My Name is Ahmed Ahmed and I Am Just Like You

Ahmed Ahmed performing in the Middle East.

Ahmed Ahmed was born in Helwan, Egypt, on June 27, 1970. His parents immigrated to the United States when he was one month old, and he grew up in Riverside, California. He moved to Hollywood when he was 19, to pursue a career as an actor and stand-up comedian. His documentary Just Like Us features a host of stand-up comedians performing in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Through a celebration of culture and comedy, this film uproots the widely held misconception that Arabs have no sense of humour.

Were you typecast when you first started in Hollywood?

I haven't done much work that would break that stereotype, but there are a couple of things that I am developing to sort of break the mould. Even as recently as a couple of years ago, every single part being written for Arabs—or anybody with a Muslim name—was a very stereotypical kind of character. I made a great living playing terrorists and cab drivers. When I first started working, I thought "This is great," and I kept on going in for auditions that were basically the same character in different projects. I kept seeing the same Arab actors at the same auditions, and the dialogue that we were given to read had no depth or layers to it. It was all, "I'll kill you in the name of Allah!"

I did that for five to seven years. Then I called my agent one day and said, "Hey, I'd love to just go out and read parts for 'the guy with brown hair.'" She said it wasn't going to happen unless I changed my name. I said, "What should I change my name to?" and she said, "How about Rick?"

Rick Ahmed?

I don't look like "Rick Ahmed." If I'm going to change, I've got to do the whole thing. But I felt really adamant about not changing my name. I'm not in a band—if I was in a band, I might call myself "the Rick Ahmed Band" or something similar.

So I quit acting for a while, ran out of money, and went back to waiting tables. It was during that time that I sort of learned the art of stand-up comedy. I always had it in me, but I was working at a restaurant that didn't have very good food. I had to make up for that by making people laugh so I could earn tips. One night this woman said, "You are very funny—you should be a comedian." That's sort of what got the comedy thing started.

Tell me about Cross-Cultural Productions and Cross-Cultural Entertainment.

I started a production company with my business partner three years ago called Cross-Cultural Entertainment. Cross-Cultural Productions is the company that does the actual hands-on work. We launched our company with our first documentary film (Just Like Us), and use that as a benchmark as to what sort of projects we are going to start tackling, and the messages we'll put forth in the content we decide to produce.

And what kind of messages are those?

Well, just like the name of the company: cross-cultural. Just Like Us takes 11 American comics through the Middle East. It's sort of a handshake with the other side of the world, but using comedy as the backdrop.

It's a little bit ironic when we talk of the Middle East as one big homogenous region.

That's one of the points of the movie, as we really dissect each country. We make each one its own character, and show a slice of the different cultures in every country. This makes the countries and cultures much more distinctive than people read about in the papers or see on the news.

Which is part of Cross-Cultural Entertainment's mission—not just to entertain, but to inform?

That is definitely an element of our, as you say, "mission"—flipping the coin, showing another side of the world that everybody is still brainwashed about. They're never shown the positive side of these places.

Comedy is not necessarily something that crosses linguistic and cultural borders easily. How do you overcome this challenge?

The people that normally come out to our shows are usually familiar enough with Western culture to get the jokes, and most of them speak English. Most of my material is not very offensive or explicit. I like to call it TV-friendly material.

Is that by choice or by necessity?

Overall, it's by choice. I try to work relatively "clean" and make my comedy self-deprecating, so that the joke is on me. I do that because it gives you a wider range as a comic—you can work corporate events, you can work with a young audience, you can work in countries or situations that don't allow edgy material. Plus you don't really have to be edgy to be a comic. Telling uncomfortable stories is edgy enough in my opinion.

"In Kuwait, the first thing they told us was: do not talk about sex, drugs, religion or politics. In Lebanon, they said: say whatever you want."
Ahmed Ahmed, arashonline

Are your audiences in the Middle East familiar with stand-up comedy?

A lot of the people who come to our shows were educated in American schools. They speak perfect English, are familiar with the cultural references, listen to Jay-Z or Guns N' Roses. They have Starbucks, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut. So for now, we don't really have to change our material completely—except for a couple of topics that are sort of taboo. They do warn us to stay away from religion. And before the Arab Spring, we would be warned not to talk about government leaders or political figures.

And that's open game now?

My promoters called me a week after Hosni Mubarak stepped down and asked, "Do you have any Mubarak jokes?" It was a pretty fast shift in how Middle East politics was perceived and respected or disrespected.

Is it your sense that, regardless of culture, most people are able to laugh at themselves?

Yes, you just hit it right on the money! Of course there are differences—cultural, religious, gender, socio-economic and so on. But I think, overall, laughter is like food or music. It is a universal thing that everybody craves. Comedy, in one shape or form, has been around for thousands of years, and hopefully it will be around for thousands more.

Comedy is a form of storytelling, and in one way or another it's something all cultures do.

It's funny that you say that, because the Middle East has always been known for these things. They've just never been presented with an opportunity to have a platform for contemporary stand-up comedy or storytelling, as Americans have, for example. Their humour was always over-the-top satire, or plays—always sort of dramatic and exaggerated. Then, thanks to the Internet and YouTube, the Middle East is now exposed to guys like Chris Rock or Jerry Seinfeld talking about their daily routines, and it's more relatable.

What kind of reception did you get when you first toured the Middle East?

In 2007, we did a sort of epic Middle East tour. I used to run with a couple of guys and we had a show called The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour. We were a Palestinian, me, and an Iranian. The joke was that we were looking for a North Korean and couldn't find one. Then we found a South Korean who spoke perfect Arabic and lived in Dubai, so we took him on tour.

We were all over YouTube at that time, and Showtime was showing our Axis of Evil on "Comedy Central" in the Middle East. At the end of the show, there were bumpers of myself or another comic saying something like, "Hey, Jordan! We will see you November 19th and 20th. We're coming to Beirut!" By the time we got to these countries, the shows were sold out and they had to add shows. People were lining up around the block, and tickets were on sale for up to $500 (USD) on the black market. We were supposed to do eight shows in four countries. We ended up doing 27 shows in five countries—and in fewer than 30 days.

The average capacity was about 2,500 people per show. A lot of people who showed up for the first time were thrilled, and we didn't get much criticism because we kept it clean. This was a brand new thing for the Middle East. And they had seen us on TV so we had this sort of . . . I don't want to say "celebrity status," but we were kind of recognizable.

Have you ever run into any real problems because of the material you were doing, or because your act might be somewhat irreverent?

I was banned from performing in Dubai for a year. It was because of a joke I did on one of my "Comedy Central Presents" shows that ended up on YouTube. Certain authorities in Dubai saw the joke and were not pleased with the content, so they had a ban put on my passport that prevented me from performing any public shows.

That was interesting because I was being booked to do a bunch of private shows in Dubai right after, and I was allowed to do those. When I arrived at the private gigs, the guys who booked me would say, "Is it true that you are banned in Dubai?" I would say, "Yes, unfortunately I am." And they would respond, "Man, that's so cool, brother! You say whatever you want here." So there was this notoriety that I wasn't looking for, but it sort of worked in my favour.

"Dubai is a schizophrenic place. You walk down to the beach and you'll see a Muslim woman wearing hijab, and then you'll see European men wearing Speedos."
Ahmed Ahmed, Axis of Evil Comedy Tour 2007

What makes it a good time to introduce stand-up comedy to the Middle East?

I just think no one else from America had the nerve to come and do it, quite frankly! I was going over to the Middle East to do private events, and then we ended up doing a public show that had been approved. We just did a last-minute kind of thing, and we sent out a couple of e-mails and literally 500 people showed up! It was the crowd that I was hoping for: young, and kind of hip. There are 300 million people in that part of the world, and 70 per cent are under the age of 30. So I thought: let's hit that target audience.

I don't think there was anybody in America that had even thought to do that. A lot of it has to do with the fact that people are misinformed about that part of the world. They never see 3,000 Egyptians showing up at the Cairo International Conference Center to watch an American comedy show. It's never shown on the news, it's never recognized, and so they never see that side of it. You never see a thousand kids show up at the University of Kuwait, or 3,000 people in Dubai and Lebanon—you just don't see it. But we show that in Just Like Us, and that was the idea: explain to everybody in 72 minutes that this is what's happening over there.

And do you really get the sense that this is a youth-led shift or revolution?

Absolutely.

Is it comparable in any way to what Americans went through in the '60s?

I think in the '60s it was more of an anti-war, hippy, and generational thing. I think the Middle East is more . . . they aren't necessarily anti-war, they are just really anti-government or anti-dictator. But there have been decades of that resistance or discontent going on before now. Facebook and Twitter came along and changed the whole dynamic.

That's an important point. The whole technological backdrop has changed and allowed you to develop this career path, but also enabled or empowered your audience.

We were on TV, morning radio, billboards, posters and fliers, but really the Internet is what drew our audiences. More specifically: Facebook back in 2007, because it was just starting to become huge in the Middle East. So our names were being circulated not only widely, but quickly.

What's next for Cross-Cultural Entertainment and Ahmed Ahmed?

We shot a sequel to our documentary, and we haven't even looked at the footage yet. We shot the sequel stuff before the revolutions in Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Oman, and Qatar. So we will probably start digging through that in the beginning of the year. But for the rest of this year, I am just touring and trying to keep the lights on.

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