I sat down to talk with Egyptian-American comedian Ahmed Ahmed in the back row of Adams Memorial Theatre several hours before his stand-up routine. He had just finished shooting a last-minute audition for the popular NBC show 30 Rock, and was in the process of compressing the footage to be sent to the show’s producer, Tina Fey.
How are you liking Williams so far?
I love liberal arts schools, man. I didn’t get a chance to check out too much of the campus yet, but I love the juxtaposition of old and new architecture. I’d never heard of Williams, but it has a lot of character. [I resist the urge to tell him that Williams is the number one ranked liberal arts school in the country.] You guys are pretty removed though. I mean, 20 minutes into my drive here from Albany, my phone basically just died. I got service last year when I was on tour in Beirut, Lebanon and Cairo, Egypt, but not Williamstown.
What was it like going on a comedy tour in the Middle East?
It was crazy. I mean, in the U.S. you can joke about pretty much anything. In many Middle Eastern countries though, you can seriously be thrown in jail or have your ear cut off for talking about certain things. We were in Kuwait, talking to a booker, and he was like, “No talking about sex, religion, politics, and nothing about the royal family.” That pretty much left us with nothing to talk about. So my friend, Maz Jobrani, who was touring with me, was like, “Excuse me- what if I have a f—k in my act?” The guy looked really torn. Finally, he said, “All right. You guys can both have two f—-s.” It was funny and all, I mean here we were negotiating f—-s, but at the same time it’s tough when a country hasn’t grasped on to the idea of having some sort of freedom of speech.
How did the people there react to your shows?
Arabs, as a people, tend to not like to laugh at themselves. They’ll laugh at other people just fine. I’ve even had Arabs come up to me after shows and be like [implements a thick Middle Eastern accent], “Ahmed, the joke you do, about being raised Muslim, it’s not funny. Don’t talk about stuff like that. Talk about the black guy.” The kind of self-deprecating humor that I do is tough for them. It’s growing though. We sold out all 27 shows on that tour.
What piqued your interest in stand-up?
I moved to Hollywood at 19 because I was pretty sure that I wanted to be an actor. I was into doing things for film and television, but I found myself playing the same parts over and over again. I got caught in this stereotypical bubble. I’d be sitting in the “Brown Room,” waiting for my audition, and I’d hear the other actors auditioning, yelling at the top of their lungs this ridiculous fake Arabic: “Halabalahe! Habilihebalahe!” And I’m just thinking, “Oh, god …” From there, I kept doing some gigs, but started waiting tables on the side. As I’m waiting tables though, I had more and more people tell me that I should really consider becoming a comedian. It’s interesting because in a lot of ways, waiting tables and stand-up are really similar. It’s all about that first impression. If you want the audience to be on your side, or if you want that tip to be 15-plus percent, you need to capture them in that first split-second. I’ve always wanted to be in entertainment, so stand-up kind of came naturally from there.
In your stand-up, you seem unafraid to confront stereotypes about people from the Middle East. Was this style affected by the events that transpired on September 11, 2001?
I mean, I had my act down to a science. Then Sept. 11 hit, and I was like d—-, I can’t talk about this anymore. I started working at the Comedy Store in L.A., and got a chance to fine-tune my act. That’s how I got to my current self-deprecating ethnic kind of stand-up. Almost immediately, I started drawing big Middle-Eastern crowds. That’s when it kind of dawned on me that being an Arab comedian these days is a little like being a black comedian in the ’60s. You had guys like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby who weren’t afraid to talk about being black. So right now, I kind of feel like the voice of the Arab audience, the voice that wants to say what’s on [Arabs’] minds, but are either afraid to, or just can’t articulate it. Through comedy, they can live vicariously through us. When we tell a joke or a story, and they relate and laugh, we feel like we got the message across.
It’s not that deep. It’s a human thing. I mean, if you’re sitting next to a black guy, an Asian guy and a Jewish guy, you might have all the differences in the world, but the one common thing you can agree on is laughter. I’ve done shows in the Midwest and the Deep South, and had people come up to be after the show and be like, “I didn’t know Ã¢â‚¬Ëœyou guys’ were like that.” There’s an old saying in comedy: you can’t hate anyone you’re laughing with.