A sheik walks into a bar...
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, June 10, 2011
When it comes to career choices, stand-up comedy is no picnic. It can be hard to distinguish a joke that will spark amusement from one that will provoke hurled tomatoes. Or in the case of Egyptian American comedian Ahmed Ahmed, it might be difficult to predict what quip will get you banned from Dubai for a year (the answer is a crack about Islam).
To his credit, Ahmed didn’t give up. He decided to return to Dubai, chronicling his journey there, as well as to three other Arab locales, in the documentary “Just Like Us.” His intention was to bridge cultures through a comedy tour featuring a roster of first-rate entertainers, and it’s an interesting travelogue, even if it doesn’t quite warrant the documentary’s feel-good title.
If there are words to live by when doing comedy in Dubai and Saudi Arabia (where this form of entertainment and many others are strictly forbidden), they might be: Keep it clean. Cursing is — for the most part — prohibited, but jokes about bad drivers and embarrassing mothers, it turns out, are universally appealing. Pretty much anything goes in Beirut, where even jokes about the sex appeal of hijabs are well received. And here’s a bit of trivia: Egyptians are known as jokesters.
The documentary’s mission seems twofold — enlightening U.S. film audiences about Arab culture and encouraging the burgeoning comedy scene overseas. As such, the movie boasts a few firsts, including the first stand-up comedy show in Alexandria, Egypt, and a collaboration with the first Saudi Arabian female stand-up comic. The film is at its best when it offers snippets of routines, including truly hilarious material from Greek funnyman Angelo Tsarouchas and African American Erik Griffin, whose Jesus jokes seemed to be a hit abroad but, speaking of bans, might get him escorted out of the Bible Belt.
Where the movie falters is in its “Tonight Show”-esque man-on-the-street interviews, which kick off the movie on the wrong foot and portray Americans as rubes who can’t distinguish Arabs from Muslims.
If the finished product doesn’t quite bridge the gap between cultures, at least it’s an entertaining and sometime eye-opening trip. And the ultimate message seems to be “make laughs, not war.” Who would want to argue with that?