No laugh­ing mat­ter

Co­me­di­ans are us­ing hu­mour to ed­u­cate peo­ple on mis­un­der­stood cul­tures.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MUMTAJ BEGUM mumtaj@thes­tar.com.my

HU­MOUR is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage that not only en­ter­tains but pro­vides a satir­i­cal look at man and so­ci­ety.

So great is the power of laugh­ter that maybe – just maybe – co­me­di­ans could step in where politi­cians have failed – by al­le­vi­at­ing some of the prob­lems plagu­ing the world to­day!

One man, in fact, is do­ing some­thing to that ef­fect. He is Egyp­tian-Amer­i­can comic and first-time di­rec­tor Ahmed Ahmed, who, to­gether with a small group of stand-up co­me­di­ans, is us­ing hu­mour to bridge the gap be­tween the United States and the Mid­dle East.

It may have started out as a way to open up more op­por­tu­ni­ties for come­dies in the Arab coun­tries, but it has now grown into some­thing big­ger.

Ahmed tack­les this daunt­ing task with his brand of stand-up com­edy in Just Like Us. The doc­u­men­tary is cur­rently do­ing its round at in­ter­na­tional film fes­ti­vals, among which was its re­cent Mid­dle East­ern pre­miere at the Doha Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val (Oct 26-30) in Doha, Qatar.

In the film, Ahmed shows Mid­dle East­ern­ers laugh­ing heartily, which is a com­plete de­par­ture from the usual portrayal of them (many a time of bearded gun-tot­ing men) on cer­tain news chan­nels.

The doc­u­men­tary fol­lows Ahmed and some stand-up tal­ent from the United States and the Mid­dle East­ern re­gion putting up com­edy shows in the cities of Los An­ge­les, Cairo, Dubai, Beirut, Riyadh and fi­nally, New York City, with snip­pets of in­ter­views with the lo­cals.

Some of the high­lights in­clude Ahmed’s life story, es­pe­cially about his par­ents who moved from Hel­wan, Egypt, to River­side, Cal­i­for­nia, when he was just a month old.

In an in­ter­view in Doha, Ahmed ad­mit­ted that the film was made out of frus­tra­tion.

“I live in LA and I grew up in the US. There seems to be this per­cep­tion that the Mid­dle East peo­ple do not have a sense of hu­mour.

“A group of friends and I have been trav­el­ling to the Mid­dle East and do­ing com­edy for three years in a row. My Amer­i­can friends would ask what we were do­ing there and I’d say a com­edy show.

“And they’d say, ‘At the mil­i­tary base?’ I’d tell them, no, but in the­atres for the Arabs and per­formed in English. And the au­di­ence got the jokes.”

Just Like Us, said the 40-year-old, is a 72-minute an­swer to a lot of peo­ple’s ques­tions, while at the same time over­turn­ing ev­ery­thing shown on the Western me­dia.

“It shows the other side of the Mid­dle East. Yes, there are Mus­lims who are bad peo­ple but that’s a small group. How about the other peo­ple? You never see that.”

Fel­low co­me­dian Erik Grif­fin – who knew he wanted to be a co­me­dian when he was still a child – was one of Ahmed’s Amer­i­can friends who dis­cov­ered Ahmed’s tour to the Mid­dle East. He wanted to par­tic­i­pate in the tour that was aptly ti­tled Axis Of Evil.

Grif­fin re­called: “I was ner­vous. It was the first time I ever per­formed in the Mid­dle East, which was in Cairo (Egypt). I did jokes about ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the Mid­dle East­ern­ers. But peo­ple loved it.

“My favourite part was watch­ing the women dressed in hi­jab (Mus­lim head­dress) laugh­ing.”

This isn’t to say that ev­ery­thing is smooth sail­ing. Ac­tu­ally, ev­ery time Ahmed and his band of merry men take to the stage, es­pe­cially in Saudi Ara­bia where pub­lic per­for­mances are prac­ti­cally non-ex­is­tent, there’s ev­ery chance of get­ting stopped mid­way or worse, be­ing banned.

Al­though the co­me­di­ans do con­sciously keep their shows clear of sen­si­tive ma­te­ri­als and pro­fan­i­ties (depend­ing on the make-up of the au­di­ence), ad­just­ments are nec­es­sary for the Ara­bic au­di­ence.

Crude ex­pe­ri­ence

At a talk dur­ing the fes­ti­val, Ahmed shared this in­ci­dent with the au­di­ence: “We def­i­nitely have to ad­just our ma­te­rial a bit. In Amer­ica you can say what­ever you want. In Le­banon you can say what­ever you want.

“But on our first show in Kuwait, our pro­moter pulled us aside and said, ‘Okay, guys, here’s the deal – you can­not talk about sex, drugs, re­li­gion or pol­i­tics.’ I was like, what’s left? But I fig­ured we had enough G-rated ma­te­rial. Just be­ing there was risky enough.

“Then my friend Maz Jo­brani, who was part of the tour, raised his hand and said, ‘I don’t re­ally curse in my act but there is one joke where I say f***.’

“The pro­moter went, ‘Oh man, I don’t know about that.’ I put up my hand and said I had about 14 of the word. The pro­moter looked at us and said, ‘Okay, guys, here is the deal. Each of you can have two f***s.’

“I was think­ing, ‘Wow, we are ne­go­ti­at­ing pro­fan­ity.’ While driv­ing to the show, the pro­moter re­ceived a call. Af­ter end­ing the call he said to us, ‘Okay, guys, no f***s.’ So on the spot, we were be­ing censored. And you learn from your mis­takes, and I have made a lot of mis­takes. That’s how you know

what to say and what not to say.”

And he’s not kid­ding. A cou­ple of years back, Ahmed was banned from Dubai in the United Arab Emi­rates be­cause of a joke he de­liv­ered in a show in Orange County (Cal­i­for­nia) that did not por­tray Mus­lims in Dubai favourably.

In his de­fence, he said it was not a joke but an ob­ser­va­tion (check it out on YouTube.com, with “Ahmed Ahmed” and “Dubai” as key­words). The ban was lifted fol­low­ing the ap­point­ment of a new group of of­fi­cials, and Ahmed and friends had a sold-out gig there.

De­spite all these speed bumps, Ahmed feels the jour­ney to the Mid­dle East has been fairly easy thanks to sites like YouTube and Face­book, which have given co­me­di­ans a global plat­form to show­case their work.

Ahmed elab­o­rated: “Peo­ple are con­nected all over the world. With the click of a but­ton you can see Chris Rock, Jerry Se­in­feld, so standup com­edy was kind of ac­cepted here even be­fore we got here. It was just never prac­tised. So we are just prac­tis­ing what peo­ple want to hear. I think we are break­ing down bar­ri­ers and we are only three years in. Imag­ine in 10 years what you’re go­ing to find.”

Grif­fin in­ter­jected: “Ahmed’s very mod­est. I’ll say he has def­i­nitely bro­ken down a tonne of bar­ri­ers. What they’ve done with Axis Of Evil is they were say­ing come on over here and get­ting peo­ple to ac­cept it. Now, there are all these film festi- vals. Where will we be in 10 years? We’re go­ing to look back and say this was just the start of that.”

The fact that film fes­ti­vals like Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val in New York and its Mid­dle East­ern off­spring, Doha Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val, are em­brac­ing Just Like Us shows that the peo­ple are will­ing to change their mind­sets.

Just Like Us has been in­vited to show­case at 17 film fes­ti­vals, and Ahmed is hop­ing it will get a global re­lease with the au­di­ence walk­ing away not only en­ter­tained but a lit­tle more ed­u­cated.

“I hope peo­ple can con­nect with it. My dad sums it up beau­ti­fully, ‘If you put a smile on some­body’s face you get a smile from Al­lah SWT.’”

Ahmed has been per­form­ing stand-up com­edy for 15 years since the first time he stum­bled on stage to talk about his fam­ily for five min­utes.

As the el­dest son of an Egyp­tian fam­ily, he was ex­pected to be­come a lawyer, a doc­tor or a petrol sta­tion owner. But all he wanted was to be an ac­tor. So he moved to Los An­ge­les against his par­ents’ wishes to study the craft and com­pete in the mar­ket. Now his cred­its in­clude roles in com­edy films like You Don’t Mess With The Zo­han and Swingers.

Nowa­days his par­ents – who are promi­nently fea­tured in Just Like Us and reg­u­larly ac­com­pany Ahmed to film fes­ti­vals – are ob­vi­ously proud of their son.

But Ahmed turned to stand-up com­edy to find a voice and project his point of view, as Hollywood was only in­ter­ested in giv­ing him a cab driver or a ter­ror­ist role. This frus­trated him no end.

“Most co­me­di­ans are com­plain­ers (laughs), you know, pro­fes­sional com­plain­ers. If you ever watch a co­me­dian that’s funny, it’s nor­mally not what he is say­ing that is funny.

“There’s an old say­ing that there’s noth­ing funny about com­edy. There’s an­other say­ing that tragedy plus time equals com­edy.

“When some­thing bad hap­pens – a bad break-up or what­ever – if enough time gets in the way, you can make light of it. And there’s some­thing pow­er­ful about that.

“You are not dwelling on that negativity, you are ac­tu­ally re­gur­gi­tat­ing it. Com­edy is that.”

It may sound cliched but it’s true – laugh­ter is the best medicine.

Se­ri­ous busi­ness: Co­me­di­ans Erik Grif­fin (left) and Ahmed Ahmed, whose film JustLikeUs about Amer­i­can fun­ny­men tour­ing the Mid­dle East was shown at the Doha Tribeca Film Fest.

Hot-shot host: Ahmed Ahmed host­ing a com­edy night at the Doha Tribeca Film Fes­ti­val.

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