Comedy generally doesn’t benefit from having any goal beyond making people laugh, but for Ahmed Ahmed, a prominent Egyptian-American stand-up and ringleader of a tour through Arab countries chronicled in the documentary Just Like Us, the opportunity seems too great to pass up. Post 9/11, with American tensions with Arabs and Muslims running hot, Ahmed seized on the chance to use comedy to build bridges between disparate cultures and lighten the mood a bit. It’s an admirable mission, but the bridge-building doesn’t serve the comedy, which generally searches for a common denominator, and it definitely doesn’t serve the documentary, which at times veers into an earnest, self-serving PSA. When the first 10 minutes are consumed by man-on-the-street answers to questions like “What’s the difference between an Arab and a Muslim?”, it’s clear where comedy stands in the pecking order.
Once Ahmed and his fellow comedians hit the road, however, Just Like Us perks up a little, drawing on the tension of doing comedy shows in places they’ve either never been done before or subjected to imposing restrictions. Before a show in Dubai, Ahmed warns the others to avoid talking about politics or religion, refrain from profanity, and treat the event like they would a late-night talk show appearance. Cut to: Each and every one of them, even Ahmed, violating that directive, including female comedian Whitney Cummings, whose very presence on stage is provocation enough. Just Like Us works much better when it’s about cultures clashing than culture uniting; a comedian’s instinct to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable on stage generates a tension that’s frittered away by statements about comedy changing the world. The key mistake was Ahmed’s choice to direct it himself; it’s promotional when it might be revealing of impasses (and commonalities) between cultures and the complex tactics comedians use to address it. Just Like Us has fine intentions, but in the interest of touting the unifying power of laughter, it papers over the discord that fuels its most compelling on- and off-stage moments.