*You may not be familiar with Lebanese-American comedian Nemr, but he is the pioneer of the comedy movement in Beirut. If that’s not impressive enough, The Daily Beast and Chicago Tribune named him one of the Top 10 comedians to watch, and he was on the cover of Rolling Stone Middle East.
Nemr’s hour-long comedy special “No Bombing in Beirut” is currently streaming on Showtime.com, and in it, the comic recounts his life and touches on childhood, family, relationships, religion, war and the power of perspective. The special captures thousands of people from the Middle East and America laughing at the same jokes, told by the same man and filmed in both Lebanon and America.
“When I decided to come out to the U.S., I had done seven shows and I wanted to do something special out here for the special. It occurred to me that it would be really cool if we could really drive the point home that with everything going on with the world — people feel more divided than ever — just to remind them that in fact, you’re not divided at all. Your divisions are very superficial,” Nemr tells EUR/Electronic Urban Report.
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“And I thought the best way to do that would be to film in Beirut and Los Angeles, two places that couldn’t be further apart, geographically. But you find out culturally that everybody is on the same page because it’s the same jokes. They’re starting in one country, finishing in another, landing back in the first and the crowds are laughing at the same jokes. I felt that would really help to decorate the theme of the special, which is about perspective and how we’re at our best when our paths cross as human beings. That was really what fueled the creative process behind filming it the way we did.”
Born in Lebanon, Nemr says he was “almost 2-years-old” when his family “immigrated to America.”
“So all I know is America as a child. We moved back when I was about 11 to Lebanon,” he adds, before noting his mission to create unity through laughter.
“I had done stand-up comedy in the Middle East for a long time before I ever headed out here. So during my entire time in the Middle East, I used to always use comedy to bring people together. It was a simple premise and I know it sounds cliché, uniting through laughing, but all I would do was avoid political and religious subject material and the crowds that would show up would be everyone from all backgrounds and they would just laugh together and when they left, it’s harder to be angry with that person if you just shared a laugh. Mainly because you have something in common. When you guys laugh together you’re laughing at the same thing. So that was something that used to drive me a lot early on in my career.”
But do you feel that you now have a social responsibility to address certain issues that some might consider taboo?
“Well, here’s how, over the years, I’ve come to see politics and religion personally. Religion and politics changes with the way society changes. Let’s take the Bible, for example, it’s been the same ever since it’s been made public. It’s pretty much been the same document but the interpretations have changed. And politics, the Republicans, and Democrats have been called the Republicans and the Democrats but their interpretations have changed over the years. And as society changes the interpretation change. So why would I talk about politics and religion, which is the after effect, in my opinion,” he states.
“Why not talk about what caused the interpretation to be incorrect from the beginning. If I were to come out in my comedy shows and start attacking religion, or attacking politics, what would I be doing? I’d be attacking the symptom, so to speak. What I like to do is go straight into the cause, so I’ll go very deep. My shows have become very controversial. People come out to hear them because I’m not talking politics. I’m talking something deeper than that. I’m talking about really what divides us. I’m talking about silly stuff as well to get people laughing but there are many times where I address topics head-on, that when you leave the show, you will view your politics differently. You will view your religion differently. And you will realize that allowing politics and religion and other matters to divide you from somebody else is stupid,” Nemr continues.
“It’s a harder goal to attain. I think it’s just easier for you to go up and tell Trump jokes but I think it’s harder for you to go up and tell jokes so that the person who loves Trump and the person who hates Trump feel like they really want to hang out more. I also think that entertainers, we’re current day philosophers, we’re not supposed to take sides. Unless that’s who we are, unless we’re a political comic. We’re supposed to be a safe haven for everyone to come and get away from everything and then when they go back to everything they have a new perspective on it. That’s our job and I think it’s best achieved by doing grand gestures,” says Nemr.
“You know, filming something like it’s never been filmed before. Making sure people understand that while you’re getting caught up in all this politics, there are people in Lebanon and people in American laughing at the same jokes. Both bursting into applause when you’re saying Christian, Muslims, and Jew. Both dressed the same. Both look the same. At the end of it, when you finish watching that special then next time somebody says, “All these Arabs are nothing but terrorists.” You’re going to be like, “But I saw a comedy special which had 5000 people in it and it was in English and the kid was who doing the stand-up was Christian and he was telling jokes about Muslims and they were laughing. What are you talking about?” That is the biggest way that you can make change — get to work. Show something and don’t tell people. Show them. That’s what I believe. It’s harder and it takes longer but it’s worth it.”
Nemr may be one to keep your eyes on in the comedy world, but his parents didn’t always think his stand-up career would pay off.
“They thought I was an idiot. I don’t think anybody’s parents would be excited on average. They’d be more excited if their son said “I’m going to be an engineer.” Than if he said, “I’m going to be a stand-up comic.” My parents were against it. They thought it’s unstable,” he says, adding that comedy “had never been done in the Middle East before so the challenges were much greater.”
“You want to be a stand-up comic in America, do-able. If you’re funny, you go to the clubs, you do your thing, you can build it but in the Middle East, where it’s illegal in some countries and I had to overcome that. There was no infrastructure, no comedy clubs. There aren’t even opening comics — there’s nothing, (and) you want to do it in English — it’s absurd.”
Reflecting on his parents, Nemr says, “I understand where they were coming from. But I remember I had a very frank conversation with my dad. I told him, “Dad, I’m going to do this now ‘cause I’m young. I’m family oriented. When I get older, this isn’t going to go away. When I’m 33, 34, married, I have kids, I’m still going to feel the same. Let me try now and fail but at least have tried and if it works out great and if it doesn’t work out, no harm, no foul. In a few years, I’ll jump right back in. It’s not the end of the world. But I need to do what I need to do,” he explains.
“And I left a very promising family business that I had actually started when I was 17. I’ve been working since I was 13, so I had been in many-many things. It was just, this was always my passion. Business and comedy were things that I was always so passionate about. So they eventually accepted it but they didn’t get on board for quite a few years. My mom way before my dad. But my dad was just terrified the whole time that I was making a huge mistake, and you know, his duty as a father was to kinda tell me I’m being stupid. Which I guess I was but hey, being stupid works sometime.”
Nemr attributes the dark circumstances forcing his family’s migration to America as the reason why he turned to comedy.
“I don’t have happy memories from my childhood before stand-up because I don’t remember anything remarkable because it was such a negative time. When you leave a country that’s torn by civil war, my grandparents are still there, I have cousins there — it’s not a happy time to leave. America is a wonderful place but whenever you leave somewhere because of those circumstances, not because you wanted to go, it’s not good,” he shares. “So when we weren’t here, my parents weren’t happy.”
Nemr’s earliest memory of being exposed to comedy was at age 4 or 5 when he walked into his parent’s bedroom and found them “hysterically losing themselves” while watching a comedy special on TV.
“My dad had never seen stand-up comedy before. My mom grew up in London, so she had. I just started laughing with them and I had no idea what the hell they were watching,” Nemr laughs. “I didn’t understand any of it but I became fascinated with this. And the first comic, they used to record these HBO specials, and it was Dana Carvey. He would host and bring up other comics and I would watch them and I memorized this set for Dana Carvey but I never really understood it but I memorized it. I used to repeat it everywhere I’d go and would tell people, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a stand-up comic.” So that’s how I caught the bug.”
But Nemr also credits the comedy movement for making it very difficult for ISIS to occupy Lebanon.
“I don’t know if psychologically you can explain it because there was so much darkness early on (but) I just wanted it to be very happy. Everywhere I’d go, my whole life, I just wanted people to be happy and try and lighten the mood and make people laugh, and it came into use in the Middle East. We made ISIS have a very hard time in Lebanon because of ten years of work uniting the country using laughter and bringing people together and it was dangerous,” he reveals.
“ISIS was trying to get into Lebanon from Syria, we share a border with Syria and with Israel, so there’s no way out. They could have easily come in but it’s really the ideology and everything, comedy strengthen that.”
Speaking of you being fascinated by Dana Carvey and the comedy that your parents watched, do you think it was this same type of fascination that audiences in the Middle East had watching you perform, which led to the birth of the comedy movement there?
“The way you put it out makes perfect sense. At the time, I was surrounded by darkness and I walked into a bedroom where my parents were oblivious for the first time. They were consumed by laughter for that hour. That was their world. And when I started doing it in Lebanon, and then we moved on to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and then every single country in the Middle East, every time I’d go to these places, you would always enter a situation of incredible darkness. People would come into that bedroom, which was my stage at that time, and they’d just be consumed for that hour, and many times they wouldn’t let me leave. And then, when it was all said and done, it was infectious. They wanted more. They had become part of that happiness. They didn’t want the darkness anymore. So I think that fascination, yeah… it was the exact same, just on a bigger scale.”
Head to NEMRCOMEDY.COM for ticket information about his latest tour. More cities and countries to be added!