A few years ago, Ahmed Ahmed toured the United States and the world as part of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour in a self-deprecating knock on the stereotypes against Arabs and Arab comedians. Now the Egyptian-born stand-up comedian wants to flip the axis and show Americans that Arab people have a sense of humor, too, documenting a comedy tour through the Middle East in his new film, Just Like Us.
Just Like Us has its world premiere April 24 at the Tribeca Film Festival. Here's the trailer:
"A lot of people think the Middle East is all bunched up like one country," Ahmed told me in an interview earlier this week. "The countries are definitely distinct." In Dubai in the U.A.E., the comedians worry about crossing the lines on religion or sex onstage, because as Ahmed says in the film, he had been banned from performing there for a year previously after poking fun at his own background. In Lebanon, meanwhile, the party atmosphere of Beirut seems to suggest anything and everything goes. In Saudi Arabia, where the government forbids public entertainment, the tour is forced to work underground channels. And in Egypt, we see that every citizen seems to have a larger-than-life sense of humor.
At one point in the film, Ahmed says the point of it all is this: "Laugh at ourselves, and the rest of the world will laugh with us." Here he tells me a little bit more about that:
Among the comedians who went on tour with Ahmed: Ted Alexandro, Whitney Cummings, Tommy Davidson, Omid Djalili, Erik Griffin, Maz Jobrani, Sebastian Maniscalco, Tom Papa and Angelo Tsarouchas. We also see local Arab performers such as Sherif Azab, and in a final segment of the film from New York City, performances by Maria Shehata and Eman Morgan. You'll see Whitney Cummings in a burka, and hear Tom Papa describe what he enjoyed about that.
How have American attitudes toward Arabs changed or evolved since 2001? Ahmed explains:
As for attitudes in Arab nations toward comedy…
Ahmed told me that even though some Arab nations, as a rule, frown upon the outspoken nature of stand-up comedy, the people themselves love it. "People in that part of the world have access," he said. "YouTube, Facebook, they got their bootleg DVDs up the ass. They don't have movie theaters over there, so everything is bootleg."
"Most of the Middle East knows who Pablo Francisco is, who Dane Cook is. They know who Jeff Dunham is. They love Dunham" Even with his ventriloquist dummy Achmed the Terrorist? Even with that. "You'll have Arabs go, 'I keel you.' Russell Peters is a big, big star over there. They treat him like a god." The Internet and YouTube is filling the entertainment void, Ahmed said. "There's not much to do over there, so they have house parties and bounce YouTube clips back and forth."
Here in this third clip from my chat with Ahmed, he talks about how the idea for him to film the stand-up tour came about, and how he learned from his previous experience on tour with Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Tour, which itself was filmed as a documentary. Roll it: