Ahmed Ahmed Talks Comedy Store and new Documentary
Comic makes directorial debut with Just Like Us
Since moving to Hollywood as a teenager, comedian and actor Ahmed Ahmed has appeared in numerous TV shows and films like Swingers, Iron Man and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show, while establishing himself as one of the premiere Arabian stand-up comics working today. In 2005 he helped launch the highly successful Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, which included a group of like minded Middle Eastern comedians performing a unique brand of comedy in a post 9/11 world built on fear and hatred of Arabs and Muslims. The tour was so successful that Comedy Central aired an Axis of Evil Comedy Special in 2007 to rave reviews. His latest project is a documentary film called Just Like Us. In his directorial debut, Ahmed (who also appears in the film) strives to depict the middle east as place that is quite similar to America and the rest of the world by showing that audiences in locations like Dubai, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt share the same sense of humor and illustrates how catharsis through laughter is a universal concept.
SanDiego.com had a chance to talk with Ahmed from his home in Los Angeles and discussed his early years in show business and what it was like doing stand-up in the Middle East.
You grew up in Riverside and moved to Hollywood when you were just 19, what did you do after you graduated from high school?
Ahmed Ahmed: Out of high school I went to junior college for a couple of semesters. I played football, or I tried to play football. I was trying to get a scholarship into a big college because my parents couldn’t pay for it and it was their dream for me to go to school. When I was in school I always had these big sort of dreamy eyes to go to Hollywood and be in the entertainment industry, so I literally walked out of class, left my bag and books, went home and told my mom and dad I was moving to Hollywood, and my dad said, ‘What are you, a gay?’ I moved to Hollywood and met Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley, two guys that I’m still friends with to this day. We all kind of started together.
Was there a specific moment during your adolescence that helped shape your desire to want to pursue show business?
AA: When I was around five or seven years old, my parents took me to see a movie by an Arab filmmaker back then who went by the name of Moustapha Akkad. He was known for making all the Halloween movies and was very successful from it. He would use the funds he made from those movies to go make his message films. So he made a film coincidentally called The Message, which was the story of the Prophet Muhammad and the story of how Islam was originated. It was almost like watching Braveheart, back then it was like Braveheart because of all the war scenes and stuff. I remember we got there late and we had to sit in the front row so it was a big experience for me. I remember that triggering my fascination with films. As far as other aspects of entertainment are concerned, I grew up watching a lot of TV, especially sitcoms in the 70’s. When I was in high school I did a talent show and being involved with it physically kind of gave me some inspiration, but what really triggered it was seeing that film when I was five or six.
What do you remember about the first time you did stand-up?
AA: The first time I did stand-up, I remember going through a phase as an actor where I wasn’t working much because there weren’t any roles out there for Arab Muslims with the name Ahmed Ahmed. I remember having frustrations and people telling me I should do stand-up, and I kind of ignored it because I wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of all the greats. I remember dabbling into it an event or a dinner that a friend was having and they wanted to get a comedian, and I said, ‘Well I have six minutes of material that will probably work.’ So I did it and got really good laughs, and then I kind of just let it fall off to the way side for a couple of years actually, and I was kind of just in purgatory, not really knowing any direction I was going in. Then I ran out of money and went back to waiting tables, and it was while I was waiting tables is where it retriggered. I was working at a restaurant that didn’t serve great food, so I had to make up for it by making my customers laugh to earn tips. The real sort of spark that started the whole fire was when I was waiting tables one night, it was on the brink of when I was getting ready to quit. I didn’t want to go back to acting because I was only playing terrorists and cab drivers and stuff like that, and I wanted to have more of a voice. I remember an old woman came into our restaurant with her fiver older sons, they were all in the 50’s and she must’ve been 90 years old. These were like older men dressed in blazers wearing ascots, very conservative and what seemed to be almost flamboyantly gay. At one point the woman pulled me by my tie and said, ‘You’re very funny,’ and she put $300 in my hand and said, ‘You should be a comedian. We don’t come here for the food we come here for the service. You gave us great service and you’re very funny. You should be a comedian.’ And I said, ‘You think you know funny mam?’ And she goes, ‘Well of course I do, look at all my sons.’ And they all started clapping and saying, ‘Oh mother!’ It seemed as if she was a widow, like she wasn’t there with her husband. She had a lot of jewelry; old Pasadena money. And this was in a loud restaurant with 500 people and a jazz band playing in the background, so everything kind of stopped when she said that, the skies kind of spilt open and it was a moment. This was the woman who was sending the message. About a month later I took her advice. I was driving down Ventura Boulevard in the valley, they had a club back then called the LA Cabaret Comedy Club. I drove past it and looked over to my right and there was a sign that said open mic tonight, 5 minutes. I remember having my 6 minutes, so I went in and signed up and went onstage in front of about 40 aspiring comedians and I remember having a really good set. Because making comics laugh is the toughest thing, so I figured if these guys are laughing I guess I’m pretty good.
What was the process for you becoming a professional comedian?
AA: What happened was after I did that first night I went down to the comedy clubs to go showcase, and I couldn’t even get a showcase. Then there was what they called potluck night or open mic night where you would stand in line; like at The Laugh Factory you’d stand in line for the whole day. You’d get there at two o’clock and it’d be like the first ten comics who stood in line got to go onstage for three minutes. At one point I went down there and I said, ‘I’m not going to wait in line for three minutes.’ At The Comedy Store it was kind of similar; you’d sign up and if you were lucky you’d get on at one in the morning in front of three people. So I just figured that’s not the route to go, so I started doing alternative rooms, coffee houses, poetry nights, open mic nights at a bar, drive a hundred miles to go do a gig for a hamburger and a beer, whatever it took. Then at one point I started my own comedy show at place that used to be Dublin’s on the Sunset Strip. It was right around the time when comedy clubs were going through a lull. I started comedy when I was 24, so like 94’-95’, and then I started my own room in 1999. My comedy room was interesting because it was right on Sunset Boulevard, there was a lot of foot traffic, the place was called Dublin’s, it was a very famous and popular sports bar. Upstairs they had this empty room on Tuesday nights, so we basically took it over and built a makeshift stage and for four years; literally almost 300 or 400 people would show up every night, standing room only to watch Dane Cook, Pablo Francisco, Roseanne Barr, Dave Chappelle and Bobby Lee from MAD TV. I would either host the show or throw myself up in the lineup every week. The magic about the room was, it was on Sunset Boulevard, it was free and we always had celebrities and hot chicks in there. So it was a slam dunk for people to come. They would come for the show but stay for the atmosphere.
Would say that room at Dublin’s is what helped you develop your voice?
AA: No, but it gave me the key to go to a place that would, which was The Comedy Store. Pauly Shore came in one night with like five hot blondes on his arm and he was like, ‘Cool room, this is great.’ I said, ‘Thanks, do you wanna go up?’ he says sure, so goes up and kills it onstage, because his comedy really worked for that hip Hollywood nightclub-going crowd. When he came off stage he said, ‘This is a great room, you should bring a night over to mom’s club at The Comedy Store.’ So Thursday nights we would take the best of the best from Dublin’s and do a show in the Main Room at The Comedy Store and we called it “Rock Comedy.” I did it with my buddy Jay Davis who was my partner at Dublin’s, and we would have rock celebrities and good looking girls show up. A lot of these rock stars didn’t drink; they were all in rehab and stuff, so they needed an outlet after being in the studio all day.
Why do you think musicians and comedians have a strange affinity for one another?
AA: There’s a lot of truth in that and that’s always referenced a lot in our business. Let’s face it; you have to be kind of funny to be a musician. Being up there live and jumping around; there’s something funny about that. There’s also something funny about being a stand-up comedian because you’re technically the front man. There is no band. There aren’t any rules, everything’s sort of in the moment, anything can happen. There’s a danger behind it I guess and I think rock stars like danger.
So how did you get passed at The Comedy Store?
AA: I was doing a show in the Main Room and one night while I was onstage Mitzi Shore was in the audience. She came up to me after my set and said, ‘Hey you’re very funny,’ and I said, ‘Thank you.’ and she said, ‘Are you A-ra-bic?’ and I said, ‘I’m Arabic,’ she goes, ‘Oh, from where?’ and I said, ‘Egypt.’ and she says, ‘Oh, you know we used to be your slaves.’ and then she walked away, and I was like, ‘Now I work for you?’ I got a call the next day saying Mitzi really likes you and she wants to make you a paid regular. That was twelve years ago.
Which do you prefer, the Main Room or the Original Room at the Hollywood Comedy Store?
AA: If you can master the Original Room you can play anywhere in the world I think. It’s like being blind onstage, you can only see the front row, Mitzi has it lit that way purposely because she thinks comedy is about listening, so when you can’t see the audience but you can’t hear the laughter it’s literally like being blind onstage so you’re forced to keep your antennas up. It’s almost like a womb. Comics feel safe in there, even when you don’t have great sets. It’s the only place in the world where you can play in front of 180 people and get gigantic laughs on a Friday night or you can go there on a Monday at midnight and there’s six people in the audience. And a show is a show, every comic treats that stage with golden respect because, there’s thousands of comedians in Los Angeles and there’s only three clubs. I’ve been very fortunate to use that place to find a voice because The Comedy Store is really like a boxing gym for comedians. It’s not really a comedy club per say. It gives us the opportunity to stretch our muscles a little bit, improvise with the audience; it gives you a place to fail basically. The Comedy Store is really the place where I was able to find my voice.