For the comedian and musician, the road to success was winding. Now Rahma is making a living on being himself.
For Issue 04: Hacking It, Byline teamed up with Urban Outfitters and Dickies to highlight individuals who have paved their own paths and unlocked new levels in their respective industries. These creators defy the system by making their own rules, and in other words, they're Hackers.
It all started, as so many great American success stories do, at McDonalds. Kareem Rahma, age 14, wanted a car for his 16th birthday, so he got a job working for the fast-food chain in the suburbs of Saint Paul, Minnesota, where his family moved from Cairo, Egypt in the ‘90s. For two years, he clocked in every Monday through Thursday after school. It was there that he learned the value of hard work—but also not to take it too seriously.
“I remember this one time, I was making a Big Mac…” Rahma says. “It's supposed to be: bread, patty, bread, patty, bread. But I did: bread, patty, bread, patty, bread… patty, bread, patty, bread… And then I shoved it all into the box. When the guy opened it, it shot out like a slinky, which was funny.”
In the end, Rahma made enough money to buy himself a purple Dodge Neon, which he outfitted with sheepskins and a big muffler. “My parents were not in a position to buy me nice things,” he explained. “So, if I wanted something, I had to get it myself. And I did.”
Today, Rahma has turned his comedic timing into a career. He does stand-up; he writes movies; he sings; he acts; he produces. He also has not one but two hit online shows that capture the ridiculous fun of living in New York: Keep the Meter Running, which features local cab drivers, and Subway Takes, which found a new fan in Olivia Wilde this month. But it took him a while to get where he is today. In fact, it was only recently that Rahma figured out what it is he likes to do and how to go about doing it.
After McDonalds, Rahma worked as a busboy at a “pool & yacht club,” and as a telemarketer. (Believe it or not, scams only took place at the former, he says, where he wrapped bottles of alcohol in tablecloths, stole them, and then sold them to friends in the parking lot.) In college, he was in charge of buying ads for the student newspaper, which landed him an internship at a nearby ad agency, and a job after graduation.
“Money was the primary factor in every decision I made until probably the age of 33,” Rahma says of his trajectory. “While other people were playing sports, or ‘finding their passions and interests,’ I was just working and not thinking about my future at all. My goal was simply: I want to be rich.”
At the ad agency, for example, he told one of the founders point-blank that his goal was to be an account executive—not because he was particularly interested in the work, but because he knew that it was a high-paying title. “He was like, ‘Absolutely not,’” Rahma recalls. Instead, the exec offered him a position in a new department they were starting called“social media.”
It was the definition of the phrase: right place, right time. But Rahma doesn’t totally believe in that. “In order to be at the right time, you have to be in the right place, which requires you to leave your house,” he says, contorting himself into “The Thinker” pose. “I tell that to people who want to fall in love, too: just leave your house.”
In 2012, Rahma left his house in Minnesota and moved to New York. There, he got a job at Vice doing branded content, and then the Times, where he worked for two years as a Growth Editor. One of his biggest accomplishments was putting a WhatsApp button on the Times website without telling anyone. “I went to one coder and was like, ‘Hey can you put a WhatsApp button on the website?’ And he was like, okay. It was only up for a few hours, but I got a stern talking to after that.” (The Times now features a WhatsApp ‘share’ button on its website.)
Things were going pretty well. Rahma was making six-figures. But shit hit the proverbial fan in 2018 with the Museum of Pizza. After listening to a podcast called Startup about, you guessed it, starting your own business, Rahma founded a media company called Nameless Network with a group of fellow former Vice employees. One of his first ideas was the Museum of Pizza, inspired by the success of the Museum of Ice Cream.
“It was almost Fyre Fest; I almost didn’t pull it off,” Rahma says, memories of his near-failure still haunting him. “In the press release it was like, ‘There’s going to be a pizza cave and a pizza beach.’ I was literally just putting words together. And then it sold $300,000 worth of tickets in 72-hours, and I was like, Oh, cool. We’re in! The more tickets I sold, the bigger it got. But I did it backwards. The day we were opening, it wasn’t built yet. People were still building the pizza cave, and the press was at the front door.”
After the stress of that experience, Rahma decided that running a business was not, in fact, his calling. “I was so burnt out, I was like, maybe it’s time to take a break from the pursuit of money, exclusively. I thought I’d be able to fake it ‘till I made it, but it had been ten years of faking, and I was like: I think I need to reevaluate this.”
So he started writing poetry — “that’s how bad it was” — which led him to improv, and eventually comedy. He realized that what he wanted to do was entertain people. He didn’t want to be rich; he wanted to be ‘talent.’ (Which would one day make him rich, hopefully.)
Rahma’s “big break” came during the pandemic, when his friend, Nicolas Heller, also known as @newyorknico, hit him up about making a movie. “I said, ‘of course I know how to make a movie.’ Then I watched five Martin Scorsese films that day and sent him a script within 72-hours,” he says. “I learned that when there’s momentum, the worst thing you can do is slow down. When I see an opportunity, I’m not letting anyone take it."
Titled Out of Order, the short film, which also stars Rahma, is a comedic romp about the pursuit of love in New York—and a public restroom. After its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, the momentum picked up even more.
“The definition of success, to me, has always been: people hit you up. That’s when you know that you’re good at your job, and when you’ve made a name for yourself,” Rahma says.
On the day we met at his apartment in Bed-Stuy, Rahma had already had two calls about his first feature, Or Something, which is 99-percent complete. He was also in the middle of producing another season of Subway Takes and its partnership with the Brooklyn Nets. He then had to upload new episodes of the show to social media, and review new episodes of Keep the Meter Running that he’d filmed during his recent vacation to Egypt. Oh, and he had a new song and a music video coming the following week, so he had to send out press pitches for that before I arrived as well. Next week, his band, Tiny Gun, will perform at the Knitting Factory. “Today’s a light day,” Rahma said, spinning around in his desk chair. For the first time all afternoon, I didn’t think he was joking.
This year, Rahma is on track to make the majority of his income from just being himself, which is the goal. One day, he hopes to hire someone to handle all the rest.
“Be the rich parent you want,” he offers as advice to anyone looking to follow in his footsteps. (For more, check out his song: “Really Rich Parents.”) Also: “Going viral is overrated. Be consistent. And you’re going to eat a lot of shit sandwiches,” he adds.“So many shit sandwiches.”
In other words, not everything can be a hit. The point is to just keep going—and to keep making sandwiches. Bread. Patty. Bread. Patty. Bread. Above Rahma’s desk is a small Post-It note that reads: “The secret to doing things is doing them.”