Success through Comedy
by Sherif Awad
Writer, director, actor and most of all standup comedian Shaher "Ronnie" Khalil has toured the world and the Middle-East with his comic acts, being featured in comic shows and festivals that were sold out. Khalil has been also featured across the American shows and appeared in sketches for “Conan O'Brien”, ABC News and CNN, as well as in Comedy Central's online show "The Watch List". He recently ventured into filmmaking and directed two films, the horror comedy You Can't Kill Stephen King and The Meter Men. The latter premiered in Canes Film Festival held at Miami University only to win Best Film and Best Score Awards. It also became one of five films (out of 114) that were chosen to be screened soon in Los Angeles. In addition to stand-up, Khalil used to lecture in colleges throughout the United States regarding success and motivation.
Both of Ronnie Khalil’s parents were university professors. His father Tarek Khalil received a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US and has his Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering from Texas Tech University in 1969. The family then moved to Miami, Florida where Ronnie was born and raised. Dr. Khalil recently returned to Egypt to become the President and Provost of Nile University in Egypt. I met Ronnie Khalil to discuss his colorful comic career and how far it is related to Egypt.
SA: Why did you choose Ronnie to become your professional name?
RK: I remember that when I was a young kid everybody was either calling me bad names or more simply Ronnie. That’s why the name stock on me since I was seven. Also when I was young, I wanted to be more American with that nickname until I eventually discovered my Egyptian roots during college years. My parents also tried to get me more acquainted with Egypt during our annual summer visits by even enrolling me into Arabic classes. I can speak Arabic now as I was interviewed many times in Arabic-speaking media during my tours.
SA: How did you get interested in stand-up comedy and eventually art?
RK: Well my role models were the old school of the 1970s and the 1980s like Bill Cosby, Robin Williams and Chevy Chase to whom I was often compared. I remember that I was that kid who used to realize school projects in a theatrical way using giant sketches or presentations. I also remember doing my first standup act when I was at the seventh grade although I stole the material from another source. I did not know any better (laugh). I was also writing stories, novellas, comic acts and cartoons at a young age. When I got into college, I kind of get away from it a little bit and went to have a business degree after I was about to have major in film. I was convinced at that time that cinema is not a way to make a living. After graduation, I worked in advertising for a couple of years until I started performing standup comedy acts. And one I started doing that, it took over my life. One thing led to the other and I decided to quit my job to move to New York and become a fulltime standup comedy. New York’s rough yet diverse daily life develops one’s edges to have his own voice.
SA: So what kind of jokes you often tell onstage?
RK: I write my own stuff but occasionally spoke about politics. When I started out, I talked about myself growing up in Miami and having Egyptian parents. For the audience, everything was a run of the mill until I started to speak about things related to Egypt. Things became more difficult after 9/11; my parents were worried about me talking about it. However, bit by bit, many changes occurred across the American media with more information are mentioned about Egypt and the Middle-East. So right now, my job as a standup comedian is not to educate the audience about Egyptians or to tell them we are not the bad guys. The show I did in Egypt’s Saqiet El-Sawy (Cultural Wheel Space) right after January 25 revolution was so political because it was the right moment to do so. Unfortunately, I was about to fly back to Egypt but my last five shows and an invitation to appear on CBC’s al-bernameg with Bassem Youssef were all cancelled maybe due to some economic problems.
SA: What do you think of Egypt in the aftermath of January 25?
RK: Many people feel disappointment about the outcome of the revolution because it some kind of regressive. All of us dreamt of fairly treatment and equal rights whether it is a liberal system or a more conservative regime. But I think some are still afraid to speak out in fear of prosecution.
SA: Speaking of this, what do you think about Bassem Youssef’s satiric show and about him being apprehended and out on bail?
RK: I like what’s doing although sometimes I miss the punchlines because of the dialects or because not knowing the background of some of the jokes. About his arrest, I wasn’t surprised but more of skeptical. It is contradictory to what the new regime in Egypt trying us to make believe. I commented about Youssef’s situation in a recent article I wrote for CNN website. In that I wrote: “It is a similar situation to what had happened to Adel Imam last year who was sentenced to jail for insulting Islam. Not for something he said but for roles he played in films. That's like sentencing Edward Norton to life in prison for his role in American History X”.
SA: It is known that you used to tour also to lecture about business.
RK: After I got my business master and I started to do standup comedy, I was trying to find a way to combine the two practices by lecturing children the principles of business through humor in what I called Humorous Business Lecture.
SA: How did you start your career in filmmaking?
RK: I started with a comic horror film called You Can't Kill Stephen King, which I wrote over a rainy weekend with a friend of mine. We ended up getting money to fund it and I eventually finished it last year. The film follows the American slasher formula by having a group of teens who visits a lake where horror author Stephen King lives, but eventually they start getting killed off one at a time. Of course it was an important starter because I did not know how much work is needed to make a feature horror film. Luckily, its rights were sold to eight different countries including Turkey where it plays right now. Getting more experience, I am working on several projects. I also finished one short narrative called The Meter Man. It stars Clayton Farris as a lonely and despondent meter man whose life takes an unexpected turn when he meets an enigmatic girl who never pays her meter.
SA: How did The Meter Man come to life?
RK: The producer, Nick Katzenbach, optioned a script by writer Luke Fronefield. They approached me after seeing a trailer for my horror comedy film, and figured I had the right comedic sensibilities for this film. Luke and I sat down and discussed all the nuances that he really wanted as it was, the script was too long for a short film. So we slowly whittled it down until we were ready to shoot. It was a small crew and a grueling schedule but thankfully it all worked out in the end. As for why the Meter Man, I think in America, The Meter Man is vilified and universally hated, so we really wanted to show their point-of-view, and how they had dreams and feelings as well. It's a profession that isn't usually featured in films - especially as the lead - and the story really just touched everyone who read it.
SA: What can we expect from Ronnie Khalil next?
RK: I am working right now on a new script with my producing partner who has Lebanese origins. We used to work together on the Middle-Eastern Comedy Festival in Los Angeles. The script is a kiddy adventure story that we plan to shoot in Egypt. I also have a new show Arabic-speaking sitcom called Ya Ibn al-Wazir (O Son of the Minister) whose pilot will be streaming this month soon. If is scores some success with audience, it might be picked up by an American network and become a series. I wrote the show with Meena Dimian who is also of Egyptian descendants. The pilot is directed by Amin Matlaqa, the LA-based Jordanian filmmaker. I play the son of an ex-Egyptian minister who had to flee from the Egypt after the fall of Mubarak regime but also send my half brother to come and live with me in LA. You can check it out on “www.wazirshow.com”.