A few years ago, Albert Brooks went Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.
With Just Like Us, Ahmed Ahmed found it.
The documentary - of a tour of Middle Eastern countries by Ahmed and a group of other Arab-American comedians (and comics of other ethnicities) - opens Friday (6/10/11) in New York and elsewhere before going wider. For Ahmed, it was a chance to document the experience he'd had at a performance in Dubai.
"I was hired to do a private show in Dubai, to raise money to put Palestinian kids through medical school - and the audience was 500 of the wealthiest Arabs I'd ever seen," says the 40-year-old Egyptian-American comedian. "I met a producer for Showtime Arabia and he said we should do a public show. Could we do it legally? Well, no.
"I have a friend there who owns a loft. So we sent out, like, 20 or 30 emails announcing the show - and 48 hours later, 500 people showed up. They were mostly 18-to-30-year-olds, smoking, drinking, wearing Gucci and Prada. It was the modern generation at this offbeat, makeshift show. And I thought, well, if 500 people showed up from a few emails, what would happen if we did it properly?"
That led to a tour Ahmed called "The Axis of Evil Tour," which he taped and which became a hit on Comedy Central. So Ahmed put together another tour - featuring himself and comics like Maz Jobrani, Omid Djalili, Tom Papa and Tommy Davidson - and took a pair of cameras along.
The result was Just Like Us, part comedy performance, equal parts cultural exchange. As Ahmed and company go from Dubai (heavy censorship) to Lebanon (no censorship) to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they explore the nature of comedy and the way Americans look at both Arabs and Muslims (as well as why they often conflate the two).
As the film's director and co-producer - as well as star - Ahmed has his hands full with the film's release: "I feel like a traveling businessman," he says.
"Sometimes I find myself being more of a producer than a comic. But comedy keeps the lights on, by definition. I tried to be an actor for seven years and I made a living playing terrorists and taxi drivers. I got frustrated when my agent said, 'Unless you change your name, you'll only ever play Arab roles.' When I said, 'Well, what should I change it to?', she said, 'How about Rick?' And that wasn't happening.
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