Behind the Laughs: LA Middle Eastern Comedy Workshop //
Middle Eastern Comedy Festival co-producers, Ronnie Khalil and Ryan Shrime are working hard to counter the narrow view of Middle Easterners in the media, where the line between real and absurd is increasingly blurred. FEN got a chance to interview the duo last Fall when they introduced the festival to Los Angeles. This time around, Khalil and Shrime kindly let me sit-in on a sketch comedy-writing workshop.
I walked up the short set of stairs of The Complex in Hollywood’s Theater District, into the narrow hallways lined with people leaning against walls as they waited for their casting call. It is a small building containing several theatres and studios under one roof. I opened the door to my destination, where a set of bleachers were filled with serious, but welcoming students with their eyes set on the stage, ready to absorb some comic knowledge.
During a break, Khalil and Shrime exchanged a witty repartee as they discussed the premise of the workshop. Their collaborative spirit, intent to create, and an apparent interest in paying their experience forward leave me inclined to coin them the Arab Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
Ryan: It developed because of the process of getting good roles. We want to have at our hands a plethora of material, and in order for that to happen we have to be the ones to produce it.
Ronnie: We have to create for ourselves if we’re going to move into the position we want.
Ryan: [Middle Easterners] complain about stereotyping, but we can’t expect someone who grew up in Middle America to understand our experience. We have to start doing our part.
Ryan: Keep moving,
Ronnie: If you’re a writer, keep writing. If you’re an actor, keep acting.
Ryan: Get a job that barely pays the bills so that you can stay hungry. Yea, stay thirsty.
Ronnie: Stay hungry, but not literally. (chuckling)
Ronnie: This business is not, and never will be easy.
Ryan: Don’t ever give yourself a time limit, which is actually something comedian, David Zucker, said that stays with me.
Ronnie (bantering): I’ve got an idea, but I’ll just wait a year to write it down.
Ryan: Also, everyone should be on actorsaccess.com. Networks do something called Diversity Showcase for their own casting, to promote a commitment to diversity.
Ryan: Some networks, like CBS for example, will allow your own material. But most give you the material for an audition. We actually had some people get representation after the ME Comedy Festival through this showcase, and one girl ended up testing for a pilot.
Ronnie and Ryan invited two sketch comedy pros, Jodi Miller and Kimberly Lewis, to lead the workshops — they were high energy, and hilarious to watch. Their crash course crammed all the comedic formulas and set-ups, providing insight into the genius behind the laughs. I had the opportunity to pick the two comic brains…
Kim: The tendency to get in your own way by over-thinking things, getting stuck in your head, and critiquing or blocking yourself and your creativity as you go. I encourage my students to cultivate a sense of playfulness when they are going to write and perform comedy. One of my favorite quotes is, “Genius is the ability to call up childhood at will.” We all spend years putting on all kinds of armor to protect ourselves in the world, and then we have to try to strip that away as performers and writers to get back to that childlike sense of play. If you think about it, the comedians we love and admire the most are the ones having the most fun.
Jodi: Focusing on one main thing in the sketch. Many times people try to fit too many elements into a scene, which makes it somewhat confusing for the audience. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.
Kim: Yes, it was very fun. Learning comedy is really in the doing, not in the talking about it– writing, performing, and throwing material against the wall to see what sticks.
Jodi: It was a lot of fun teaching this class…I wish we had more time. Still, I was very impressed with the work everyone did. Some really funny sketches came out of this and I really hope they all continue to write more material.
They have undoubtedly been inspired to do exactly that.
The sketch workshop attracted, as the title suggests, “Middle Eastern” applicants. For all intents and purposes, the term here is applied culturally as opposed to geographically. About twenty participants made the cut, including Rachid Sabitri, an English actor of Morroccan origin who has done theatre, television, and film work for high-ranking networks such as HBO and the BBC. He is interested in pursuing Arab-Israeli relations in his writing — this workshop serves as a step forward in his work.
The first day wraps up with some reminders. Students are expected to write their own sketches by the next session. In an effort to quell their nerves, Khalil heeds a reminder that the goal of the experience is “to get to know each other, and be able to bounce ideas off one another. You are going to attract your kind of funny, so just write what you want.” Shrime emphasizes, “even if it sucks.”
About the Author: Born and raised in Southern CA, Lana Daoud can find herself at home just about anywhere. She has a degree in History with a minor in Middle East Studies, and is currently a fellow of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership For Change based in Los Angeles. Home is where the next great experience lies, heart belongs to her nieces, roots are in Palestine.