Put Akmal Saleh on a stage and he is boisterous, exuberant and charmingly offensive.
Ask him to talk about himself and he becomes a different person altogether. Quiet, analytical and well spoken, with only the tiniest, cheeky glimmer of his onstage persona peeking through. This is the way with many comedians. Their ability to make us laugh comes from deep, critical thought which, in its infancy, is often quite serious.
It takes a lot of layering to reach the end product, the part we see on stage. “Comedy can be very powerful. As a comedian you can say more than anyone else. You’ve got more freedom to speak on any topic than any other profession. More than musicians, more than politicians. If you can get people laughing, then you’ve got them, they start agreeing with you, it’s like a consensus. It’s the best form of democracy, comedy.”
While one man on a stage doing all the talking sounds suspiciously more like a dictatorship than a democracy, Akmal explains that the audience’s egalitarian power lies in their laughter. “They vote with their laughs. You can’t force yourself on them like a dictator, you have to get them to agree. And there’s no better way of agreeing than laughter.”
Politics would be so much more interesting if Akmal’s vision of laughter-based democracy could be transmuted into parliament. Extending his political interest beyond the realms of comedy, in 2011 Akmal filmed a documentary on the Egyptian revolution and overthrow of the oppressive Mubarak regime.
Coming back home after the experience was a bit of a trip. “My life is so easy. Too easy. I just have to come up with jokes. They risk their lives every day.”
The stark contrast between Akmal’s life of comedy and the seriousness of the revolutionaries is made even more profound by the fact their lives could very easily have been his. Akmal lived in Egypt until the age of 11 when his parents sought safety in Australia.
Had they not made the move, comedy would’ve been a faraway concept for Akmal; definitely not a career he could’ve pursued. “Stand-up didn’t really exist, as such, in Egypt when I was a kid. I don’t think the opportunities would’ve been there.
“There’s a lot of pressure to get a degree and a ‘real job’ as soon as possible. Because survival is a priority there. Whereas here, you can muck around and take some risks and maybe not earn so much money for a while. That wouldn’t have been possible for me in Egypt.”
It’s hard to imagine Akmal in a serious profession. And even harder to imagine the Australia comedy scene without his over-the-top yet somehow on-point bogan impersonations, or his ability to heckle the audience harder than they could ever hope to heckle him.
Akmal shrugs it off. Going with the flow is deeply ingrained in his personality. This shines through in the way he takes the ups and downs of life and the way he handles a show. There are no dress rehearsals for Akmal. He likes to take his new material directly to the audience and weave his way through it with them.
So each show is as new for him as it is for them. “There are so many variables that change from night to night. The weather, the venue, the mood of each individual person in the crowd. And you have a different frame of mind every night too. So it never ends up exactly the same.”
In fact, there’s only one thing that remains a constant in every show: “It has to be funny. That’s the rule.”
Akmal Tour Dates
15-16 Jul - Dunstan Playhouse (Adelaide) Fri 22 Jul - The Abbey Function Centre (Canberra)
Sat 23 Jul - Vikings Erindale (Canberra)
11-13 Aug - Brisbane Powerhouse
18-21 Aug - Brisbane Powerhouse
26-27 Aug - The Comedy Store (Sydney)Click here for regional dates.