Ahmed Ahmed almost didn’t make it in show-biz. The Egyptian-American comic actor grew weary of auditioning for stereotypical Middle Eastern-character parts such as cab drivers, and when he told his agent he didn’t want to read for them anymore, the phone stopped ringing. Fortunately, fellow actor and friend Vince Vaughn offered Ahmed his couch during the roughest times, and today, ironically, Ahmed is one of the stars in the politically incorrect hit TBS sitcom Sullivan & Son, which is executive-produced by Vaughn.
The four headliners from the show — Steve Byrne, Owen Benjamin, Roy Wood Jr. and Ahmed — will take the stage Wednesday night at the Fort Lauderdale Improv for a night of raucous stand-up.
Ahmed talked to Miami.com about the show, his rough road to stardom as a Middle Eastern comic and his experience at a White House dinner.
What can we expect from this show?
On the TV show there are 10 cast members, but four of us are headlining as individual stand-up comedians, so it’s like getting four shows in one. We’re basically going on and each getting 20 minutes, and I go up first, and Roy follows me, followed by Owen, and then Steve closes it out. And all of us are doing brand new material, so if you’ve seen us in the past, you’re not gonna see anything repeated. Then the four of us go back up onstage together and do a sort of Rat Pack crescendo of the show — we do some short songs, call people up onstage and just kind of have fun with the audience.
What kind of songs do you do?
We actually sing tweets — things that we’ve each tweeted in the past. And Owen is a classically trained pianist, and he has a keyboard up onstage, and he’ll play music while one of us sings, and the crowd really enjoys it. It’s a lot of fun. And we’re all so different. I’m Arab-American, Roy is African-American, Steve is Asian-American, and Owen’s our tall, token white guy. So we like to call it a four-headed monster.
You broke new ground in the world of Middle Eastern comedy. Did you set out to do that, or did it kind of just happen?
Kind of both. There’s a long back story to it. I got made a regular at the World Famous Comedy Store in Hollywood by Mitzi Shore, who is Pauly Shore’s mom. And she had the epiphany before 9/11 that there was gonna be a war between America and the Middle East, and when it happened, Middle Eastern comedians were gonna be very needed in the world to break down stereotypes and so forth. And I had no idea what she was talking about, but then sure enough, 9/11 happened, and sure enough, there was room for Middle Eastern comedians. And I was just on the brink of it all. So I went over there in 2005 to do some corporate events in Dubai, and that kind of led to doing some small underground shows, and then it just kept on growing and growing. And we ended up doing the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, with myself and two other Middle Eastern comics, and we ended up performing in front of 20,000 people in five countries. And that’s what spawned the whole interest in comedy.
And then after your documentary “Just Like Us,” you were invited to the White House. How was that experience?
It was pretty cool. I got this e-mail invite from somebody in Barack Obama’s camp who saw my documentary and thought it was a great cross-cultural initiative. And when I got the invite, I thought it was a joke because all my friends are comedians, so I replied “LOL — who’s this?” So when I showed up at the White House, there were about 150 very nicely dressed Muslims standing outside. And I thought a net was gonna drop on us — “Hey, we got 150 of them, only a billion more to go!”
So how was the rest of the evening?
We were sitting up there in the banquet room at a table, and all the news people were there, from Fox, NBC, ABC, and they were streaming it live. And my friends were texting me from L.A. saying, “Hey, I’m watching the news and there’s some Muslim dinner happening at the White House right now, and there’s a guy sitting in the front row who looks just like you!” Later, the President went around and shook everybody’s hand, and when he got to me, I explained to him how I got there, and that I had given a copy of my documentary to his assistants, and if he had time I’d be honored if he watched it. And he asked how long it was, and I said 72 minutes. And he said, “Well I can’t promise you 72, but I’ll give you 30.” And in my head I was thinking, “Well, can you get Michelle to watch the other 42?”
Sullivan & Son Comedy Tour, 8 p.m. Wednesday; Fort Lauderdale Improv, 5700 Seminole Way; www.improvftl.com; $20