It turns out that everyone likes to laugh – even in the Arab world. Egyptian-American comic Ahmed Ahmed has been working as a successful stand-up comedian for many years. When I interviewed him 10-years ago, he talked about having a dream to bring comedy to the Middle East as a way to open hearts and minds. 10 years may seem like a long time to realize a dream but the documentary “Just Like Us” following Ahmed’s comedy review tour of Dubai, Lebanon, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Egypt shows that it was well worth the wait.
Although ”Just Like Us” is Ahmed Ahmed journey to help bring Western style stand-up to a new part of the world, he is joined by a merry band of ethnically diverse comedians who, for the most part, are not sure what to expect from their sold out audiences. Ahmed, who had been banned from Dubai a year before for making religious jokes, does not keep his fellow comedians on a short leash. When Omid Djalili slips into making dick jokes and Whitney Cummings talks about men’s balls, they both sheepishly apologize back stage. Ahmed reassures them that the crowd loved it and that if they are banned, they are in good company.
The journey is peppered with man-on-the -street interviews in America – many of whom wonder if American comedy will translate in the Middle East. Some of the comics wondered the same thing as did I. But when Tommy Davidson jokes about African-American leaders and Angelo Tsarouchas talks about his Greek upbringing in Canada, you begin to realize that comedy, much like music, has few boundaries.
It takes guts to be a stand-up comedian. But it takes balls to crack jokes to a crowd in Saudi Arabia knowing that the culture police may crack down on you at any time. And it takes heart to bring local comedians to the stage in order to help them get a start in a career that many people in their countries have never heard of. “What, you want to be a clown?”
In between the laughs are poignant moments that were captured, effectively, to highlight our shared humanity. A Female comic from Egypt talks about telling her grandchildren about performing with Ahmed and Maz Jobrani. Ahmed’s uncle hugs him goodbye as if he can’t bear to let him go. Ahmed brings the film full circle by stopping in New York where he meets an out-of-work Egyptian trying to give his family a better life. After the show, Ahmed tells the man how much he reminds Ahmed of his own father who moved to Los Angeles. He tells the man to keep it up; it will all work out. My eyes welled up – the last thing that I would expect from a comedy documentary.
Ahmed Ahmed is not the only American comic to do stand up in the Middle East. Nor is this his first Middle Eastern tour. In the past, has brought Arab and Jewish comedians together on stage both in the States and in the Middle East. In that way, one can view Ahmed as a sort of global activist. Even with it’s kumbaya and softer moments, it must be said that the comedy is funny in “Just Like Us.” And, the message was on point. The shooting was a little bit more rough than I would have liked. I am not one who subscribes to the idea that a gritty look adds to an edgy feel. But the movie left me wanting more in a good way. Did any of the comedians get banned from Dubai? Has the out-of-work Dad found work? I also wonder if this tour would have been possible had it been shot after the Arab Spring. Are people in the countries rocked by the struggle for freedom in the mood to sit down and laugh? If they can’t now, I sure hope they will be to soon.
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