Ahmed Ahmed: When It Comes to Laughter, We Are All Alike

Introducing speaker: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you the one and only, the very funny, my mentor and comedian, idol, Ahmed Ahmed.

Ahmed Ahmed – Actor & Comedian

Hello everyone! How about another round of applause for Mohammed, everybody, please.

Thank you for coming out. I’m really honored to be a part of this platform, and working with the TEDx organizers, and this whole thing that’s happening in Doha. It’s eye-opening for me and it’s been a great experience so far.

For those of you that don’t know who I am, my name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I’ve been an actor for 20 years, a comedian for 15 years, and it’s great being a comedian. And I get to travel all over the world and meet people from all over the world. The problem is, getting there is always the trick, because if you Google my name, it comes up on the FBI’s most wanted list.

There’s this terrorist in the Middle East — he’s from Egypt — and he kind of looks like me. He uses all the names; the aliases he goes by are “Ahmed Ahmed”, and “Ahmed The Egyptian”. So, I’m like, I got to find this guy, it’s killing me.

And then it dawned to me, maybe he’s in the Middle East googling me, going: “Hey bro, look, there is this comedian in America, man. He’s using my name, I can’t believe this!”

Random Arabs walk up to him: “Hey bro, I saw you on YouTube, you’re so funny, tell me a joke!”

And he’s like: “I’m not a comedian, bro. I’m a terrorist, want me to prove it to you? I blow myself up right now, I swear! Google me!”

The great thing is that traveling around the world, we got the privilege and honor to come to the Middle East, and some of you are surely familiar with our tour called, “The axis of evil comedy tour” which we were privileged to do in 2007, and we have done 27 sold out shows, in 5 countries, and in 30 days. And it was a great, sort of pioneering experience for not only for us but the generations that followed us.

And the last tour we did in 2009, we were able to document this tour. We went to Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. It was another groundbreaking tour for us because we got to document it as a film, and called it “Just like us.” And we were blessed and honored to be in the Tribeca Film Festival, that’s where we premiered our film. And after being denied by a lot of festivals, Tribeca embraced us.

Now, when we got into Tribeca, they did the same thing as they did here, they gave us a nice world premier, celebrities showed up, I was introduce to Robert De Niro. When I met Robert De Niro, I was fascinated because he’s one of the guys who made me want to be an actor. So the publicists pulled me aside, and they said: “Ahmed, this is Robert De Niro. Mr. De Niro, this is director Ahmed Ahmed.”

And De Niro looks at me and he goes — “My wife and I watched your movie, and — it’s good. Your movie was — it’s good.”

I said: “Thanks! This is coming from Robert De Niro.”

He says: “I noticed there’s a part in your movie where…you go to Egypt. You know, I’ve been in Egypt before.”

I go: “Yeah? Where?”

He goes: “You now, around.” Like, don’t ask too many questions, or I’m going to wack you!

So, I said: “Wow, this is great, can I introduce you to my father?”

He’s like: “Yeah, yeah, of course.”

So my father is on the film, he actually steals the movie. And my father is a 5’5” Egyptian guy, who doesn’t watch American television, doesn’t watch American movies, he’s got no clue who De Niro is. So I said: “Baba, I’m going to introduce you to Robert De Niro.”

And he goes: “Yes, yes, let him meet me.”

I’m like, “Oh, this is going to go horribly – Just be cool, dad.”

“Mr. De Niro, this is my father, Abu Bakhar Ahmed. Dad, this is Robert De Niro, it’s his Film Festival.”

And De Niro looks at my dad and he goes — “You’re the guy in the movie!” And he hugs my dad. And so they had a moment, and it was really sweet. So we had an after party after the screening and the whole thing, and my dad is walking around the after party telling all his friends: “I just met Johnny De Niro. He’s good guy, nice guy.”

I said: “Baba, it’s Bobby De Niro.”

“Bobby, Johnny. Ahmed, they are the same thing.”

Now I talk about my father because he’s one of the people who has influenced me as a comedian, because he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around. He’s also, being Egyptian, has the (Egyptian) “muthif” — which means, he’s light-blooded. For the non-Arab speaking people. And he’s always cracking jokes, he can’t help it, he has to crack a joke wherever he goes. He smoked for 40 years, had a heart attack, and they had to give him an open-heart surgery. He goes under the knife, they dissect him like a frog, cut the heart out of his body, take veins out of his legs to make new arteries, it was a major operation. For 12 hours he’s at the Intensive Care Unit.

He wakes up from the anesthesia, open his eyes, there’s two nurses hovering over him, he looks up and he says: “Where I am?”

One of the nurses said, “ICU”.

He says: “I see you too, but where I am? That was a good one.”

The nurse says: “Are you OK, Mr. Ahmed?”

He goes: “Yes, I am OK. Thanks God. Thanks God, I am OK. I know I cannot be dead. This is not Heaven. There’s only two of you.”

Now, with our film — we’ve managed to cover a lot of ground. We’ve been in 17 film festivals since Tribeca, we’ve been honored to be here, at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, and I’ve also met some influential people, aside from Robert De Niro. I was doing a speech at the Arab-American Institute in Washington D.C., that James Zogby, who is the President, asked me to come to speak at. It was for the Khalid Al Gibran Award, where they gave an award to somebody, and he said: “Would you come up and speak for 7-8 minutes?”

And I said: “Sure, can I show a trailer for my film?”

He says: “Sure, why not.”

So, I showed the trailer for my film and in the audience that night, was somebody from Barack Obama’s camp because a couple of weeks later, I received an email that said: “Dear Mr. Ahmed Ahmed, the President of the United States, Barack Obama, would like to invite you to the White House for his Iftar dinner in observance of Ramadan.”

And so I thought it was a joke, so I replied: “LOL. Wink, wink… is this Rob?” Send.

I got a replied the next day, “No, for real, you’re invited to the White House.”

So I got a plane ticket, flew to D.C., I showed up to the White House, and there’s about 150 Muslims standing outside. And I’m like: “This looks really shady.” This woman walks up with the hijab, and she’s got a guest list, and she says: “Are you here for the dinner?”

I said: “Yes, I am.”

“What’s your name?” “Ahmed Ahmed.”

And she’s flipping through the pages on the guest list, and the most important people in the world were there, ambassadors, diplomats, royalty, VIPs. On the very bottom it says, “community member” Ahmed Ahmed.

She checks me off, I go in, we all kind of mingle in the lobby, and next thing I know, I hear the Adhan call the prayer, in the White House.

Next thing you know, these two doors popped open into the big banquet hall where they have the big dinners, and it was completely empty. On the floors were huge prayer rugs. So, all the Muslims walked in, took their shoes off, an imam came in, started the prayer, and we made prayer in the White House. And after my prayer, I’m sitting on my knees, looking up to the ceiling, and I thought to myself, “We got in!”

After the prayer was over with, everybody put their shoes on and proceeded into the dinner room. Now, in the dinner room, there was about, I don’t know, 20-30 tables with about 10 people at each table. I don’t know who the wedding planner was for this thing, but they had me at table number 7.

Now, table number 7 was right next to Barack Obama’s table, and in front of the podium where he was doing his speech. So, I’d sit down, and there’s a little name card with my name, Ahmed Ahmed. I’m looking at it, I’m like, oh, this is great. I’m taking silverware and putting it into my — I’m taking whatever I can because I want evidence that I was at the White House.

Next thing I know, this important-looking short guy with a bald head sits next to me and I said: “As-salamu-alaikum”, he goes: “Wa-alaikum-salaam.”

And I said: “So, what do you do?”

He said: “I am the Ambassador of Libya, and you?”

“It’s not important –”

What am I going to say to the Ambassador of Libya?

Next thing I know, Barack walks in — I call him Barack because we’re on first name basis — he goes up to the podium, and he does this beautiful speech, and then he goes to the table next to me, sits down for about 20 minutes, and right before dinner was over with, he gets up and starts shaking everyone’s hand in the dinner room. And he’s giving everyone like 15-30 seconds. So, when he’s coming toward me, I’m like, what do I say to the President? He walks up, he sticks his hand up, and I go: “As-salamu-alaikum”, and he goes: “Wa-alaikum-salaam.”

And I said: “It’s an honor to be here, at this Iftar dinner. I’m grateful for the opportunity and thanks for having me”. And I said: “Not for nothing, but you were in Saudi Arabia the same day we were, when you went to meet the King.”

And he said, “What were you doing in Saudi?”

I said: “We were doing comedy shows.”

He goes: “You’re a comedian.”

I was like: “Yeah, on my good days.”

He was like: “Well, that’s great.”

I said: “Well, we made a movie about it, you are in it.”

He goes: “Really?”

I said: “Yeah, I actually brought a copy and I gave it to your assistant. I know you’re busy– trying to save the world and everything — but if you have some time, I’d love for you to watch it.”

And he says: “Well, how long is your project?”

I said: “It’s 72 minutes.”

He says: “I can’t promise you 72 but I give you 30,” and he walked away.

And when he walked away, I thought to myself: “Well, can you get Michelle to watch the other 42?”

Anyway, he came back, he had to walk past my table because it was near the exit, he has to walk past our table, he comes right past me, and naturally, I stand up, and I go: “Mr. President, thank you very much for having me at this dinner.”

And he says: “That’s our pleasure”.

And he pats me at the shoulder and says: “I’ll make sure and watch your video.”

And he walked away and I was like– video? It’s a film, dude. Justlikeusthemovie.com — look it up.

Well, that led to another experience. Apparently, what’s happening in D.C. is they’re trying to fix foreign policies. Our governments are trying to shake hands with the Middle East, especially the Muslim world.

The next day I received an email from Hillary Clinton’s Office. Hillary’s Clinton’s Office sends me an email saying — all my friends think I’m Forrest Gump, just so you know. They are like: “Dude, you’re always at important places, with important people and nobody knows you!”

Hillary Clinton gives me the same invite: “State Department, September 7th, we’d be honored if you attend the Iftar dinner.” So I’m like, great, this has got to be real because nobody is going to play a prank from the State Department, and I think Hillary was like: “Give me Barack’s list. I want to know who’s on Barack’s list, I want those people at my dinner.” So I showed up.

Her dinner was a little different — she had about 300 people, mostly people who were 40 and under, that were progressive in their fields. So novelists, playwrights, doctors, lawyers, engineers, comedians, directors, actors, actresses, dancers. And I was really shocked that she was pushing this initiative to have people from our community at her dinner.

And same thing: walked in, my table was number 5, and I’m looking at my card, I’m looking at the tables, and I’m like, maybe I’m in the back, where is this thing? And I noticed it’s right in front of the podium again. So, I’m like, I love the wedding planner.

So, I sit down, Hillary Clinton walks in, she gives this amazing speech, and then she walks around, does the same thing, shakes everybody hands — this is the before dinner, mind you — Now, when she gets to me, I said: “Hello, Secretary, my name is Ahmed Ahmed, I was invited by Farah Pandith, one of the people in your camp, and it’s an honor to be here.”

And she said: “It’s great to have you.”

And I said: “I’m a stand-up comedian.”

And she said: “Well, then you’d better make me laugh at dinner.”

So, I’m like: “Cool, I guess I’m sitting with the Secretary.”

She sits right across from me. Now, to my left is the Ambassador of Kuwait, and to right was — I don’t know, somebody else that was too important to talk to.

And Hillary, I call her Hil — Hil leaned over and I thought she was going right to the ambassadors or the diplomats, but she leans right into me and says: “So, tell me about your comedy shows.”

I said, “Well, we’ve been performing in the Middle East for the past 3 years.”

And she says, “How many people show up to your shows?”

I said, “Sometimes 2,000 – 3,000.”

She says: “That’s amazing. And you do it in English?”

I said: “Yes, we do it in English.”

She said: “And did they get it?”

I said: “Yeah, they get it. We actually made a movie about it. It’s called ‘Just like us’.”

She said “I’d love to see it.”

I said “Funny you should mention that –” And I got her a DVD.

She sent me a really nice personalized thank-you note, a few weeks later, recognizing the work that we’re doing. I say “we” because there’s a lot of us out there doing stand-up comedy initiative because we all have to laugh at ourselves at the end of the day, despite our cultural differences, despite our religious differences, we are all just alike when it comes to laughter. And when she sent me this note, I got some chill at my spine because it was a really nice note, and she took the time to do it. So I give her kudos for that.

Now when I left D.C. I went on a tour, I started going around, to the UK, went to Scandinavia, and eventually ended up here, in Doha. And what happened was, when I was flying here to Doha, because my name is in all these lists, it’s very tough to fly around with the name Ahmed Ahmed. I can’t even fly a kite anymore, that’s how bad it’s gotten.

And I’m always getting profiled — and I get profile before I get profiled — OK, now I’m walking up to the ticket counter to check-in and I can see the woman looking at me as I’m walking up. She’s an older African-American woman, and I give her my ID and she does one of these — Hmm…uh…(Clicking sound imitating typing on computer) “Yeah, honey, you know your name comes up on a list, you know that. I’ve got to make a phone call.”

(Clicking sound imitating phone dialing)

“Yeah, we got one. Hmm…uh… hmm-mm… uh. Yeah, his name is Ahmed Ahmed. Yeah, his ID says he’s 6’3”, 210. Oh yeah, he’s hairy. Hmm…uh… hmm-mm… uh. Yeah, hold on one second, I’ll ask him. Mr. Ahmed, what’s your purpose for business in Doha, Qatar?”

“Hmm…uh… hmm-mm… uh. He says he’s a comedian.”

“Hmm…uh… Say something funny.”

“Hmm…uh… Yeah, he says he just graduated from flight school.”

Thank you very much, Doha.

Thank you. It’s a big honor, thank you very much.

Enjoy the rest of your time here.