, arms and feet before making their five daily prayers, for example, set the stage for Usman to declare that "the scariest moment in the life of any Muslim employee" is "getting busted by your boss with one foot in the sink" of the office restroom.
"We can relate to what he's saying. . . . He makes us seem more human," said Mufazzalul, 21, an information technician at the U.S. Department of Labor who was in the audience. "Muslims can have fun too," said the Potomac resident, who uses only one name.
Muslims laughing at themselves, however, is not the same as laughing at one's daughter. Hami said her parents have seen her perform on stage.
"They think it's not too late for me to go to medical school."