'I like tackling subjects that are taboo, but I try to do it in a respectful way'

Friday Night Live is in Dubai tonight, creating a remarkable mix of stand-up comedy. Nine international artists will come together at the Madinat Jumeirah Arena, but ahead of the performance, Egyptian-American comedian Ronnie Khalil told Emirates Business what he expects from the show and how he has helped pave the way for Arab comedy in the US.



This is your first time here, so do you have any pre-conceptions about the audience tonight?

I think the audience will be very mixed from what I understand, with people from different countries and ethnicities. I do not know the exact percentages but I know it will be aired to a lot of Middle Eastern countries, so its not just about the audience, and that is why I will focus a lot more on my Egyptian culture and my heritage.

How would you define the Ronnie Khalil brand?

I think it is 'nice guy edgy'. I like tackling a lot of subjects that are considered taboo but I try to do it in a respectful way. You can talk about people's race, the way people act and society's problems but as long as it is not done with malice people will allow you to get away with a lot.

Has the comedy show Axis of Evil paved the way for Arab American comedy?

I think they were part of it, but we also did the Arab American Comedy Festival, which has been going for five years and just gets bigger all the time. We got a lot of press attention and it spawned a TV show, which only made it to a pilot but was the first show featuring all Middle Eastern comedians. Because this movement is in its infancy we all have to dance together to get our name out and our points of view.

You did an MBA, so what made you choose comedy over a business career?

I got my Master's and ended up working in marketing and public relations for a number of years and then, sort of on a whim, a friend and I decided we wanted to do stand-up comedy, so went to an open mic night. I was terrible but that seed was planted and I just loved getting on stage. I went from doing it once a month to once a week then I started getting paid gigs and I just could not do both.

You are still juggling comedy, acting and screenwriting, so do you feel you have finally found a balance?

I am finding it. It is always changing and for a while stand-up comedy was the only thing I wanted to do but to make money in it you have to travel all the time and now I would not mind more of a home life. It is that desire that prompted me to move to Los Angeles and get into screenwriting and acting.

What has been the investment in your career?

There have been opportunity costs. If I had stayed in business I would be a manager working to a vice-president and have health benefits, which is good, but then I come and do events like these and it is much more exciting, so I do not regret it.

Is your business acumen still there?

Yes, and one of the lectures I give to high school students is called 'success through comedy,' where I try to teach them that everything is a business and the qualities that helped me succeed as an account executive in advertising are the same qualities that are helping me succeed in comedy. Writing is a job and I wake up every morning and set a few hours a day to sit in front of the computer and write because if I do not then nothing funny comes on stage.

Would you take a role that could perpetuate stereotypes or do you feel you have to be socially responsible towards your audience?

I have not taken a role like that but only because I have not been offered one. My look is not what Hollywood considers a typical 'terrorist' look. I would prefer not to take a role like that but realistically if it is necessary for me to continue making a living then I probably would. What I think is more important is Arabs getting into the film industry and creating material that presents us in a positive light.

What are the new markets or trends for comedy worldwide?

In the past few years, especially with the Dane Cook phenomenon, a lot of comics have become more physical and moved away from cerebral. I hope now they will be able to combine the two.

Are you looking forward to George Bush leaving the White House?

Yes.

Who will you be voting for?

I like Obama. The whole system thrives on not doing too much but people have to believe that America's standing can be better in the world.

PROFILE: Ronnie Khalil

Comedian Ronnie Khalil, 30, was born in Miami, United States, to an American mother and Egyptian father. After completing his MBA, Khalil began a career in marketing and public relations, specialising in sports advertising. However, he gave it all up to move to New York when his stand-up comedy routine, for which he was getting paid gigs, started to take off. He then changed his name from Shaher to Ronnie. When not travelling the world, he is based in Los Angeles, where he works as a screenwriter, director and lecturer. He was a founding member of the Arab American Comedy Festival, which started five years ago in New York and has also appeared in various TV shows, including A+E and Conan O'Brien.

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