Lebanese Comedian Nemr Abou Nassar on Unity Through Laughter
Nemr headlines Comedy Works South on Wednesday, October 12.
Maria Abou Nassar
Nemr Abou Nassar is widely known as "Lebanon's King of Comedy." By far the most famous comedian in his country, Nassar — who's often billed as simply "Nemr" — regularly performs for crowds all over the world. He's recorded five standup specials, been on the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour and graced the cover of Rolling Stone Middle East. His show A Stand Up Revolution was a ratings juggernaut for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, but ended after one season beecause of incompatibility with the network. While his notoriety has spread across the Middle East and into Europe, Nassar is still being introduced to American audiences. Eschewing overtly religious or political material, Nassar aims to bridge cultural divides with humor.
Westword caught up with Nemr ahead of his one-night-only special headlining engagement at Comedy Works South on October 12 to discuss his comedic influences, introducing himself to American audiences and finding unity in laughter.
Westword: Will there be your first trip to Denver?
Nemr Abou Nassar: Yes, sir. Never been before. I’m very excited, to be honest.
After fleeing civil war with your family, you spent part of your childhood in the States. I know you were pretty young, but do you have any memories of this period?
Of the time I spent in America, you mean? I left America when I was eleven, so I definitely have a lot of impressions of that time because it was very formative for me. But if you’re asking if I have any memories of the civil war in Beirut, I was two, so obviously I don’t. But I remember when I did get to San Diego. My earliest memories are not happy ones, I can tell you that much. When I think back on it, and I’ve been asked to often, it feels like a bit blocked off. Not like a trauma or anything, but I could tell that my parents weren’t happy. When you’re around a household that doesn’t have happiness, when there’s a lot of stress, it kind of makes things dark for everyone else around, you know what I’m saying?
Do you remember your first encounter with standup comedy?
That’s one of my earliest memories. When I was four or five years old, I remember seeing them laughing happily, and I discovered it was because they were watching this thing called standup comedy. I mean, they were laughing a lot. And so they started recording every HBO comedy special on VHS, and I would watch them, memorize them and recite them. When I was a kid, maybe like five years old, I used to always say that I when I grow up I’m either gonna be a Ninja Turtle or a standup comic. And to be honest, I still haven’t given up on the Ninja Turtle part. It was ironic, but if the civil war hadn’t driven us away from Lebanon, if I’d never come to the U.S. and gotten such a strong connection to the positive emotions it inspired, I don’t know if I’d be doing standup comedy.
Who were some of your early inspirations?
Dana Carvey. The first comedy set I ever memorized was from Dana Carvey. And I would go around and recite it to everyone.
Is that the one with “Chopping Broccoli?”
No, it was before that. He used to host a show on HBO where he would bring up other comics; he’d open with jokes and then do these bits. I remember one that he did was about George Bush Sr. when he went to Japan and threw up on their prime minister. It’s a hysterical bit, because from the perspective of the Japanese people, this projectile-vomiting president is like Godzilla. It’s a classic bit that only Dana Carvey could nail. I watched tons of other comics, too, but I was too young for anyone else to make an impression.
A couple years later on, when we went back to Beirut, I found my mom’s stash of cassette tapes from when she was a kid in London. She’d recorded Woody Allen, Steve Martin, even some Lenny Bruce. She had this whole stash, and so I started listening to them. I had never known that Woody Allen was a ferociously funny standup and a hysterical storyteller. So that was my education. In terms of the comedy world, that’s where it started, with those kind of comics. They’re who I consider the pillars of the industry, you know? Steve Martin, Lenny Bruce — she even had some early George Carlin. Listening to that stuff when you’re young and really into it, that’s the comedy world I knew. And it developed from there. When the Internet became a thing, I started getting easier access to comics like Chris Rock, Pablo Francisco, Dave Chappelle, Lewis Black and all these other comics, and they started making a big impression on me. And that was pretty much it. When I did standup comedy in the Middle East, there were no comedians, not even any comedy clubs to draw from. My comedy inspiration was all from videos and cassette tapes. So we built the scene. The first time I ever stepped into a comedy club with other comics was in 2009, when I had already been doing this for six years.
So did you just go straight to big theaters?
I did, because in 2001, I used to perform and host concerts. So I started doing comedy in that setting, but I didn’t go professional until like 2006. That’s when I started charging people to come see me. So in a way, I did spend five or six years developing my craft just like any amateur comic would, but the stages were always very unconventional. I’d always shove myself into other events, like a concert or some other kind of event, where I’d host in order to a) practice hosting and b) do comedy in front of people. It wasn’t until people really started to like me from those gigs that I could announce my own show and have people come. About a year after that, I was doing theaters. I had to grow up in front of the crowd, in a way. I didn’t get to retire to a small club and work on fifteen minutes here and there; I had an hour or an hour and a half every time, but it was worth it. I think it made me a unique kind of comic with a unique set of skills.
I’d imagine those concert crowds really make you work for it. They want music.
Oh, God, yeah. I had to learn crowd manipulation on an epic scale. When you’re talking to a bunch of Lebanese or Arab people, you realize that they’re not impressed by anything. You have to be really, really spot-on to even get them to listen. So it was never something that came easily, but it made me better.
I’ve noticed that in your specials, you really do put on quite the show. You’ve had dancers and models; I saw a video where you were doing crowd work with a vocoder. Is that showmanship something that came from performing for such big crowds?
Every time I do a special, I like to follow a theme. When I did Epic, which is what that vocoder clip is from, the theme was to do a bunch of things on that epic scale. I wanted it to have the feel of a spectacle, to make people say, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” And if you’ve seen that whole special, I open up with a band, I play guitar — it was clearly more than a typical comedy show. A year later, when I did Victorious Secret, I brought out all these Victoria’s Secret models because it was a fun play on words and for every show, I like to have a little something extra. It wasn’t until the special that I'm currently touring, which is just called Nemr, that I considered going back to the roots of standup. I walked on stage without music and walked off stage without music, just putting all the focus on my material. I just like to experiment every time and take the crowd with me on a journey, so I’ve always done something unique and special. The fact that I didn’t do anything big this time was ironically very unique and special for me and everybody there.
So is there much of a comedy tradition in Lebanon?
Standup, no, but we’ve always had sketch comedy and TV comedy. Troupes, I’d call them, where you have four or five comics doing scenes together. That was there already, but it was all political and religious. When I came along, I was the first — and probably still only — performer in the region who wasn’t all about political and religious issues. I’m just funny.
So is that a deliberate thing, or do you just not find that sort of commentary funny?
It’s a very deliberate thing. I feel like dealing directly with politics and religion can be very weak and short-sighted. So, if I make jokes today about Donald Trump, that’s easy. You get what I’m saying? What I’ll do is make jokes about the underlying reasons why a man like that might get elected. Which I think is much more difficult and much more dangerous. Now, take that logic and apply it to the Middle East. I won’t name specific politicians or make fun of Islam, Christianity or Judaism. But I will discuss how stupid it is that religion could divide us. Things like that are the underlying reasons why certain politicians are so popular. Jokes like that can actually be a lot more dangerous, but you’re kind of like a ninja because no one realizes what you’re doing. The reason that I do that is because I want to get my message across and I don’t want people to be turned away when I start talking. When you keep it neutral, you’re actually filling up a room with people from all over, from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and uniting them. I used to have a stamp on all my posters that said, “No politics, no religion, one love” — and that’s what brought a lot of people together. I think everyone was hungry for entertainment that brought people together instead of dividing them up.
Do you think you’d have managed to draw crowds of up to 5,000 fans if you hadn’t taken that approach?
No, no, no. A show with 5,000 people is so huge it’s scary; it makes every other show look weak. But think about it: The entire population of Lebanon is four million. A crowd of 5,000 in a population of four million? Per capita, in the U.S. that would be like doing a show for 300,000 people. It was big enough to send shockwaves throughout the entire country. A guy who might be our next president was at the show; so were ministers and politicians. It’s become a thing; it was one of the biggest events in the country, if not the whole region. Nobody’s done a show for 5,000 people anywhere in the region.
Do you mean standup specifically, or music too?
If, for instance, Drake comes to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, I’m not going to be able to compete with that. But those shows bring in maybe 10,000 or 12,000, with huge sponsorships and tons of promotion from the industry. My shows don’t have sponsors or anything. It’s literally a grassroots underground movement that has become so mainstream because it reflects the real will of the people, which is to be united and have a great time. To reject all the extremism and hate so that they can just enjoy being together. That’s really what it’s about.
When you perform in the States, how do you adjust from being the most famous comic in Lebanon to working smaller, club-sized crowds who may not have even heard of you?
Yeah, nobody knows who the hell I am — especially when I first started here. But that was the main reason I came out here. I felt like I had done everything there is to do in the Middle East. And I always used to do small venues in the Middle East to keep my skills sharp. To me, standup is like a martial art: You’ve gotta keep training, gotta hit that dojo. So with the skill level I had, I was afraid of staying in the Middle East. People there adore me, and I love them for that, but when I get up on stage, they already know what they’re there for. There are jokes where I don’t even have to finish my sentence before they start applauding. I want to always get better, I want to be the greatest ever. And that’s not going to happen if things are too easy.
So in a way, now that I’ve conquered the Middle East by uniting people, I think we need to unite two parts of the world that couldn’t be further apart right now. So I figured I’d come here and stand up in front of American crowds to do what I do best, and it’s been going great. Americans, Canadians, I was just in England on September 25, and it’s really been resonating. It wasn’t difficult, it was humbling, and that’s exactly what I came out for. I’d walk onto that stage realizing that I had to work from scratch. I had to make sure these people found me funny without any background. And I wouldn’t make it easy for myself. I’d tell people to introduce me by saying, “This guy’s from the Middle East; his name’s Nemr” — and that’s it. I don’t want you to list my credits, I don’t want them to know anything. I want to figure out how to stand in front of a crowd completely naked and walk away being their champion.
Nemr Abou Nassar works the crowd.
Maria Abou Nassti
How do you build an act when everybody recognizes you at the dojo, to continue your martial-arts metaphor?
What I’ll do in Lebanon is I’ll book small shows at clubs that are really, really classy, like 400- or 500-seaters, and work out my material in front of those people. When I started touring around the Middle East, I’d work out material in other countries — like if I’m in Jordan, I’ll try two new jokes. Now that I’m doing club shows in the U.S., I’m working out material constantly. My bits are so much better, the material I’m writing is more on point. I really did level up; that was the whole point of coming here.
Sure, you gotta come to Shaolin.
Yeah, to keep with the dojo analogy, I’m a great martial artist, but I’m not the best. So I came to fight with the best. In the Middle East, a lot of the time my competition was war. I’d be doing shows when ISIS was bombing. And if there’s not bombing, the entertainment value is so high I’d be competing with people like Snoop Dogg. Now I’m competing with other comics, which is a whole new challenge. It’s very unique, but it’s narrow. You have to be good. You have to be. If you’re good, people will show up. If you’re not, they won’t. It’s that simple.
Have you encountered much censorship in your career? Beirut is pretty cosmopolitan, but what about more conservative places like Riyadh?
Saudi Arabia, sure. Kuwait more than anywhere. In Kuwait, you can’t even say that you wanted to ask a girl out because there’s no such thing as a girlfriend. So I would encounter censorship, but at the end of the day it was nothing crazy. The censorship is mainly political. If you’re going to speak out against the king of a country you’re visiting, yeah, you can’t do that. But I don’t talk about politics anyway. Why am I going to go into a country and make fun of their leadership? Like, who am I? I can make fun of Lebanon every day of the week, but if a Saudi Arabian comes into Lebanon and starts criticizing my country, I’m gonna be like, “Bro, shut the fuck up.” That’s a natural response, even in America. If I came up on stage and started making fun of the U.S., it would seem hostile. If you're respectful, you won’t have problems. I mean, sometimes they’ll ask me not to cuss and I won’t, and there’ll be a huge backlash from a crowd that wanted to hear me cuss. Especially in more conservative areas, like Saudi Arabia; they want the dirtiest, filthiest shows possible. It would shock you. It’s ridiculous. I keep saying this: All these countries in the Middle East, the ruling parties and the people on the ground couldn’t be further apart. It’s night and day. When I do the shows in Saudi, they’d be illegal. We’d be doing the show without the permission from the government. We’d do them on foreign ground, like a consulate, and 3,000 people would show up through word of mouth, without any marketing — which shows you how much hunger there was for genuine entertainment. And they would sit among each other, men and women, and it would be like a celebration. Then when they leave the venue, the women put on their hijab and walk with their male sponsor back to the car they can’t drive and go home. The reality on the ground is very different than how it’s been portrayed.
A lot of American people view the whole region as a sort of monolith.
I’ll do interviews on the radio here, and to say that people are misinformed is an understatement. But at the end of the day, I would be just as misinformed as they were if I was an American talking to an Arab. If we’re not going to communicate a different message about the Middle East, that it’s actually a really great place with beautiful ancient cities and rich culture, how the hell are you going to know? Can I really expect you to spend your time googling Beirut, Lebanon and navigating through the political confusion of the Israel/Palestine conflict to understand Saudi Arabia’s importance to OPEC? Really? You have a family, you’re married, you’ve got kids. You have a life, a career, deadlines to meet. I have to expect you to go above and beyond all that to learn about a country you barely heard about in school, that hasn’t sent a movie or even a single entertainer to reach out and make it seem friendly?
I think I’m the first Lebanese artist from the past forty years who’s actually targeted American audiences. I’m also American, so it comes naturally to me, but I think that says a lot. It’s partly our fault that ISIS has come to define one of the most ancient cultures in the world. The Phoenicians traded with American Indians over 2,000 years before Christopher Columbus and invented the alphabet we use today. It’s been a center of religion, sciences, mathematics for centuries — and today we’re defined by 17,000 people called ISIS. Whose fault is that? As an Arab, I’m telling you that it’s not Americans’ fault. That's why I want to get famous over here, so people will have seen my comedy and they’ll no longer have that excuse to be misinformed. Because I’ve reached out, I’ve put it out there. I’ve sat down with very racist people who’ve told me awful things to my face, but at the end of our sit-down, we’re hugging each other. I’ve met a lot of angry, racist people who usually turn out to be scared and misinformed. That’s a dangerous combination, but the way to fight that isn’t by saying “You’re a racist, fuck off.” If you try to understand their fears, you can change their perspective.
Like an ambassador.
Yeah, it’s a responsibility. And it’s not a responsibility toward Arabs, or a responsibility toward Americans. It’s a responsibility to the world. People are dying, man. I come from the thick of it. There are people losing their lives because of ideological misconceptions. It’s infecting the world. At the end of the day, these wars cannot be won with weapons. They have to be won in the mind. So I’m an ambassador for myself, for my children, my friends and family. I know that we have the power to change the world because of what we did in Lebanon. ISIS couldn’t infiltrate our spirit because we had spent the last fifteen years strengthening it. We were part of that; we united people and spread a powerful message. If I could do a show for 50,000 or 60,000 people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities and get them all laughing together, we’ve just done something no one ever thought possible. And that’s my goal.
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