x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

‘They laugh just like us’

The Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed talks about his new documentary movie about comedy in the Middle East.

Ahmed Ahmed. Getty Images
Ahmed Ahmed. Getty Images

It was 2011 when Ahmed Ahmed was standing on a stage in Syria making his 1,000-plus audience laugh. And they did. But deep down, everyone knew it would not last, for an uprising was in the works.

A month after Ahmed took his last bow to a standing ovation, the bubbling tension in Syria finally boiled over and the country was launched into deadly conflict.

“We were lucky to be there at that time, with the right comics and that kind of crowd attendance,” says Ahmed. “Everyone knew the uprising was coming and I feel like our comedy shows were a kind of comfort zone for people to be able to speak freely.”

The Egyptian-American stand-up comedian, who lives in Hollywood, also visited Oman, Jordan and Palestine on that tour. It was a follow-up to his 2009 Middle East tour where he performed at sold-out shows in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Egypt.

The latter was a massive success and resulted in his directorial debut with the documentary film Just Like Us, which was shot during the tour. The feature-length documentary was Ahmed’s attempt at dispelling long-standing myths in the West that Arabs don’t have a sense of humour.

“I was trying to show that they laugh just like us,” he said.

The 43-year-old brought a host of comedians with him on the tour, including one of his former Axis of Evil touring buddies, Maz Jobrani.

“Axis of Evil was the sort of birth of it all, but it was only Middle Eastern guys. In the Just Like Us tour we had all sorts of comedians, to make it more diverse and cross-cultural,” says Ahmed.

The rest of his crew were the likes of Ted Alexandro, Sherif Azab, Whitney Cummings, Omid Djalili, Erik Griffin and Angelo Tsarouchas. The documentary was a worldwide success, resulting in no less than 30 film-festival screenings in 2010, including the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

“A lot of people don’t know comedy exists in the Middle East and we wanted to show that it does,” he says.

Ahmed was also invited to the White House for iftar with 100 other prominent American Arabs during Ramadan, to meet the US president Barack Obama. “That was cool,” says Ahmed, adding “then Hillary Clinton invited me to her state department iftar dinner ... This movie has allowed me to mingle with politicians and rock stars.”

Just Like Us had its TV release on Video on Demand in 2011 and now is available on Starz until November and on Showtime until summer next year. It can also be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon.

Ahmed and his team at Cross Cultural Entertainment are also carving out a deal with Discovery Channel to screen it in more than 200 countries.

The film’s success spawned the sequel, currently in post-production with the working title, Just Like Us Too, which was shot during Ahmed’s Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Oman tour. “We didn’t cover these countries in the first tour and when they saw the movie, they were like, ‘but you never came to us … we are just like them too!’.”

Hence the name of the sequel.

A New York City-based team is editing approximately 200 hours of footage as Ahmed flits back and forth between the east coast and Los Angeles.

Speaking in New York between editing sessions, Ahmed said the film will be similar to the first, but with a different style of narration.

“It’s the same sort of topic, but here we’re exposing comedy shows in Syria before chemical warfare.”

The tour features Ahmed with two other comedians, Erik Griffin and Angelo Tsarouchas; both were with him on the 2009 tour. The film will be out in spring next year, just in time for another film festival season.

“I think comedy provides a tool for release. In Syria, it was the first time anyone had ever gone there and done comedy shows in ­English.”

The comedian and actor, who has appeared in the blockbuster Iron Man and the UAE film City of Life, is currently on a new Cheers-style TV show on TBS called Sullivan and Son, in which he plays a tow-truck driver named Ahmed.

Ahmed is also in talks to perform in Abu Dhabi in late ­November.

• Visit www.ahmedahmed.com and www.justlikeusthemovie.com

artslife@thenational.ae