No laughing matter
Comedians are using humour to educate people on misunderstood cultures.
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.
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.