Comedian Ahmed Ahmed: The Egyptian-American discovers Nasi Kang Kang in Malaysia
Before meeting Ahmed Ahmed, I watched several clips of him on YouTube, where he joked about passing through airport security, growing up Arab in America and how his name always shows up on the FBI's Most Wanted list. I never thought he'd go local within five minutes of our conversation. The subject matter? Nasi Kang Kang. The setting: A café in Bugis, with a pint of Asahi between the two of us.
Turns out, the 40-something Egyptian-American comic has been living in Kuala Lumpur for the last six months, and has gotten very well-versed in the lay of the land. Starting out as an actor and making a living playing terrorists and cab drivers in Hollywood, Ahmed used to crash Vince Vaughn's couch before waiting tables and finally, discovering comedy. He pulled together a successful Axis of Evil show, featuring comics such as Maz Jobrani, Omid Djalili, Tom Papa and Tommy Davidson that shed light on the Middle Eastern comedic voice. In 2011, Ahmed made his directorial debut with his groundbreaking documentary Just Like Us, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. I chat with Ahmed before his show in Singapore on 13 July.
So you've been in Malaysia for six months. How's the country treating you?
I'm definitely learning a lot of things about Malaysia. There are over 870 islands that surround the country which is really interesting. I found out what Nasi Kang Kang [an old wives' tale of a woman who puts a spell on her man] is. Do you know what that is? You do? Some people don't know what it is. Holy sh*t. I googled it.
Have you been Kang Kang-ed in your life?
I don't think so, because I'm not following some woman around like a zombie. I stayed up till six in the morning googling Nasi Kang Kang. I go in the office the next morning with bags under my eyes looking like a zombie. This Chinese girl that I work with goes, 'Oh yeah, you know there's a Chinese version'. I said, 'What's the Chinese version?'. I don't want to repeat it. It's disgusting. When a woman has her period, she'll take the blood from her period and let it dry out until it turns into powder. And then sprinkle it onto the f*cking rice like f*cking salt bae. Spicy Kang Kang.
So how long did you go without rice after?
I don't eat rice anymore. But then I was like, is there a guy's version for Nasi Kang Kang? Like if a guy dips his balls in the f*cking rice...
I don't know. Maybe he'll drip his ball sweat...
Ball sweat. Now we're on the same page. Get this woman a beer.
So back to comedy... tell me about this Comedy Central Asia special you're doing.
We just shot a special for 14 comics in Kuala Lumpur. That's going to appear on 14 August on Comedy Central Asia at 10pm. There are a lot of females on the show this year which is really cool: Aiko Tanaka, Jennifer Hsiung, and Jocelyn Chia. We have one Indian comic and two black comics in the line-up: Dwayne Perkins and myself. I consider myself black.
Because of your package?
Is that going to make the edit? All I want to know — is your editing supervisor going to leave that in? We have this inside joke where Dwayne Perkins says, 'You're not black, technically you're Arab'. I said, 'Technically I'm from Egypt, which is technically North Africa, which technically makes me black'. Wakanda.
When did comedy enter your life?
My dad was always funny. Being a Middle Eastern person in America in the '70s just provides so much humour. And then post 9-11, you know, being Middle Eastern in America seemed to create a lot of comedy material.
Playing on stereotypes, what's the most Egyptian thing about you?
Probably my passion. Egyptians are passionate people. We start revolutions. Two actually.
And the most American?
I dated blonde hair, blue eyed white girls for many years. I regret it.
Were they all Beckies with the good hair?
Yeah, just not really cultured. So when you've dated an American girl that's uncultured, there are a lot of misconceptions, stereotypes and racism.
Have you tried dating blonde American men for a change?
I'm not there yet. Maybe if a blonde American guy made me some Nasi Kang Kang...
You were in Iron Man and your character was also called Ahmed, and in the credits scene, it read as "Ahmed, Ahmed Ahmed". I'm guessing Ahmed's your name, and Ahmed's your dad's name?
So my name is Ahmed Abubakr Ahmed Mohammed Ali Abdul Wahab Kawaidia, traced back all the way to my father's forefathers' names. But when my dad was emigrating to the US, they were like, 'use only three'. My mom just loved the name Ahmed so much because it's the name the prophet went by. His friends would call him Ahmed. Sort of like Bob and Robert. So I just went with Ahmed Ahmed.
A lot of Middle Eastern comics tend to write the same narratives: Terrorism, growing up Arab in America, having strict parents and all that stuff. What other facets about your culture or your views of the world would you like to see more of or hear from?
A Middle Eastern comic trying to humanise themselves is the most important thing. It's okay to touch on your culture and talk about your background but if you don't live the culture or live in that background, there's no need to explain it because you don't live it. Just talk about what you know. So whether it's Middle Eastern, Latino, White, Black — funny is funny.
When does it not work?
When people don't laugh.
What do you do in that situation?
You say 'F*ck, you didn't get it.'
Do you go back and rewrite it for the next show?
It depends. Sometimes I'll tweak it on stage, sometimes I'll rewrite it. Sometimes I'll just ditch it. it's like speed dating. It's like swiping right on Tinder.
What sort of style do you think you've adapted from comics you've admired growing up?
I grew up watching Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Ellen DeGeneres. Dave Chappelle's the best comic out there right now. But I don't look at them, because you have to own your own voice and point of view so I try to have my own style.
Any female Arab comedians that you like?
There's a girl out there named Maria Shehata. She's very funny. There's a girl who's coming to Malaysia in August named Crystal Marie Denha, she's Iraqi-American. Great, beautiful, big... hands.
Are you leaving America behind? Or are you coming back once Donald Trump's done with it?
I think I'm kind of done. Look, you never know. God works in mysterious ways. If you asked me six months ago if I would be in Malaysia, I probably would have said no. I'm going to the Just For Laughs comedy festival at the end of July in Montreal. I'm going to perform on Kevin Hart's LOL gala broadcast show. So I'm going to pass through Los Angeles on the way there and on the way back, but I don't miss it at all.
Wow, It's ruined you.
No, it hasn't ruined me. It made me want to see the rest of the world. Asia is the market I haven't really tapped into. Asia, for me, is the new black. A lot of the comics who came over here will ask questions like, 'Do they have internet over there?' The fuck, seriously? You're going to ask that question? So a part of me just wants to expose the assimilation of Westernisation in Asia.
What sort of material can we expect from you this time?
I'm here for a couple of days so I need to absorb Singapore. Singapore is squeaky clean, it reminds me a little bit of Beverly Hills meets New York. People are kind of like in their zone.
Lastly, if your name wasn't Ahmed Ahmed, and if you could choose a basic white name to get through airport security, what would it be?
He's the most powerful jew in Hollywood.
Sugar Sammy, Aiko Tanaka, Dwayne Perkins, Esther Ku, Hung Le and Ahmed Ahmed will perform on 13 July, 8.30pm at the Victoria Theatre.
Season 3 of Comedy Central Stand-Up, Asia! premieres on the Comedy Central Asia channel on 14 August, 10pm.