By Luke Voogt
One of Australia’s best-known comedians, Akmal Saleh, confesses his first stand-up routine was a fraud.
“I’m ashamed to admit this,” he told the Indy ahead of his upcoming Geelong show on 21 January.
As a teen Akmal was obsessed with deadpan comedian Steven Wright – so he decided to “borrow“ 10 of the American’s jokes for his onstage debut.
“I killed it – it was so brilliantly written I couldn’t go wrong. People were shaking my hand and buying me drinks after.”
A few months later, following some stern words from the venue operators, he debuted his own material.
“That was much harder, of course,” he said.
Akmal cut his teeth in the “rough” Sydney scene, performing for boisterous crowds and buck’s and hen’s nights in pubs.
“People would get really drunk, sit down and watch just to heckle the comedians.”
The Egyptian-born comedian performed as ‘Peter’ in the early 90s, so “people would think I was white”.
“There must have been 50 Peters when I started doing comedy. Arabs weren’t as popular as they are today.”
Now Akmal is known Australia-wide by his first name.
He likened his “gradual” fame to the ‘boiling frog experiment’, where a frog is boiled so gradually that it (reportedly) fails to perceive its danger and dies.
“I just want to make it clear I haven’t tried this experiment before,” he added.
Despite his fame the occasional punter still mistook Akmal for someone else. One woman thought he was a former neighbour.
“She asked if I’d seen (another neighbour) and I said ‘yeah he’s a meth dealer now’. I made it all up.
“Another girl thought I was in her Salsa class. I must have a forgettable face.”
Akmal became religious at age 14 when his father died, but soon after discovered the darker side of the church.
“I saw so much hypocrisy and corruption. It was all about money.“
Disillusioned with religion, he filled the void with comedic legends like Eddie Murphy, George Carlyle, Paul Hogan, Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese.
“It became an addiction,” he said. “I was never good at school but I could remember Monty Python by heart.“
Early in his career Akmal had a lucky break befriending and touring with iconic comedian Jimeoin.
Performing in theatres was like “flying first class” compared to the Sydney pub scene which was more like “where the luggage was kept”, he said.
“You’ve got a captive audience, no one is selling drinks and they really respect you.”
The 53-year-old said comedy and a lack of children had kept him young.
“You’re allowed to be silly and childish for longer,” he said.
“I know people in their 30s who look older than me because they’ve got children. I think ’sucked in you should have thought about that before you had kids’.”
He recently quit radio, after almost a decade as a presenter, to get back on the road.
“I was earning really good money but I left that because it was killing my stand up career,” he said.
Akmal will perform in Wonderland Spiegeltent, Barwon Heads, at 9.15pm on 21 January.
“The tent is a really beautiful venue – it’s an experience just being in there no matter who’s on,” he said.