World Views
11:43 am
Fri March 22, 2013

Laughter As The 'Common Language Of The World'

Egyptian-American Stand-Up Comedian Ahmed Ahmed
Credit Provided / ahmed-ahmed.com
Suzette Grillot's conversation with Ahmed Ahmed on the March 22, 2013 episode of "World Views."

Audiences most likely know Egyptian-American stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed as a member of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour.

“Comedians have become, most recently, cultural ambassadors of the world,” Ahmed said. “Whether you're in Africa, or America, or Russia, or Asia, laughter is the common language of the world.”

The group of four Middle Eastern comedians derived their name from President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, where he used the term to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

Ahmed directed the 2011 documentary Just Like Us, which followed several international stand-up comedians through Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon while highlighting the culture of the Middle Eastern countries.

“My background is Egyptian-American, but then I was raised Muslim, and I do this whole explanation…that there's a difference between Arabs and Muslims,” Ahmed said. “So, trying to decipher that is another element to the variables of explaining who I am.”

The film earned a spot at Robert de Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it caught the attention of President Obama’s administration. Ahmed was invited to attend both the White House’s and the U.S. Department of State’s iftar dinners in Washington, D.C., the evening meal breaking the fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan.

“It was very surreal, and having them pat you on the back and say what you're doing is great work,” Ahmed said. “Even though you don't think it is, one by one you're breaking down stereotypes to the average person who doesn't know anything about your culture.”

Despite his film’s role in cultural diplomacy, Ahmed says he doesn’t consider himself a diplomat or an activist.

“I guess subliminally there's a diplomatic message happening there of cross-cultural awareness,” Ahmed said. “And I think laughter is certainly one of the top three or four universal things in life that we all accept and share.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On certain things he doesn’t find funny

I've had heated discussions and arguments with other comedians who disagree, but like, I never touch handicapped people. I don't think rape is funny. I don't think cancer is funny, unless you have cancer, and you want to talk about it from your own perspective. But from an outside perspective I don't find it healing to talk about something that you're not educated on. But overall, family is a universal thing to laugh at, because everyone has a dad. Everyone has a mom, whether you know them or not. But there's that sense of dysfunction that happens with families. Whether it's a Middle Eastern family, or an American family, there's always comedy fodder. Nobody's safe.

On how his film Just Like Us took him to the White House

Somebody in Barack Obama's camp I guess was at the [Tribeca Film Festival] and saw my movie, and I was invited to the White House for his iftar dinner. You would never invite somebody like me to the White House for a dinner with Barack Obama had I not made this piece of art that was about cultural awareness. Then Hillary Clinton had sort-of a competing iftar dinner, and I got invited to that one as well. So I'm looking back on my life going, "Wow. I tell jokes and stories for a living. I made a documentary about it, and here I am, getting invited to the White House." It was very surreal, and having them pat you on the back and say what you're doing is great work, even though you don't think it is, one by one you're breaking down stereotypes to the average person who doesn't know anything about your culture.

On the Arab Spring as an Egyptian-American

We're sort-of considered the clowns of the Middle East. Always cracking jokes, and having this gregarious way about us. So it's ironic to see that even though the people have that, there's still this uprising of political justice that's just not happening. I was just there in November, so there were mixed feelings and mixed messages about the new president Morsi, and will he end up being a dictator, and is there going to be the same kind of regime that Mubarak had? So right now, there's a big question mark over Egypt.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

SUZETTE GRILLOT: Ahmed Ahmed, welcome to World Views.

AHMED AHMED: Thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: Well, I've been really looking forward to this discussion about humor. You're a comedian, and there is something about humor and comedy that is universal in nature. It's a common language. All cultures have something that they laugh about. You've said in the past that if we can laugh at ourselves, then the rest of the world can laugh with us. There's something perhaps therapeutic in common. What is it about humor that transcends borders, and that really brings us together?

AHMED: Well, first of all, comedians have kind of become, most recently, cultural ambassadors of the world by letting peoples' guards down, and you find a way to figure out peoples' sensibilities through humor. So when somebody's laughing at something, or with you about something, not only are you having a chemical reaction - you're releasing endorphins, and some people believe laughter can cure diseases. So I think that there's this...you kind of take people off guard. Comedians are known to push the topic, or the envelope, just enough to where you don't cross the line, but you go right up to the line. Then you look over the cliff and you go, "OK, I'm going to come back." The documentary I made, called Just Like Us, was made to explain that despite cultural and religious differences, everybody laughs alike. Whether you're in Africa, or America, or Russia, or Asia, laughter is the common language of the world, so everybody can find something funny to laugh at. It could be serious. It could be lighthearted. It could be political. It could be satirical. It could be family-oriented. There are so many levels of humor, and it's all subjective. So you can't really say one thing is funny next to the other. It's all how you perceive it.

GRILLOT: So there are some things, clearly, that we all understand. So when you make jokes about your dad, for example, I could totally get that, because I could make jokes about my dad. But are there some things that don't quite cross cultures? Some things that you can't touch? Some things that don't translate well from one language to another or one culture to another?

AHMED: Well, there are certainly regional things. If you go to Egypt and try to do 7-Eleven jokes, that's not going to work, because they don't have 7-Eleven. So the obvious is on the table, but there are certain things that I don't find funny. I've had heated discussions and arguments with other comedians who disagree, but like, I never touch handicapped people. I don't think rape is funny. I don't think cancer is funny, unless you have cancer, and you want to talk about it from your own perspective. But from an outside perspective I don't find it healing to talk about something that you're not educated on. I've seen people, like a one-man show, one-woman show-type acts where people who were actually diagnosed with cancer did a whole shtick about it. But yeah, there are certain things that are taboo that I think are off-limits, and those are some of them. But overall, family is a universal thing to laugh at, because everyone has a dad. Everyone has a mom, whether you know them or not. But there's that sense of dysfunction that happens with families. Whether it's a Middle Eastern family, or an American family, there's always...

GRILLOT: Everybody gets that.

AHMED: ...there's always comedy fodder. Nobody's safe.

GRILLOT: Well, I have to push on this a little bit because I watched a few things about you on YouTube, and you were making some jokes about being on the watch list, or the no-fly list, and making some jokes about terrorism, and terrorists.

GRILLOT: Is that a subject that's a bit taboo? Do you find that in the United States, for example, that there's some sensitivity to that kind of comedy?

AHMED: Well, you know, that material was specific for a certain time. It still is relevant, because I still get stopped and detained sometimes. Not as much, but certainly right after September 11th I spent a lot of time in detainee rooms, and was even thrown in jail a couple times because they mistook me for being a terrorist. So when I talk about stuff like that, I'm not doing it to make fun of our system, or aviation authorities. This is what happened to me. It's my personal experience. A lot of people found it funny, because I was sort-of the poster child, or voice, for, I hate to say it, but victim, if you will, of the circumstances of 9/11. I was sort-of caught in the crossfire. Yeah, I try to be sensitive, because at the end of the day, I'm American. I was born in Egypt, raised here, but I follow the law. I pay my taxes. I'm trying to contribute to society as much as I can, so I want to respect this country, and the government, and the system. But I also want to report the news. And that's what comedians do. We report the news, and we do it through whatever personal experiences we go through. So if I'm getting arrested at the airport...this morning, I was flying through LAX - Los Angeles Airport - to get here. I went through the new X-Ray machines, where you put your hands over your head...

GRILLOT: The really invasive ones that do the little X-Ray of you, basically...

AHMED: Right. And I had pulled out a pack of gum that I had in my pocket that was unopened. I just had it in my hand, and when I came through, the guy said, "What's in your hand?" And I said, "It's a pack of gum." He's like, "Yeah, we gotta run that." I thought he was joking. I go, "It's gum, you can have a stick if you want." He's like, "No, no, no, we've just got to run it through the X-Ray just to make sure." I'm like, "Oh, OK, so now I'm the Gum Bomber."

GRILLOT: Now, do you still get a sense that this is because of some sort of profile that you fit?

AHMED: I don't know if it's necessarily that. I think they're just doing their jobs. I think...

GRILLOT: If it would've been anybody holding a pack of gum, would've been...

AHMED: Yeah, I mean, look at me. I'm 6'3", hairy, and brown, so they're I don't think they'll question your gum. But they question my gum. I don't know, I think there's a sense of visual mischief that they think might be going on when they see me. I don't know.

GRILLOT: But this definitely gives you some material.

AHMED: Oh yeah. I was telling my friend on the phone what happened, and they were laughing, and they were like, "You should talk about that on stage." And that's my point. I have to exorcise that out of my soul or else it's going to be trapped in me, and make me frustrated.

GRILLOT: Well, is it your ethnic background that has really kind of led you down this path, do you think, to comedy? I want to mention that you actually received the first annual Richard Pryor Award for Ethnic Comedy...

AHMED: Yeah, that was cool.

GRILLOT: ...so, this is really interesting. For "ethnic comedy." Ethnic comedy is becoming more popular. People find laughter in a particular ethnic background, or exposure. How do you explain that.

AHMED: Well, to go back to the award, it was Richard Pryor's first and last award that he had given out, because he passed away soon after that. it was at Edinburgh, Scotland at the comedy festival there. He had created this fund and foundation to award comics who were talking about their ethnicity, because he was really big on that. So getting an award like that was a big milestone for me, because it was like, OK, finally, there's an American iconic comedian who's recognizing what I'm trying to say. Talk about hate crimes. Talk about my background. Talk about my religious upbringing.

GRILLOT: Because he certainly found a lot of humor in his own racial background, so that's why I think he would be sensitive to this.

AHMED: Oh yeah. And he pushed the limit with it. And that's when African-Americans in America were not considered funny people. He opened the door for all that. That's when Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock, and Martin Lawrence all came in after that. But he really opened the door for them, and paved the path. There are a lot of ethnic comics out there, especially from the Middle East and East India and Asia, because our media, unfortunately, is very linear when it comes to other cultures. If you watch certain news programs, and I won't mention them, but it's very one-sided. They don't show the full story. So comics have used that as an excuse to really show the rest of the world, "This is what we're about. This is what we eat at home. This is what we do after work. This is what my children do after school. This is how we have fun on the weekends." It's a way of expressing yourself and sharing your point of view, which isn't shared in the news often time. My background is Egyptian-American, but then I was raised Muslim, and I do this whole explanation in my movie Just Like Us, that there's a difference between Arabs and Muslims. Most Arabs are Muslims, but most Muslims aren't even Arab.

AHMED: So, trying to decipher that is another element to the variables of explaining who I am.

GRILLOT: I want to touch on something you just said earlier, and that is that comedians are cultural ambassadors. How is it that this can actually translate into a cultural diplomacy?

AHMED: Well, again, referring to the documentary I made, I took 11 American comics to Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. [I] made this documentary called Just Like Us. We ended up getting into the Tribeca Film Festival, which is Robert De Niro's film festival. He showed up at the premiere, and I got to meet him, and it was like a big thing for me, because he's one of the reasons I wanted to get into entertainment. Then somebody in Barack Obama's camp I guess was at the festival and saw my movie, and I was invited to the White House for his iftar dinner. You would never invite somebody like me to the White House for a dinner with Barack Obama had I not made this piece of art that was about cultural awareness. Then Hillary Clinton had sort-of a competing iftar dinner, and I got invited to that one as well. So I'm looking back on my life going, "Wow. I tell jokes and stories for a living. I made a documentary about it, and here I am, getting invited to the White House." It was very surreal, and having them pat you on the back and say what you're doing is great work, even though you don't think it is, one by one you're breaking down stereotypes to the average person who doesn't know anything about your culture.

GRILLOT: So by doing that, would you consider yourself an activist? Or a diplomat? Or both?

AHMED: No. I don't like to put that title on me because I'm not, but if other people want to give it to me, I'm not going to deny it. But I don't walk around with a sign saying, "I'm The Guy!"

GRILLOT: But you're using your voice to promote awareness about who you are, and your part of the world.

AHMED: Yeah, and a lot of it just comes from frustration. Comedians are professional complainers. That's what we do.

GRILLOT: And they're very good at it.

AHMED: We complain professionally, and we get paid for it...

GRILLOT: That's why it's funny, because most of us can't do it.

AHMED: Yeah, people laugh, and go, "Oop! I was thinking the same thing." We just say things that are on peoples' minds, but yeah, I guess subliminally there's a diplomatic message happening there of cross-cultural awareness, and trying to come together through laughter, or whether it's music, or food, or whatever it is artistically or culturally people can connect with, and I think laughter is certainly one of the top three or four universal things in life that we all accept and share.

GRILLOT: We all eat, and we all laugh.

AHMED: We all eat, we all laugh, we all love music. I used to ask people, when I used to promote comedy shows when I first started out. I used to literally walk up and down Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, and pass out these flyers to people in the street, and my opening question was, "Do you like comedy?" 99 percent were like, "Of course. Who doesn't?" But there's always that one percent that's like, "No, leave me alone."

GRILLOT: "I hate to laugh, leave me alone."

AHMED: Yeah, "Who likes to laugh?"

GRILLOT: Must be an alien of some sort. They aren't from here.

AHMED: Yeah, I used to do a joke, I'd say some of our greatest prophets and leaders must've had a sense of humor. Jesus Christ must've had a sense of humor, otherwise he wouldn't have had that many followers. People aren't going to say, "Hey, you know what? That guy looks really sad. Let's go see what he's up to!"

GRILLOT: (Laughs) Let's follow the sad guy...

AHMED: Nobody's going to follow the sad guy. No. Jesus was probably a great storyteller, and had charisma and a lightness about him. People like that. It's infectious.

GRILLOT: Well, I have to ask you, and we're short on time, but I have to ask you. You're from Egypt. There's an awful lot going on in Egypt today. An awful lot of violence. It's troubling to read the news every day about what's going on in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East. As an Egyptian, what are your thoughts about what's going on, and is there any chance that we can maybe laugh someday about what is transpiring in Egypt.

AHMED: Well, it's ironic because Egypt is known for the people having a sense of humor. They're actually considered the Hollywood of the Middle East. More movies and television programs come out of Egypt than any other country in the Middle East. So you oftentimes find other cultures in the Middle East - Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Jordan, Palestine - watching and learning from the Egyptians, and we're sort-of considered the clowns of the Middle East. Always cracking jokes, and having this gregarious way about us. So it's ironic to see that even though the people have that, there's still this uprising of political justice that's just not happening. I was just there in November, so there were mixed feelings and mixed messages about the new president Morsi, and will he end up being a dictator, and is there going to be the same kind of regime that Mubarak had? So right now, there's a big question mark over Egypt, and Egypt, have you been?

GRILLOT: I've not been yet, no.

AHMED: I call it Avatar. It's its own planet, nobody tells Egypt what to do. There are 85 million people. It's a hard country to control. There's just so much. Cairo alone has 30 million. So the traffic is bad, the smog is bad, the homeless has gotten worse. Kids getting cancer from all the pesticides and all the crap that's in the air, and there needs to be some sort of facelift, I think. It's great that the rest of the world is watching, and that the people are actively involved with going out in the streets and protesting peacefully, and trying to have some sort of justice. But I think it's all going to be up to how the government plays into this all, because right now Egypt has a little bit of a black eye on the country because of this new installed government. I don't know, actually. It's an open-ended question.

GRILLOT: It's hard to tell at this point. Well Ahmed Ahmed, thank you so much for joining us on World Views for this conversation.

AHMED: So great to be here, thank you so much.

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