Ahmed Ahmed is high in the Aspen, Colorado mountains. He’s just opened for Marc Maron at The Wheeler Opera House and is in the midst of a three and a half month tour across the US. Upcoming stops include Southern California and New York, where he’ll test out his new one-hour of material at venues like The Improv, The Ice House, Flappers, and Carolines. When we connect by phone, he’s finishing a meeting with his Just Like Us producing partner and saddling up in a chair with a beautiful view of nature.
How’s it feel being back in the States?
Good, man. I built an hour of material in Malaysia that I want to go bulletproof in the US. No pun intended. If Americans laugh at your comedy, it works globally. That’s been the barometer, for me at least. So I want to test the material here. If it works with American audiences, and so far it has, I’ll shoot a special.
The only knock is, I suffered hardcore back pain from all the travel. When I landed [in Aspen], I thought “what better place than Colorado to sedate the pain,” and immediately went to a few dispensaries, picked up some CBD oil and some edibles. I also wanted to stimulate my creative side, and there’s nothing better than smoking some really good sativa. It makes me alert, but also makes me want to clean my house. I feel like I have OCD when I smoke it.
It’s like “productive pot.”
It is productive pot. But in between the business and the creative, I’m literally here just catching up on Netflix shows and getting deep tissue massages.
Why the move to Malaysia?
I hit a wall, a plateau, where I felt I wasn’t growing in Hollywood as an artist. Forget about trying to be famous and get social media followers and all that. I’d made a living playing terrorists and cab drivers for 10 years and never said anything about it. And one day, I wanted to audition for the regular guy. The friend, the doctor, the cop. And I was never granted that opportunity, mainly because of my name. It’s easier to hire a guy named ‘Tom Cruise’ or ‘Vin Diesel’ than a guy named ‘Ahmed Ahmed.’ Which was more of an issue in the past. I just realized I wasn’t motivated by the Hollywood glitz and glamor, the smoke and the mirrors and the fame. And I wasn’t getting opportunities and I didn’t want to change my name.
Maybe just change one of the “Ahmeds.”
You know, I thought about that. But then I might as well call myself ‘Ahmed.’ Like ‘Prince’ or ‘Elvis’ or something. Bro, my first agent told me to change my name to “Rick.” Rick Ahmed. The funny thing is I felt I carved out my own career as a comic because of my name. So it’s a really weird juxtaposition. It’s flipped irony in a way. Because if my name was ‘Rick Ahmed’ or ‘Rick Thomas’ or just a different name, I wouldn’t have the identity to talk about what I talk about and have the point of view and cadence with my comedy in that sense. I feel if I stayed in LA, I would have flourished and done something really cool…or I would have crashed and burned. And I was already kind of crashing and burning there anyway.
Yeah, didn’t something happen at The Comedy Store?
When Adam Eget became talent booker at The Comedy Store, for some reason I started getting less spots. Like shitty spots. I went from Friday/Saturday 9:30pm/10:00pm in the Main Room and other rooms to one spot a week at midnight on a Monday. I didn’t question it at first because there were a lot of new people coming in, celebrities were coming back, Rogan was there again. There was this kind of resurgence happening. But I didn’t realize what was happening behind closed doors. So after a month I called Adam (who’d been to my Venice beach house and who I considered a friend) and I said “Listen, I know you have a lot of comics crawling up your ass so I don’t want to sound too concerned or desperate. I just realized the spots I’m getting are less and less and the slots are really bad.” And he goes “Well, Ahmed you’re just not that relevant anymore.”
He said that?
Word for word. I go “What does that mean?” He said “Well, you don’t have any comedy specials out, your show got cancelled…” I was like bro, I was on tv six months ago. And that week, I was not only in GQ Magazine as one of the hot Arab actors to look out for but was also in Playboy Magazine as one of the top 10 comics to watch that summer! “What do you mean I’m not relevant? Go fuck yourself.”
So then I was insulted. He said “Well, you’re not writing new material” and blah blah blah. I said “Bro, don’t worry about my creative process. You’re not my manager. If anyone complains and says ‘Ahmed Ahmed’s not funny, I want my money back, I’ll give them their fucking money back.’ But don’t come at me like you’re my creative director, you’re just the booker.” He goes “Well, I’ve been instructed by comedians not to book you. Some of the comics at the Comedy Store don’t want you to work here and I’ve been instructed by them to not book you.” I go “Who?” He said “I can’t tell you that.”
That’s fucked up.
I have it in a text message from him. I have it in writing. Anyway, I said “So now the inmates are running the joint? Has this turned into comedy prison?” He goes “Yeah, well maybe if you come back in a few years after you’ve done some stuff…” And at that point, I went off on him. I knew the bridge was burned and figured, I’d walked across it a thousand times, why not light one more match and throw some fuel to the flame. But look, God bless The Comedy Store. It’s never been more successful, lines around the corner, two or three shows a night, celebrities coming in. It’s great. I’m happy it got to that place. Thank God guys like me were there during the dark times keeping that place alive. I’d like to think Mitzi Shore is smiling in heaven.
Then what happened?
A combination of things. CAA had just dropped me, I had to move out of my house, broke up with my girlfriend. It was a weak point in my career and the universe was telling me to just get the fuck out of [Los Angeles]. So I moved to New York. And thankfully I was entrenched in the scene there, getting regular spots at Gotham, Cellar. But again, I felt like I was drifting. But then, a short film I starred in The Scapegoat screened at the Cannes Festival, and around the same time a Malaysian company made me an offer to be their in house content director. Basically, create and curate content to seek financing. I had nothing tying me to the States, so I packed two to bags and a backpack and left. And by the way, it was scary bro. I left everything I was familiar with and I moved to Asia.
But that’s the call to adventure. That’s real life. That’s living.
I got the call and I took it and I don’t regret it.
In terms of comedy, are there certain things you can’t talk about in Malaysia?
Malaysia has a sort of censorship thing that’s happening just like the Middle East. You can’t mock their president, you can’t mock Prophet Mohammed or the religion of Islam. Royalty, their government and religion. Those are the three “no’s.” I don’t think they’ll ever go away. But you don’t need to talk about that because there’s enough material to go around. At the end of the day, you’re an entertainer. You want to slip your message in here and there, great. But just make me laugh, mother fucker.
It seems like in some ways, at least here in the US, we’ve gotten away from that.
It’s your job to be funny first. We’re not here to hear your politics. Especially in LA, where everyone wants to be caught up in PC shit. You can only get so much material living in America. If I didn’t move to Malaysia, I wouldn’t have an hour of new material. There’s so much to talk about. Like, Malaysian women have a type of black magic they practice on their men in order to trap them.
And turn them into zombies, yeah. Google it. It’s called Nasi Kang Kang.
Can you smoke weed in Malaysia?
It’s highly illegal so it’s not that readily consumed. Like if you’re caught dealing it, death sentence. If you’re caught with a couple joints, jail and a fine. If you fly in on Etihad Airways, they straight come on the intercom and are like “Uh, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for flying Etihad Airways, we will be descending to Kuala Lumpur shortly. Please put up your tray tables and seats back. If you’ve never been to Kuala Lumpur, there are lovely sights to see and beautiful landmarks to visit. Please enjoy your time here. And for the record, if anyone is caught with illegal drugs on their person, the sentence is death. Enjoy your stay.”
Follow @ahmedcomedy and check out http://www.ahmedahmed.com/ for tickets and tour dates
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