To fans of the sitcom “Sullivan & Son” on TBS, Ahmed Ahmed’s character is just another guy. He’s single, in his 40s, working for a tow truck company. He makes some poor romantic choices, perhaps, and hangs out with his buddies at the bar. The character could be anybody, and that’s why Ahmed, who comes to the Wilbur Saturday night as part of the “Sullivan & Son Comedy Tour,” thinks the character is such a breakthrough.
His role represents the “first time ever that Hollywood has embraced an Arab-American stand-up comedian, and I’m playing an Arab-American character who’s just a normal guy,” he says, speaking by phone from the tour’s stop in Tampa. “My character is very westernized. No ulterior motives going on.”
Ahmed says he counts his blessings every day to be able to get laughs playing such a normal guy after spending the early part of his career doing the opposite: playing to stereotypes to get work. Those roles never sat well with Ahmed, who had what he calls a “very American” upbringing in California.
“It’s a breath of fresh air for me because I made a living for several years playing the terrorist or the stereotypical cabdriver or the sleazy Arab prince,” he says. “And those characters — there’s not a lot of range with characters like that. And it kind of just continues to perpetuate stereotypes.”
Ahmed was born in Egypt, but his family moved to California when he was 1 month old. He moved to Los Angeles at 19 and has been acting for nearly 25 years, though Arab-American roles have been hard to come by. “A lot of people don’t think that there’s a community out there of Arab-Americans that live a very Western life,” he says. “There’s 6 million-plus Arab-Americans across America, and most of us are very westernized and very assimilated. And Hollywood has a hard time recognizing that, I think.”
Not that he blames Hollywood entirely. Ahmed believes Arab-Americans have to step up and create their own films, TV shows, and other projects. That was part of his inspiration to become a comedian. “The reason I got into stand-up comedy was because I wanted a voice,” he says. “I wanted to be looked at as a person who could play things outside of the box, not just the one-sided character you see on the news all the time.”
Ahmed has done just that. In 2005, he collaborated with fellow comedians Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader, and Dean Obeidallah on the “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour,” showcasing comedians with Middle Eastern roots. The group produced a Comedy Central special in 2007 and was active until 2011.
Ahmed also took several American comedians on a tour of Dubai, Lebanon, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, which led to the 2009 documentary he directed, “Just Like US.” “I wanted to show the world through this documentary that despite religious and cultural differences, we all laugh alike,” he says of the film and tour. “That’s the common language of the world, laughter.”
The “Sullivan & Son” character — also named Ahmed — wasn’t necessarily written to be groundbreaking. Ahmed has known series star and creator Steve Byrne for roughly 15 years. The pair would often commiserate by text about the clubs they were playing when they were touring separately as headliners. “One day he sent me a text message and he said, I’m going to write a show for us so we don’t have to do this [expletive] anymore,” says Ahmed. “And the irony is, we’re still doing it. Nothing really changed.”
Touring with his “Sullivan & Son” castmates Byrne, Roy Wood Jr., and Owen Benjamin is an opportunity to sell the show to audiences, which might influence whether “Sullivan & Son” gets renewed once season three ends next month. “We’re solidifying our fan base and we’re building a fan base,” he says.
It’s also an opportunity for Ahmed to get feedback on his character. “People say, yeah, I watch the show, your character’s really funny,” he says. “I think people get really inundated and sick and tired of watching all the propaganda from the news showing one side of the Arab world. There’s obviously different levels and layers of the Arab world.”Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.