Smack-Talk of the Town

“Dane Cook: Live From Mogadishu”

Reprinted from Issue 1: Globalization

by Isa Hopkins, editor-at-large

Dane Cook seems perpetually younger than his thirty-seven years.  As he contorts on stage, tearing off clothing, braying into a microphone and earning the applause of all of Madison Square Garden, one is reminded more of a sugar-addled adolescent than a man old enough to be raising teenagers of his own.  It is this fact, coupled with his typically unchallenging material, that has enabled Mr. Cook to entrap a large swath of Middle America in his humor; audiences who tune in unironically to Jersey Shore are drawn to his antics like so many moths to a scruffy, frat-boy flame.

But if American cities are host to numerous comedic options, nearly all of which outstrip Mr. Cook in originality (he has been accused, more than once, of joke-stealing), the Islamic world has yet to expand its traditions of oral storytelling into oral joke-telling, at least in the particular manner of stand-up.  Born of vaudeville, stand-up didn’t find its footing as a unique form until the mid-twentieth-century, when iconic performers like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl crafted jokes that cut through to the heart of authority and convention on issues ranging from obscenity to Vietnam.

The Eastern African nation of Somalia has been too busy dealing with decades of violent internal strife to develop its own George Carlin, but as Greg Mortenson, author of the bestselling Three Cups of Tea — detailing his efforts to build schools for girls throughout Afghanistan — might agree, what the Islamic world lacks, the West may be able to import.  And so it was that Dane Cook, ambassador of American comedy, the biggest thing in stand-up since Chris Rock, made his way to the stage at Benadir University last month, an event organized by promoters in both countries and held in direct contravention of guidelines set forth by the United Nations and the US military.

The show was delayed by over an hour due to mortar exchanges between the Ethiopian military and Islamist insurgents.  Such incidents have become routine in this breezy, temperate coastal city of one and a half million residents, and the audience grew antsy as the buildings shook with rocket fire.  Backstage, Mr. Cook — who, like many performers of his stature, has earned a reputation as arrogant and difficult — seemed nonplussed.  “I’m a fucking pioneer, man,” he said, pacing.  “I’d like to see Louis C.K. or Joe Rogan try this crowd!”

The opening act was a student, winner of a military-judged talent competition at the university.  “Let me tell you about the difference between Somalis and Ethiopians,” said the young man, Saiad Al-Ahwany.  “Somalis drive like this” — he mimed a cautious, carefree driver at the wheel — “but Ethiopians, man, they drive like this!”  His movements were initially the same, until something seemed to catch his eye.  “Hey, is that a Somali?!” he asked no one in particular, in an exaggerated Ethiopian accent, before proceeding to pull his hand from his pocket like a gun and unload it in the imaginary Somali’s direction.  “Fucker,” he spat, still in character.  Men in the audience crowed with laughter, while the bobbing headscarves of women willing to be out of their homes at night indicated their more polite mirth.  It was a more daring routine than the one that had won him the spot, particularly as it progressed towards the final bit, which, in a video on his MySpace page (now unavailable), is entitled “Stop: Shari’a law!”

“You know when you meet an attractive lady, and all you want is to see what her neck looks like — not to touch it or kiss it, just to know before you marry if she has an ugly chicken-neck that will leave you sexually unaroused?”  Men in the audience nodded, clapping and whistling.  “But you can’t, because…”  Al-Ahwany turned away from the crowd and then whipped his face back to them, arm outstretched like an angry traffic cop.  “Shari’a law,” he added in a deep voice, holding his stern stare and waggling his eyebrows like an acutely ethnic Richard Pryor.  The audience erupted in so much laughter it felt as though the mortars had been launched once again.

Saiad Al-Ahwany held the stage for twenty minutes before his arrest by Ethiopian MPs, and then it was Mr. Cook’s turn.  He does not merely walk on stage; it is some combination of a prance and a march, built entirely of manic energy and need.  “Hey guys,” Mr. Cook began, drawing out the word “guys” to nearly thirty seconds long, his face passing through several dozen expressions as he did so.  There was scattered cheering but a general sense of bemusement.

Mr. Cook progressed through a veritable catalog of his greatest hits, from “Creepy Guy At Work” to “You Don’t Even Know,” but he and the audience just couldn’t seem to get in sync.  “Employee of the Month is my very favorite movie,” a young man named Yusef told me.  “I bartered my sister’s virginity to buy this ticket.  But now I am disappointed.  How is it funny, where a woman places her leg when she is angry?  It is all under her skirts, unless she is a whore.”

Others were more forgiving.  “When he jokes of not being able to eat an entire turkey all by himself, I know that is funny,” said an older student named Abdul.  “He is an American.  I know he eats whole turkeys for breakfast.  That is why they are all so fat.”  Abdul patted his own slender abdomen in pride.

But Mr. Cook was a consummate professional, and if he faltered, he also found a way to press ahead and break through cultural barriers.  His closing bit, the infamous “Burger King/BK Lounge” riff, had the audience falling out of their seats with laughter, much the same result it inspires throughout the English-speaking world.

“Our periodic food shortages are frustrating, yes, but nothing so frustrating as not understanding whether a person is ordering pickles or chicken nuggets at the drive-thru,” said Yusef, wiping at his eyes and chortling.  “Although it is always a good day when we are driving and do not get shot, praise Allah.”

Mr. Cook earned a standing ovation, and backstage seemed pleased: “It’s always harder with black audiences,” he said.  “I had to cut all the racial stuff, because they don’t like hearing that from a white guy.  Chris Rock could come over here and kill it, man.”  (Mr. Rock declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

Mr. Cook signed autographs for twenty minutes before being whisked away by armed handlers and airlifted to Nairobi, where he would fly back to Los Angeles.  Many audience members chose to sleep at the university rather than risk returning to their homes at night; Mogadishu, like LA, is warm and breezy enough that sleep can come easily anywhere.  The night had a slumber-party feel to it, particularly when one student carried in a TV from a classroom and fired up his VHS copy of Good Luck Chuck.

Event organizers proclaimed the evening a resounding success, in spite of Mr. Cook’s initial difficulties with the crowd.  Another night of stand-up at Benadir is currently in the works, with Jeff Dunham and Carrot Top slated to appear; though numerous black comedians were approached, all declined, reportedly owing to “not wanting to get shot, you fucking idiot.”  Mr. Cook, however, dismisses such concerns.  “It was a great time,” he said.  “I’d definitely go back.  I’ve written some more jokes about the King that I think they’ll really love.  I mean, come on — Burger Shots?  What the fuck, man?”

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