DUBAI: There was a single moment that Lebanese-Canadian comedian Dave Merheje knew that it was time to move into acting. He was in Singapore on another grueling stand-up tour, traveling across Southeast Asia with only a small, worn suitcase, forced to use the hotel laundry service because he ran out of clothes.
“I had just gotten paid, and I went to the front desk holding the envelope with all the money I’d made from the shows. I asked them if my clothes were done, and they said yes, and slid the bill across the desk. I realized it was everything I’d earned. I literally had to hand them the entire envelope,” Merheje told Arab News in Dubai, ahead of his appearance at the Dubai Comedy Festival in May.
“I said to myself, ‘I can’t be doing this anymore.’ And then, later that same night, I got a call from my agent in the United States. I had landed a role on ‘Ramy,’” he continued with a smile.
“Ramy” changed everything for Merheje. The acclaimed series, created by Egyptian-American Golden Globe winner Ramy Youssef, broke ground as the first series in the West to put Arabs and the Muslim faith front and center from their own perspective, and has since catapulted the careers of not only its titular star and Merheje, but Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass (“Succession”), Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy (Marvel’s “Moon Knight”), and fellow comedian and now Peabody Award-winner Mohammed Amer (‘Mo’) as well.
“I was born and raised in Windsor, Canada to Lebanese immigrant parents, and growing up, I never felt connected to either side. I was either not Canadian enough or not Lebanese enough. It wasn’t until I was on the set of ‘Ramy’ that I got to be around people like me. I finally felt accepted,” said Merheje.
Merheje long dreamed of getting into acting before he worked up the courage to share that deram with someone. One of the first people he told was a then-19-year-old former child actor and aspiring comedian at the 2010 Arab Comedy Festival in New York: Ramy Youssef.
“He hadn’t yet started doing stand-up. He told me how much he wanted to get into comedy, and I told him that I wanted to use comedy to find my voice before moving into acting. I forgot I told him that, but I guess he never did,” said Merheje.
Before making that move, Merheje still had a lot of growing to do on stage, especially because he was doing comedy in an era when his non-white identity was perceived by those more bigoted in his profession to be a weakness, causing him to initially shy away from it.
“At one point I was doing my dad’s accent on stage when telling a story, and a white comic came up to me after and said, ‘Why did you just do that? There’s too many people doing this ethnic thing.’ So I stopped,” Merheje said.
“Then after a show one night, I was telling a story about my dad to another comedian, Jocko Alston. He said, ‘Why don’t you talk about this on stage? This is a good story. Just do that!’ That was the first time I started talking about my dad, my culture, my upbringing. I had been too in my own head about it all, but the second I tried it, people really responded to it,” Merheje continued.
Alston tragically passed away shortly after in 2010, but Merheje never forgot the gift he had been given. “It was really him who pushed me to embrace who I was. That’s how I was able to find myself on stage,” he said.
When Merheje moved to the United States in the middle of the last decade, he reconnected with Youssef, and the two stayed friends as Merheje continued his comedy tours and Youssef worked tirelessly at creating his series.
When the show got picked up and went into production, Merheje ran into Youssef again at the Arab Comedy Festival. It was there that Youssef remembered what his friend had told him all those years ago, the dreams he had of becoming an actor, and he asked Merheje to audition for a role.
“By the time auditions came around, I was in China, and so Ramy asked me to send in a self-tape of me performing all my lines as a monologue. I had no idea what I was doing. I asked the events promoter there to help me film it in my hotel room, and after I was done, I asked her, ‘Was that good?’ She looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘No.’”
Merheje tried again and got it right, and looking back at that video on his phone, he can hardly fathom how much he’s grown as a performer since that moment. His character, a doctor named Ahmed, has developed into a key figure through the show’s three seasons, and Merheje is particularly proud of the standout 2022 episode “Second Opinion Doctor,” which centered around his character and was directed by Abbass.
“I learned so much, and I feel like I got better because she pushed me to go places that I either didn't know existed, couldn’t access, or had never really explored,” said Merheje. “I remember at one point I got really nervous. Hiam said, ‘What's wrong?’ I said, ‘It just feels heavy.’ She said, ‘It won’t be — we’ll work together.’ She made me feel safe, and that allowed me to get where I needed to be.”
Merheje’s growth as an actor has already paid dividends, as his work on “Ramy” landed him a starring role opposite Daisy Ridley in the 2023 Sundance hit “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” which was being shopped for global distribution at last month’s Cannes Film Festival.
“The director sent me a very beautiful letter — the nicest words someone has said to me besides my mother. She said she loved how earnest my performance on Ramy was — how sincerely he loves his friends and his faith — and she wanted me to bring that same energy to her film. And it was a deeply inspiring experience. I feel blessed to have been a part of it,” Merheje said.
At 43, Merheje is happy to be thriving both with his comedy — the Dubai festival was the first time he’d performed in the Gulf — and with his acting, with more roles on the way, and even a potential series of his own.
“I’ve been shopping it for about a year — it’s about Arabs and mental health, and the challenges in unpacking that to your family,” he said. “I’m pushing myself to continue to learn and get better — and to get to the level of the people that I’m inspired by, the people that helped me get to where I am today.”