With a name like Ahmed Ahmed, in this day and age, you might think that it could lead to some mishaps with law enforcement agencies. If so, you’d be correct. Ahmed’s family came to America when he was just a month old, and he grew up in Riverside, right in the epicenter of Southern California, so misconceptions aren’t uncommon but, in retrospect, the name has served him well.
We caught up with Ahmed by phone in New York, having just completed his first appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival, premiering ‘Just Like Us,’ his freshman directorial debut earlier in the week. We decided to start off by asking, (very politely), about his name.
“Ahmed Ahmed is my ‘God-given’ name. It is the name that my parents gave me. Today, as a comic, it sets me apart in the U.S., but it has also helped me a great deal overseas. My new movie, ‘Just Like Us,’ was filmed in four countries in the Middle East, and I doubt that it would have gone over as well if my name was Steve Jones.”
With his current successes both here and abroad, we wondered whether Ahmed was recognized more here in the United States or in the Middle East.
“It’s not like famous American movie directors or big comedy clubs are calling every day or I am stopped on the street here,” he said. “In the Middle East, it is a little different. In most Middle Eastern countries, if I am in a restaurant or an area where my demographic (18-24) hangs out, then I am often recognized.”
Ahmed’s career in the entertainment business began when he was 19 and moved to Hollywood to make it as an actor. He spent a year attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied with acting coaches Cliff Osmond, Ivana Chubbuck and Sandy Marshall.
After getting myriad small parts playing the stereotypical terrorist, cab driver or Middle Eastern prince, Ahmed’s agent suggested he change his name. That agent was promptly let go. Then, working as a personal trainer and waiter while studying his craft, Ahmed decided to try stand-up comedy.
After doing comedy for a few years, one key turning point in his career was being taken in by Mitzi Shore, the legendary owner of The Comedy Store in Hollywood right around 1999-2000.
“A many great comedians had come out of the Comedy Store to do extraordinary things with their careers,” Ahmed said. “David Letterman and Jay Leno started there. Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison, Howie Mandel, Michael Keaton, Paul Rodriguez and Jim Carrey performed there. A lot of comedians became who they are today thanks to being ‘taken in’ by Mitzi. She would embrace them in such a way, almost guiding like a mother hen.
“Mitzi also had an epiphany that something bad was going to happen in the Middle East and that Arab comedians were going to be necessary to break down stereotypes. That was her prophesy. We didn’t know what she was talking about. We just wanted to tell jokes. Then 9/11 happened, and she gave us a platform to exercise our talent. And this was at a time when comedy clubs didn’t want Arab comedians. That has changed over time, but it was because of Mitzi that it happened.”
So, has the stigma of being of Arab descent eased up since 9/11?
“Well, yes and no. There was a lot of backlash after (9/11). I have been arrested or detained half a dozen times because of my name. It’s an awful position to be put in. As an American, paying taxes, you play by the rules and be a decent human being, and society lets you be. Suddenly, that’s taken away from you. You are sitting in a cell with 12 other people who are brown.
“There was one time in Las Vegas I was arrested and was put into jail. It was very unfortunate. But just telling the story is brilliant. I talked about it on the ‘Wild West Comedy Tour’ (with Vince Vaughn). I was placed in this holding cell for about 12 hours. You have to know that in that cell were the cast members of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ After about eight hours, this Mexican gang-banger walks up and say, ‘Hey homie, you arrested cause you’re like Arab and shit?’ I told him, ‘yeah.’
“(He went on to ask), ‘Do they think you are a terrorist and shit?” I told him, ‘yeah, but just for the record, I’m not.’ Then he says, ‘Hey, just blow this place up and get us the fuck outta here!’ And everybody in the cell just started laughing. Then I just thought that maybe this was God’s way of lightening up the situation, because I was breaking down at that point. Why the hell am I in jail? I am just an American guy with an Arab name. So, either this gang-banger was definitely God-sent or it was just His way of telling me, ‘Ahmed, write some new material!’”
Do you think that the bridge of understanding that is taking place between the United States. and the Middle East countries and the Muslim world would be happening today if it weren’t for 9/11?
“Probably not as much. As much as I hate to say it, tragedy in its darkest moments eventually ends up shedding light on a situation. It’s interesting that you bring that up. Jane Rosenthal and Robert DeNiro are the co-founders of the Tribeca Film Festival. Their whole reason for creating the festival was because of 9/11. When the city was at its lowest point, DeNiro and Rosenthall were wondering how they could give back to the city, how they could make a positive impact out of this negative. Now, nine years later, there are Arab and Muslim films being shown at the festival.”
The film “Just Like Us,” filmed documentary-style in four Middle Eastern countries, was Ahmed’s first time producing and directing a movie. We wanted to know how his debut at the Tribeca Film Festival went.
“The support that Tribeca extended us has been great! We got our world premier on Saturday night, and it was sold out. It was a full red-carpet event. Vince Vaughn, who is a good friend of mine, flew in to support the film. For the ‘after-party comedy show’ featuring the comedians that appeared in the movie, Robert DeNiro showed up. I was hosting this show and watching him laugh so hard he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. After, he came over and provided a photo op. He was overly kind, offered his congratulations and told me the he watched the show with his wife and that he really liked it.”
One question that came to mind while we were talking about the making of his movie was what inspired him to do it.
“I would come back from a doing a comedy tour overseas, and my friends would ask me if I was performing for the troops. They, and many people here, don’t know that people from the Middle Eastern countries and Muslims have a sense of humor and like to laugh. Each country has different customs around it, like, in some countries, entertainment is designed for the whole family so you are often performing in front of young kids. I also learned a great deal about this format of filmmaking doing the ‘Wild West Comedy Tour’ with Vince Vaughn. I also had a great producer in Peter Billingsly. Yes, the same Peter Billingsly that played Ralphie and is famous for shooting his eye out in the movie ‘A Christmas Story,’” he answered to my unasked question.
We also wondered if there were any critics to the new group of Arab-Americans who use comedy to poke fun at themselves and the Muslim stereotypes.
“I never used to put my clips up on YouTube, but now I just let it go. If you Google “Ahmed Ahmed Dubai,” you will see a clip of a joke that I do. I got slammed on that one. There are over 450 comments. I sometimes write them down and read them from stage. So, yes, I am often a target for my type of humor.”
You will get the chance to experience Ahmed’s humor May 6-9 at the Sacramento Punchline Comedy Club.