It isn’t easy being one of Australia’s favourite funny men. From facing racist stereotypes in every show, to being forced into reality TV, if only for the money. But Akmal Saleh has the incredible knack to deal with these harsh issues with hilarious and offensive charm, where his Arabic heritage and personal disillusionment become the punchline.
For more than 20 years, the Australian comedian and actor has toured the nation and the world with his iconic improvisation and razor-sharp wit. In such a long career, there’s bound to be soaring highs and crippling lows, and in a chat with Glam, Akmal left it all on the table.
Akmal didn’t choose the stand-up life, but the stand-up life chose him. “When I was young, I was completely obsessed with comedy, obsessed with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, and Monty Python. It was always comedy above everything else, I was addicted to it and obsessed by it.”
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Akmal moved away from his Egyptian homeland at age 11 by his family to start a new life in Sydney. In an experience which has had profound influence on his career and life, the comedian describes it as “moving to another planet.”
“Egypt is about as different from here as you can get. When we were landing, I remember looking out the window at these foreign triangular roofs on the houses thinking, ‘wow look at all these pyramids! We only have about 7 back home.’”
It was the more bogan and rough environment of Sydney which allowed Akmal to nurture his style of stand-up, littered with offence and a fresh perspective. The stage was a “bloodbath” for young comedians, with an audience encouraged to heckle and abuse as much as possible.
“There were no other comedians born overseas or with brown skin, so I thought well, they’re not going to like me no matter what, so maybe if I change my name to Peter they won’t realise I’m ethnic.”
“You had to be louder, more aggressive to stand out and to protect yourself … But now I’m more comfortable on stage than I am in real life.”
The relentless pursuit to keep in touch with current affairs and trends is real with Akmal, with every show having to be different from the last to keep the magic alive. “You have to keep an ear out for what’s working or what’s offensive and how far you want to go with that. That’s what comedians do, they challenge ideas of what is correct and acceptable, then cross that line.”
Due to financial problems, Akmal accepted a role on the most recent series of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here, an experience he best described as “a horrible mistake.”
“I did it purely for the money to be honest, without watching one episode of the show – which was dumb. Once I was there I thought, ‘what have I got myself into?’ and it wasn’t me. For sportspeople and some people who have discipline, they do well, but for me as a comedian, I was out of place.”
For a man who has worked most of his life for himself, giving up his total autonomy to the show’s editors was the hardest thing. “They can manipulate you in any way they want … you go from total freedom to total control by them, and you don’t trust them. So I was very relieved to leave.”
Akmal’s experiences and cultural heritage constantly informs his performances, as it’s shaped who he is and his own differences are what he finds most hilarious to criticise.
“The stereotypes are inevitable. There are ethnic comedians who only talk about their background and I think that’s a trap, because then you become the ‘ethnic comedian’ that only does those kind of jokes. But you’re also a lot of other things as well as that background. The more interesting comedians have a broad role and their heritage plays a part, but alongside a lot of other things as well.”
“The community I grew up with was very closed and conservative, so I rejected that really early and I don’t really identify with anything. Most comedians tend to be observers rather than part of a club and many ethnic comedians are in fact rejects from their own communities.”
Akmal’s own position as an Australian comedian with Arabic heritage gives light to the profound power of comedy to challenge preconceived ideas in the process of integration.
“The more people in the public eye and making contributions, the more of that blending which can happen. People like Waleed Aly are doing an amazing job at playing his part in the process of integration. Comedy unlike anything else brings people together immediately. I’ve had comments from people after a show say ‘I usually hate Arabs, but you’re ok’, because I made him laugh and I made a connection beyond skin colour.”
Akmal’s shows will be held on the 15th & 16th of July at The Dunstan Playhouse. Bookings can be made online.