Ahmed Ahmed performs at Ferndale's Magic Bag. Doors at 7 p.m. for the early show, 10 p.m. for the late show, Friday, March 2; tickets $20. Next week, Amer Zahr will perform with Ali Abdallah at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. Doors at 7 p.m. March 9; tickets $15.
All you TSA agents out there: Please look at this face. This is the face of Ahmed Ahmed, the comedian. A founder of the Axis of Evil tour. Director and star of Just Like Us, the doc about doing stand-up in the Middle East. And he says you folks always confuse him with Ahmed Ahmed, as in the alias of Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, TSA watch-list star and most-wanted alleged embassy bomber. Some day you'll get it straight and he'll make his flights. Until then, he'll get his revenge as part of his act, which he's taken from Grand Valley State to Saudi Arabia and back — and this Friday to Ferndale.
Metro Times: Metro Detroit has a huge Arab community, unlike Riverside, Calif., where you grew up. How did that affect you as a comedian-to-be?
Ahmed Ahmed: I felt like we were the Munsters, we were the Addams family, the odd family on the block. Going to high school, people would always crack jokes or whatever, but I learned to roll with it. I've got a big family and a bunch of smart-aleck sisters, so I was pretty quick on my feet and didn't take things too seriously.
MT: You've said before that, as an actor, you've felt pigeonholed — you're always the terrorist or cab driver. Do you ever feel stereotyped that way as a comedian? That you have to discuss Arab things, cultural things?
Ahmed: Well, it depends on the gig — if I'm doing a gig for only Arabs, then most likely I'll keep it in that sort of topic or subject matter. But if I'm in Dallas, and there's 300 white, Christian Americans getting drunk, I'm going to do that material. Comics, it's all about adapting — you just adapt wherever you go.
MT: How much do you change up your act when you're doing gigs in the Middle East versus, say, this show in Ferndale?
Ahmed: In Lebanon you can kind of just say whatever you want and get away with it, whereas in Egypt or Saudi Arabia or even Dubai, they have certain rules where you can't say certain things. You can't touch religion, you can't touch any royalty. If you're in a country like Saudi Arabia, you're not supposed to talk about the princes or the kings. Or anything too explicit or too sexual or too, you know, profanity — pretty much everything.
MT: So then, what do you talk about?
Ahmed: Arabs in the Middle East love family humor, and they love stuff that's sort of modern, young generation kind of material — anything that has to do with Facebook, Starbucks. If you're doing any sort of political humor — not Arab politics, but American politics — they love that. Arabs sort of gravitate toward, how should I say it, a little gimmicky material, like if you can do funny sound effects. ... But what I've realized is that they laugh, you know, just like us, so they have very similar tastes when it comes to comedy.
MT: We had Dean Obeidallah here last Friday, you this Friday and Amer Zahr the next. Do you know them? Is there any kind of Arab-American comic community?
Ahmed: There used to be a community, but Arab comedians became very competitive and backstab-y.
Ahmed: They sort of misrepresented the whole idea of what it's like to be a true Arab American or Muslim American. Amer Zahr, I know really well ... funny guy, cool guy, talented, plays the oud, which is the Arabic guitar, and sings, and does all this family material and politics, and people really like him. The other guy — I know Dean really well, I'm not a big fan of his. I think that he misrepresents himself and the community.
MT: How so?
Ahmed: A guy like Amer Zahr, or myself, who's 100 percent Arab ... even though I'm in America, I still have that part of me that holds true and is strong. Whereas Dean, I feel he kind of has pulled the wool over people's eyes, if that makes sense, because he was raised Italian, Palestinian and Catholic, and he used to go by the name "Dean Joseph." So he kind of jumped on the 9/11 bandwagon when he saw all of us "real" Arab, 100 percent Arab or Muslim comics get attention. ... I'm not trying to throw him under the bus, I'm just not afraid to speak my mind about him.
MT: A lot of Arab-American comics gained prominence after 9/11, the backlash and then the process of learning about Arabs in our country. Was your act itself really different before 9/11, or did you just become better known after that?
Ahmed: Well first of all, before 9/11, the only [Arab-American] comics who were around that I know of were myself, Maz Jobrani and Aron Kader. ... We never changed our names, we were sort of out there, just trying to get in front of it, whereas a guy like Dean was telling everybody his name's Dean Joseph, and he's Italian. So some comics hid behind it, some comics didn't, but after Axis of Evil at Comedy Central, and promoters started booking us around the world, then that's when everybody said, if they can do it, we can do it.
MT: So generally, is it good to have more people on the Arab-American comedian bandwagon, or do you see them as imitators?
Ahmed: It's great! I'm not putting it down! ... For so long, people never looked at Middle Easterners as funny, and stand-up comedy's a great platform for young artists to come out and springboard into having a voice, through comedy.
Sharon Jacobs is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.