Nishat Kurwa on Friday, Jun. 17th
“Just Like Us”, comic Ahmed Ahmed’s documentary about the first-ever standup comedy tour through the Middle East, has a framing problem.
Judging by the trailer, as well as a good chunk of the interviews within the film, its viewpoint might be best summed up as, “The Middle East and humor are mutually exclusive; watch as our comedy tour breaches intractable Arab and Muslim resistance to good-natured ribbing and not-so-clean fun.”
But of course, you can’t judge a film by its trailer, which naturally plays up the most oppositional aspects of the subject to connote tension and suspense. The movie itself is specifically focused on American standup comedy, a form that Ahmed says hasn’t found wide acceptance in the Middle East (even though, confusingly, viewers are introduced to several young comics who have been performing in their homelands). It takes you along as a diverse group of comedians tries out standup on audiences in Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, hosted by director Ahmed.
Here’s the thing. The movie doesn’t seem to be able to leave the promotional framing behind, entirely. It opens with a series of interviews with Americans, white as well as Arab, who express doubt that comedy will fly in the Middle East. Often, the way they are edited suggests that what these Americans believe, and what we’re about to witness, is a Middle Eastern aversion to humor itself. It seems unlikely that many of these interviewees believe in the absolute dichotomy that the film articulates, much less that it actually exists. And as the movie shows in some of its best moments, standup may be a new vessel for comedy in the Middle East, but humor and reflexivity in everyday people’s lives are the norm.
A very brief chat with director Ahmed didn’t do much to untangle these contradictions. Given that the Middle East is so diverse, I asked him if he worried that the East vs. West framing would serve to entrench U.S. stereotypes about the Middle East being humorless. His answer sidestepped Americans entirely.
“I think humor and comedy provides so much understanding…you can’t hate anybody with whom you’ve laughed,” he said. “And so when you’re in a room, watching any sort of stand-up comedy, if you’re laughing, how do you hate the person next to you? So I think that that lends a lot to the model and benchmark as to where we’re going with comedy in the Middle East.
Comedy has always existed in the Middle East, just not in a contemporary platform. It was never about making fun of yourself. Arabs always had a hard time making fun of themselves until recently,” he said.
But a moment later, when I asked him about the rich tradition of humor in Egypt that gets a fair bit of attention in the film, he said, “There’s a real progressive mindset in the Middle East when it comes to comedy.”
I asked whether it wasn’t really the governments that were to be blamed, rather than something in the national disposition, for the suppression of public comedy in some of these countries.
Ahmed said, “Before the revolution, our promoters in Egypt would pull us aside backstage and say, ‘Do not talk about sex, drugs, religion…and please, please, please, do not touch Mubarak or other politicians.’ Like, literally the day after Mubarak stepped down, our promoter called and was like, ‘So do you have any Mubarak jokes?’ ”
I replied that, yes, of course Mubarak jokes would have been off the table, pre-revolution, but I was taken aback that in Egypt, which I understood to be relatively cosmopolitan even pre-revolution, even sex jokes would’ve been taboo. He answered, “The problem is if you criticize and make fun of a politician you served two years in jail. To be honest with you, that has nothing to do with the political savviness of each country; it’s really about ego. I mean, there was a journalist who spent two years in jail because he criticized Mubarak.”
We’ll get more clarity when we follow up with Ahmed soon.
Meanwhile, when it comes to the film’s guest comics, what feels like one of the most film’s most astute moments comes during an interview with Tommy Davidson. Davidson boils down the challenge of deploying comedy in the region to a metaphysical one, describing the Middle Eastern relationship to comedy as similar to that of black Americans. People in the Arab world don’t lack a sense of humor, he points out — it’s just they’ve been through so much, they haven’t had a chance to establish national rituals for laughing about it.
The film does a nice job of showing how the tour’s youthful brand of comedy meshes with hedonist and multicultural Beirut and Abu Dhabi, respectively, and how youth culture in these cities is eager to absorb and reflect the new form.
As I described my hangups about the documentary aspects of the film to a friend, he responded that it sounded like a wannabe Kings of Comedy. Which is when I realized — that’s what’s wrong with the framing. “Just Like Us” is a satisfying comedy tour flick, interspersed with behind-the-scenes interviews and audience responses. But sold as a documentary film that will provide insights into a broad spectrum of the Middle East and its relationship to the art of standup, it doesn’t deliver.
Still, for the onstage acts, many of which include others from the amazing Axis of Evil crew, and some very funny interviews, “Just Like Us” is worth the whirlwind 72 minutes. Don’t believe the (self-defeating promotional) hype.