When Ahmed Ahmed was 19 years old he moved across the US to follow his dreams of acting in LA. His parents, Egyptian Muslims, at first iced him out and Hollywood reduced his talent to racial stereotypes. Years later with the help of his close friend Vince Vaughn, Ahmed’s career finally began to take off. He was a regular on a popular US sitcom, toured nationally, and produced a widely successful documentary entitled “Just Like Us,” where he brought American comics on a tour around the Middle East.
He has been living in Malaysia for six months now, where his production company, LOL Productions, is headquartered. A man of many talents, Ahmed currently does everything from writing to directing. Ahmed and I had a very candid conversation about his career, Trump, the future of comedy, and race.
Where do you see the future of comedy in Asia and are you optimistic about its growth?
Yes, I’m super optimistic about it. I actually think it’s going to pass up America in terms of popularity. For a lot of reasons; supply and demand, talent pool, you can only listen to an American comic talk about girls in bikinis for so long.
I’m an American and I’m not bashing America, but I think I lived in America so long and saw so much comedy there that I’m done.
You moved to Hollywood when you were 19 to try and become an actor, tell me about that experience and your transition from acting to standup.
I’m originally from Egypt, born there but raised in the US. I moved to Hollywood when I was 19 against my parent’s will. Because *imitating his father’s accent* “when you’re Arab you’re supposed to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer.” My dad thought I was going to join a cult.
But I moved anyways and I became best friends with Vince Vaughn, who’s actually part Lebanese. So Vince was always and always has been a champion of my career and I got to do a lot of things for him.
I made a lot of money playing terrorists, cab drivers, sleazy Arab princes. Classic Hollywood stereotypes and I just got tired of it. I called my agent one day and I was like, “Hey I speak English you know. Can I audition for the role of the friend?”
But those roles didn’t exist for Arab people, you never saw the Arab friend on Friends. So just out of pure frustration, I quit and accidentally got into standup. Now I occasionally go back to acting, but on my own terms which is really fun.
With Trump as president, do you think that has exacerbated those harmful stereotypes that made you want to leave Hollywood in the first place?
Every morning I just look at my Facebook and Twitter feeds and I see all the hatred on the internet, he really split the country in half. That was kind of another reason I wanted to get out of the States.
My name is Ahmed Ahmed, I’m Middle Eastern and Muslim, I’ve got everything going against me there. I am a bit of a confrontational person, so God forbid some racist motherf**ker said something to me. I would probably just take my drink and chuck it at him.
But on the other hand Trump has become the center of so much comedy, what do you think about that?
Yeah, of course, he’s a comic’s wet dream. When Obama was in office there was nothing funny about that. He’s handsome, tall, articulate, loves his family. He did some bad things but he tried the best he could. Then Trump came in and was like an orangutan. Comics not only went nuts but are still going nuts.
So where do you see your career in 5 years?
Interesting that you ask that because I gave myself five years in Asia. But when I moved to LA at 19 I gave myself five years there as well and I ended up staying for 25, so who knows.
When I turn 60 I will probably own a bar or a restaurant and hang up pictures of all the cool things I did in the past. I’ll go to customers, *starts old man impression* “I remember when I used to hang out with Vince Vaughn, he doesn’t call me anymore.” I’ll be that old curmudgeon.
You described stand-up comedians as court jesters, can you expand on that analogy?
I have done shows in front of princes, kings, queens and there is that mentality in the Middle East of like, “he’s not funny, throw him out,” or, “he’s very funny, give him money.”
I don’t think the rest of the world takes comedians seriously, but our job is very real. We pride ourselves on acting as goodwill ambassadors if I can coin that phrase.
Most people just walk around in life and do there sh*t, but comedians see between the lines. It’s a talent, just like singing, you’re born with it.
You said you’ve performed for kings and queens and I know you have also met Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. What’s that like meeting, talking to, and performing for these very influential and powerful people?
I was raised to not idolize people and so I see everyone as equal to me. I admire and appreciate stars, but I could give two sh*ts about fame.
I think I only got starstruck once by a personality. It was Monica Lewinsky, oddly enough, because it was at the height of the Clinton scandal. I went to a Vanity Fair Oscar Party and she walked by me. I just didn’t expect her to be at a Vanity Fair Party in the middle of the scandal. She walked by and I wasn’t drinking at the time, but after she passed I ordered a Heineken. Monica Lewinsky led me to drink.
Ahmed will be hosting Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! The show was filmed on Friday, 13 July 2018 at Victoria Theatre Singapore and will air in August on Comedy Central.