Akmal Saleh is an Australian comedian and actor who has toured his stand-up in Australia and internationally during more than 20 years of performing. He has appeared on numerous Australian television shows, most recently I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here. I chatted to the funnyman about his childhood, his love of making people laugh and the power of comedy.
What is a day in the life of you?
My days vary; my favourite thing is going on tour. Just travelling and doing comedy every night. If I could do that till the day I die, I’ll be really happy. When I’m not working, I try to kind of keep my day busy because it’s really hard. Comedians are very undisciplined people. And they’re very lazy people by nature because they only work an hour a night, so kind of their minds drift.
You must spend a lot of time working on all your content.
You would think so, but I’m very lazy. I don’t know how I’ve survived for so long, doing the minimal amount of work [laughs]. But I work hard on stage. A lot of the really funny bits that I’ve come up with have been thought up and developed on stage because your adrenaline is going, you’ve got the audience there. It’s sometimes the best way to write material because you’re at your best. Whereas sometimes you wake up and you’re thinking about, “Well, is this funny?” You’re not really sure. Most comedians you’ll talk to have a lot of doubts.
When did you first realise you were very funny?
Well, I never really thought that I could do this as a job. All my family were really highly educated. I always thought I’d have to be a doctor. But apparently you need certificates and stuff [laughs]. My family really valued academia and I never got an education because I never could focus or remember things [at school].
Were you the class larrikin at school?
To be honest with you, I was more like the class clown’s assistant because I liked being the clown but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the guts because when I went to school, they used to beat you with a stick. I went to a private school and we’d get the cane. So I was too much of a coward to be the real class clown. I’d be in the background.
Tell me all about your experience on I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here.
I’ll be totally honest with you: I had some really serious financial problems because I’m an idiot. Both my wife and me are really bad with money. So we were living in Byron [Bay], really having a good time, just enjoying our lives and suddenly we were on the brink of bankruptcy. So this thing came along and I was really under pressure to do it. On the first day [during a trial] I said, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here”. They said, “What the trial or the whole show?” I said, “No, the whole show. I’m not doing this” … I said it twice [during the show] on different occasions but they cut it out [of the show]. From day one, I thought, “I’m in the wrong show. I shouldn’t be here.” But on the positive side, I got to meet some of the most amazing people.
Did you watch yourself on the series, once you were out?
No, I’m really scared to watch it. I never watch myself on TV because whenever I do, it looks odd. Whenever I’ve released a DVD, whenever I have sat and watched those, I just refused to release it.
You moved to Sydney when you were 11. What was it like growing up in Egypt?
It was different. I went from Egypt to Punchbowl. Egypt was more dangerous than Punchbowl. They moved because Egypt was a troubled place at the time. We’re Coptic Christian and there was a lot of persecution against Christians, and also there was a lot of oppression … I had a 19-year-old nephew who got arrested for questioning the president after he did a speech at his university. He asked something stupid like, “Is it true that you have people around you that make you feel more important than you are?” The next day he just disappeared forever, never to be seen again. We moved because of this constant fear.
How did you get into comedy?
I was always attracted to [comedy]. I’d go and watch comedy and I used to actually go up to the comedians and say, “you should maybe try this”. I’d start giving them advice. And then I’d see them taking my advice and doing the bits that I suggested and getting bigger laughs and I thought, “Maybe I could do it.” Once I did it, I got such a thrill from it, I thought, “I’ve got to do this again.” It’s like nothing else – you could be a musician or you could be an actor, but comedy, it’s only you and you’re getting all the accolades. When it’s going well, you’re just feeding off that, and it’s a selfish thing because it’s just you. But when it doesn’t go well, it’s the most painful experience because you only have yourself to blame.
Does it ever not go well?
Oh yeah, of course. A lot of times it doesn’t go well.
How does that feel?
Terrible. It’s really painful and it doesn’t get easier… and it’s just you, you can’t hide behind an instrument or a character. I’ve been booed off by 500 women once.
Some male strippers approached me and asked me to open for them and every night. It was so hard because the women were there to see these guys who were chiselled and hot. And I’d come out and go, “Hi” – I had a little potbelly and I was going bald. You could actually hear the audience go “Oh no” as you were walking on stage.
But the good times must be amazing. What do you love about comedy?
It’s a thrill like no other. All the love you’re getting from the audience on a good night, it’s just for you so you feel 10 feet tall. When I do something like Melbourne [Comedy Festival, where he performs April 5-17] and you get a really smart audience and there is 800 people listening to your thoughts and opinions and have paid for the privilege, when it goes well you go, “I held these people’s attention for so long.” I may have even turned people around to my way of thinking.
That must be very powerful.
It can be. You can really change people’s perspective. One of the most powerful things that was ever said to me by an audience member – this guy comes up to me after my show and he says, “Mate, I really enjoyed the show. I’ve got to tell you, I normally hate Arabs. I reckon they’re all horrible people. But you’re OK.” I got to change his perspective … I started thinking: [comedy] has its place in society. It has significance. It has validity.
Tell me about the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
I do it like every two years because it takes about a year to come up with a new show. At the festival, they tend to be a much more judgmental crowd.
Because it’s sort of different than say going to a country town where they’re just happy to have a comedian perform in their town. They’re usually a very smart crowd who have seen a lot of comedy, so I feel a lot more pressured. You have to be at your best. It’s really daunting.
WE WENT TO Saké Restaurant & Bar, The Rocks.
WE ATE lamb chop wasabi chimichurri; miso caramelized ‘Glacier 51’ toothfish with ginger, spring onion, seasame and chilli ponzu; scampi tempura with citrus caramel and ponzu gel; ashimi combo classic-style sashimi with soy and wasabi.
WE DRANK green tea and Asahi Beer.
I WORE a Life With Bird top and skirt.
Akmal Saleh performs April 5-17 at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and on April 28 and 29 at the Enmore Theatre for the Sydney Comedy Festival.