In pursuit of funniness

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Siraj Wahab I [email protected]

Published — Wednesday 10 February 2010

Last Update 10 February 2010 3:00 am

Comedians find what is ironic in life and make it comical. If the true artist is one who can bridge cultures in a way that audiences respond with laughter rather than by taking offense, then Rehman Akhtar is a true artist.

The Pakistani-born, British-educated comedian is 46 years old and performs his comedy wherever and whenever he can — which has recently included Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Dubai. He has been honing his art for a decade and has performed on BBC Television several times with such notables as Russell Peters. In 2008, he was chosen to be one of the opening acts at the “Axis of Evil” comedy show in Bahrain by Arab-American comedians, Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani.

Akhtar uses his acting, mimicry and linguistic skills to bring a wide range of characters to life on stage and has become a firm favorite with audiences all over the Gulf. Arab News caught up with him recently to find out his views on life, love and the pursuit of funniness.

“For creative people there are no boundaries, but then this is Saudi Arabia, and one has to be politically correct,” said Akhtar. “In any case, an artist has to respect his audience. This is challenging, and it makes me that much sharper. It would be stupid of me to stand in front of the audience and start doing vulgar stuff and the kind of comedy that is, perhaps, acceptable in the West. This is Saudi Arabia. I live here. I respect this country. I want to introduce a form of entertainment that does not exist at the moment and it is just kind of lifting off the ground.”

By day, Akhtar is a communications team leader at Saudi Aramco in Dhahran. He met a kindred spirit in another company employee, Fahad Albutairi. Together, the two men resolved to get the Gulf region chuckling. Soon they found they were not alone.

“I feel this whole movement that you see began only a few months ago,” Akhtar said. “One of the kickstarts for interest in comedy was the ‘Axis of Evil’ show in Bahrain. Suddenly people saw Fahad Albutairi and me in action. Using standup comedy to shed light on the main stereotypes the world has about Arabs and Muslims in this day and age, ‘Axis of Evil’ brought together the talents of first-generation Arab-American comedians, Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed and Aron Kader, in an authentic humorous take on Middle Eastern culture. This ‘Axis of Evil’ grew out of the whole post-9/11 period when former US President George W. Bush named certain countries as the ‘axis of evil.’”

He said in this case comedy was not simply a laughing matter. “The show really aimed at building bridges. When Ahmed Ahmed and Maz Jobrani came to Bahrain, the organizers decided not just to put these two guys up on the pedestal. They decided to have local artists performing with them on stage,” Akhtar said. “The idea was to demonstrate that we too have local talent. That comedy tour in Bahrain was in a sense the mood shifter — it was like a tipping point. It was a huge success. Over two nights, more than 5,000 enjoyed the event at the Al-Ahli Club Sports Center. A lot of them were from Saudi Arabia. That gave us a lot of exposure. People said, ‘Wow, we have people like Fahad Albutairi and Rehman Akhtar among us.’ It opened up a whole new avenue for us.”

When you talk to people in show business, they dread a cold audience. Akhtar explained how he used comedy in his formative years to break the ice — and break down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding. “I grew up in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, which in some ways was a pretty depressing time,” he said. “There was a lot of racism around in those days. Those were the days I was in school and college. We happened to live on a housing estate where we were initially the only brown family. So it kind of exacerbated the whole thing. I used to get picked on the most. I used to be bullied a lot. I hope it does not sound too arrogant but I was a fairly bright child, and this made things even more difficult for me. So not only was I a ‘brown Paki’ but I was also a ‘brown Paki with great grades.’ That made me a huge target in many, many senses.”

Akhtar is not sure if it was infernal optimism or eternal optimism that made the difference for him. “I could have reacted to the situation in many ways,” he said. “I could have become a mass murderer or something; however, I really wanted to find a humorous side and give a positive slant to this victimization. On the housing estate where we lived, there was a youth club that announced a talent contest. I said, ‘I am going to take part in this talent contest.’ Everybody was aghast. ‘What are you going to do on stage?’ What I did was put on this mask ... a mask that I could hide behind. And then I put on my father’s big overcoat, and I became this character called ‘Professor Potty.’ I was 11 at the time. There were around 350 people in the audience. All of them were white, and there I was standing — a little brown kid. I went up on stage with a microphone and started telling jokes. I immediately felt a sense of relief coursing through my veins. Here I was making fun of them and not being the kid being beaten up anymore. The whole exercise was pretty cathartic for me. I felt out of this world that night. To be in control of that entire audience was a great feeling. These people were eating out of my hands. They were laughing their heads off. All six judges gave me 10 out of 10. “Raymond Akhtar Wins First Prize,” screamed the local newspapers the next day. They could never pronounce Rehman, so I became Raymond for them. I won 10 pounds that night — it was a fortune in those days. I was in tears because neither of my parents was there to witness my moment of glory. My father was doing the night shift; my mother was in Pakistan. When I remember that night, I still get very emotional. It was a pinnacle in my life.”

Akhtar paid rich tributes to earlier funnymen who used wit and slapstick to get people through the Great Depression of the 1930s. “I had lot of comedy influences in my early years. Those were not the days of Nintendo and PlayStation. Our only form of entertainment was television,” he said. “I grew up watching diverse comedy, from Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges to Billy Connelly and Monty Python classics. Comedy has always been a part of my life. In retrospect, I think all that helped me in my later life.”

They say that next to most successful men there is a good woman, and Akhtar is no exception. “I got married to Shaafia at 27,” he said. “We would go to comedy shows, and I would tell her, ‘I can be funnier than that guy.’ At one such show, she threw a challenge at me, ‘Why don’t you go up there and do it and prove yourself?’ I took up the challenge and approached one of the organizers of comedy shows in London. He was Hardayal, an Asian. He liked my demo and told me, ‘I am going to give you an open mic slot’ — which means a slot meant for someone who just wants to try comedy for the first time. When the veteran comedians turned up for the show and asked me, ‘How long do you intend to be on stage?’ I said 20 minutes. They laughed with a smirk, ‘If you last more than 5 minutes, consider yourself lucky.’ I did not know what they meant. I was an instant hit and lasted much more than five minutes. My journey as a standup comedian had well and truly begun.”

So how does a standup comedian find material? “I get my ideas from life. I collect the nuggets of life rather like a poet,” Akhtar said. “I read a lot. I have always been a very observant person. Just like poets, I keep Post-It notes. I am never without a pen. If something triggers a thought and makes me laugh I immediately make a note of it.”

Having given great thought to the greatest question all funnymen must answer for themselves, Akhtar graciously shared the secret of comedy. “Making people laugh is always a challenge,” he said. “The secret is you do not focus on one person. I laugh at myself. If you indulge in bashing a particular community, naturally it will get offended. The art is to make fun of your victims without making them feel victimized. To point out a cultural difference is not victimizing someone. The challenge is to make someone laugh without making them feel offended.”

Rehman Akhtar will be bringing his comedy show “Rehman & Friends” to Riyadh on March 10. Details can be obtained by sending an email to [email protected]

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