When I hung up the phone after my conversation with Nemr, I was changed. I felt a surge of optimism and emotional strength. The world felt smaller in a good way and I could envision the connections between people, even where we’ve been told that there aren’t any.
Then I saw my voicemail light flashing. ARGH! A doctor’s appointment for March that I’d made in January had been canceled and rescheduled for August. My good mood plummeted. But something happened mid-plunge. Waaait a minute, my brain said. Have you forgotten your conversation with Nemr? I had not! The optimism returned. I can handle this hurdle in a way that won’t loom large and impossible. I could channel my anger into a solution. Most importantly, I could choose not to give up. We’re all empowered that way, but sometimes it takes a comedian to remind you.
In this case, the comedian who reminded me is a pioneer and a phenomenon. Nemr Abou Nassar, who is famous enough to go by his first name, was born in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War. When he was two years-old, deadly fighting spread to Jounieh, the coastal city where his family lived. His parents made the difficult decision to leave. They immigrated to San Diego, California. Seven years later, in 1992, they were able to return to Lebanon.
Over the years, Nemr thought about how comedians gave his parents a way to laugh during their tense years away from home. But there was a problem. He wanted to do stand-up, but there was no stand-up infrastructure in Lebanon. There were no open mics, no showcases and no comedy clubs. He decided to change all that.
A decade later, he has created seven stand-up tours. His shows fill five-thousand seat arenas. He has made a name for himself throughout the Middle East and the world. The Daily Beast and the Chicago Tribune both named him one of ten comedians to watch. Rolling Stone featured him on the cover of its Middle East edition.
But Nemr’s fame is more profound than ticket sales, magazine covers and television specials. His philosophy is “we’re at our best when our paths cross.” Continuing his pioneering tradition, he filmed his most recent special No Bombing In Beirut in both Beirut and Hollywood. He then spliced the two together so that they appear to be the same show, which is exactly his point. Could two audiences laughing at the same comedy really be enemies? Should we keep eyeing each other with wariness? Or can laughing together reveal what unites us? Nemr’s unique, funny, and insightful perspective pierces walls, uplifts the spirit, and brings people together.
Nemr kindly spoke with me about the passion that fuels his comedy, his secrets to success, and his new tour “Love Isn’t the Answer” which he brings to Chicago’s Laugh Factory this Friday, April 6.
DISPLACED BY WAR
Teme: What was it like as a little kid to leave home because of war?
Nemr: I was two when we left Lebanon. All I remember from my childhood is being American. I remember very little of those early years except there was a feeling of weight to them.
Back in the ‘80s it was hard to get in touch through a war zone. If you were watching the news and heard about an attack that devastated civilians where your family lives, it could be days before you knew if they were all right.
When I was four or five, I remember seeing my parents watching stand-up and laughing out loud and me saying, “I want to be a stand-up comedian.” That was when I connected to stand-up comedy and it’s my earliest happy memory.
THE POWER OF RESILIENCE
Teme: What was Lebanon like when your family was able to return?
Nemr: At the beginning I hated it. It was a complete culture shock. You’re going from a first-world, greatest nation in the world, America, to a war zone. At that point, Lebanon wasn’t a developing country. It was a surviving country.
Electricity wasn’t available all the time. Water was a challenge. You get home and there are bullet holes in your bed and in your room and sewage in the streets. Lebanon had just came out of a thirty-year civil war. It was no joke.
Nobody in the Lebanese civil war won. There were hundreds of sides, all religions, all countries, proxy governments. It was just killing that resulted in a zero-sum game.
Teme: That must have been so hard on families.
Nemr: It was. Lebanon is smaller than San Diego County. It was the nexus of all this turmoil because it’s in a strategic place. We have a border with Syria, Israel, and the sea. The country is stunningly beautiful. You can go skiing and swimming in the same day. The people are vibrant and have a love for life. The food is delicious. It’s got all four seasons. It’s a Mediterranean country.
So it’s this gorgeous country surrounded by disaster. We have no natural resources. If anybody wants to fight, they fight in Lebanon because it won’t disrupt the oil flow. Until recently, Lebanon was always the battleground of the Middle East.
But the Lebanese people are like steel. You beat it down and it becomes stronger. I consider Lebanese the greatest people in the world. If any other country had one-fiftieth of the problems that Lebanon deals with on the daily, it would break that nation.
Lebanese are tough, very resilient people. When I got there I hated it. Six months later, it was my favorite place on earth. I understood why everyone wanted to go back. You’re part of a collective environment of people who demonstrate the potential of the human spirit.
Lebanon is a very progressive country. Laws were removed that made homosexuality illegal. There are laws to protect animals. You have nineteen religious sects living peacefully with each other. Four million people have absorbed two million Syrian refugees and Lebanon is still safer than anywhere in the U.S. that I know.
Teme: In No Bombing in Beirut you talk about being a little kid waking up from surgery to a bomb falling outside your hospital window. How do memories like that influence your life and comedy today?
Nemr: If that happened here in America, it would be an atrocious story of disaster and heartache. In the Middle East, it’s just a Tuesday.
Everybody in Lebanon is a warrior from the taxi driver to the soldier and everybody in between. That spirit is reflected in my stand-up comedy. I have to have the best show ever. There are no excuses. The defining characteristic of a Lebanese person is you live with purpose. You have to have a purpose because you go through so much that [life] can’t just be for the hell of it.
WHY ISN’T LOVE THE ANSWER?
Nemr: “Love Isn’t the Answer” is my new show. It is a more American-centric show. It deals with why it’s wrong to say “love trumps hate” and why you should embrace hate. The show deals with real life events in the most hilarious fashion.
That’s another thing that Lebanon inspired. During the worst times in Lebanon, people keep telling jokes. This very dark period in America is a breezy Sunday in Lebanon. For me to find humor in America now makes me feel very patriotic as an American. I’m able to offer this based on my experiences and adventures abroad.
Teme: When you say embrace hate, is that to embrace hate in order to overcome it as opposed to ignoring it?
Nemr: That’s the thesis of the show. We have this weird association in America with hate. In America, when people see the word ‘hate,’ they think white supremacist Nazi. They forget that hate is something everybody feels every single day. It’s there and you have to confront it. It’s a motivator.
A lot of people lose weight because they hate their bodies. When two people love each other, they fight to stay together not because they love each other, but because they hate being apart.
Look at the word “hate” in that context. When somebody confronts you with their hate, you shouldn’t ignore it and simply say love will solve it. Love does not trump hate. People in Syria are not dying because of excessive hugging.
Part of my show is based on stories of things that happened to me when I came face to face with extreme hate and how I resolved those situations. They’re hilarious stories, but they’re very dangerous.
The show is about reinforcing how powerful comedy can be. Through this show, I want to convey a new approach. I want people to feel good that they’re feeling anger. It means you’re alive. It means you care. It means you matter, and it means you can do something about it. Tame anger and hate and use them to overcome your challenges.
Teme: I love that approach. It’s very motivating.
Nemr: I don’t do politics in my show, but I do talk about the danger of jumping online and automatically “liking” things, thinking that “love is always the answer” and then moving on. But you haven’t accomplished anything.
Hate is a powerful emotion. Don’t ignore it. It’s not wrong to feel it. What is wrong is not to do anything about it. For example, a young kid who is bullied can embrace hate not by shooting up a school, but by saying, “I hate the fact that I was bullied.” Therefore, you become a better person. You try to get legislation passed through Congress. Maybe you become a politician. You’re motivated to stop school bullying.
If you acknowledge hate, you acknowledge what you hate and you acknowledge that there is an objective, which is to overcome it and change it. If that’s your objective, it’s much different than saying, “My objective is to express my hate.”
In my show I say all that without saying any of that. It’s through the comedy and stories that the message is conveyed. The show will be the funniest one you’ll ever see, but that’s the purpose.
Teme: When you decided to go into comedy, why stand-up instead of, say, improv which had a stronger tradition in the Middle East?
Nemr: There’s no faster way to anybody’s heart than through a joke. If you can make another person laugh, you’ve connected. If you want to make a difference, there is no more noble art form than stand-up comedy.
PIONEERING STAND-UP IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Teme: How did you grow your career when there was no stand-up infrastructure around you?
Nemr: I went to the nightclubs and started doing shows. I started training other comics, then started doing shows in big venues and in venues outside of my country. I did the first stand-up comedy show in every country in the Middle East. I worked with promoters and the industry on everything from artwork to ticket sales to the infrastructure without being paid for it. I actively worked with TV networks to educate people about it.
By 2014, it had grown so big that there were all these talents coming from abroad. I thought it was time for us to start exporting. I said, “Let me be the first.” I’d been the first to do everything else. So I came here to the U.S. I’d already done seven shows in the Middle East. I’d filmed several specials. We had achieved everything there was to do. Thousands of people were coming to the shows. It was time to expand.
I figured I’d come to the U.S. and bridge the gap. When I can do the same joke in the Middle East and the U.S. and it crushes, we’re showing that the world is a lot more similar [than different]. That was the premise behind No Bombing in Beirut which was filmed in both Beirut and Hollywood.
THE UNPRECEDENTED COMIC AGILITY BEHIND NO BOMBING IN BEIRUT
Teme: No Bombing in Beirut is ingenious. When was the moment that you knew you would film it in both Beirut and Hollywood and edit it into one show?
Nemr: I knew from the beginning. It goes back to your original question of how being from both places fuels my comedy. I’m equal parts American and Lebanese. I’m in complete harmony with myself. I was like, okay, guys, there’s a harmony here that you guys haven’t seen. Let me show it to you.
I figured if somebody could watch a show and not know if the footage they’re seeing at that moment is in Beirut or in Hollywood, there’s no bigger statement that we have more in common than we’ve been led to believe.
If you’re laughing all the way through and you’re American, guess what? There are also people on the other side of the world doing the exact same thing. So the next time somebody tells you that Arabs are enemies or Americans are assholes, you’ll know “no, we’re pretty much the same.” Now we’re making progress.
Teme: How did you edit the two shows together? When you watch No Bombing in Beirut it’s so seamless.
Nemr: Thank you. I edited it myself. It was difficult, but not that difficult because when we were filming I had that in mind. I wore the same suit, same shoes. Tried to get the hair the same. We used the same colors on the stage.
The trickiest part was that the energy of the two shows had to be the same. But the end of the day, it’s me. I am American. I am Lebanese. I figured all I have to do is be myself and it’ll transfer straight on.
But the real challenge was not in the editing. The real challenge was in putting the show together, and I think we did really well.
Teme: I watched it twice, both to hear the material and to admire how the two shows on different sides of the world blended together.
Nemr: Thank you. That means a lot to me. My goal five years from now is to do a special in a huge U.S. stadium and broadcast it for free online worldwide because I want people to tune in at the same time. That’s the next frontier.
The next special I’m thinking of doing is in America in front of an audience that doesn’t know me. I want to keep reinforcing that we’ve been lied to a lot. I want my legacy to be, “Nemr showed what potential there is in stand-up comedy, just like Lebanese people show what potential there is in humanity.”
Teme: When you say we’ve been lied to, is the lie that we’re all very different?
Nemr: Yes. The lie is that we don’t have the same objectives. It’s as if people think there’s some weird group of people who don’t want to be happy, who don’t want to provide for their families and don’t want to love and be loved, and maybe even who love traffic! Everybody hates traffic, everybody gets shit from their parents. Ninety-seven percent of everything we do is the same.
We’ve been lied to. The biggest shows in the Middle East have always been the American shows. Whether it was Seinfeld or Frasier or Arrested Development, Home Improvement, House of Cards. Every single show on Netflix is over there. It’s the same.
If I can stand on a stage in Saudi Arabia as a Christian dude speaking in English, and stand on stage in North Carolina or in Utah with the same material, don’t you think you’ve been lied to about what’s going down in Saudi Arabia and what’s going down in the U.S.? And I’m talking about both sides.
I also wanted Arabs to see an Arab kid standing on stage in front of Americans being as warmly received as he was when he was standing as an American kid in the Middle East.
HOW TO BE UNSTOPPABLE
Teme: In your work and travels, what makes you optimistic and what makes you pessimistic?
Nemr: Everything makes me optimistic because of the way I view pessimism and negativity. Wherever there is negativity, I’m excited about what I can do about it.
I see pessimism when people are quick to make excuses and when I see easy blaming of problems on one group, which is something that leads to extremism. I also hear a lot of people in the U.S. say, “Ah man, the government’s always gonna screw you over.” No. There are no excuses. There’s nothing that can stop you. If you want to achieve something, if you want to change the world, you can. The question is, are you willing to dedicate the time? Maybe it’s going to take you, your children, and your children’s children to do something about it. But if you dedicate your purpose to it, you can do it. Don’t give in so easily.
Once again, that’s why I always look to Lebanon as a guiding light because those are people who know the cost of giving in to excuse. We had a civil war with people believing, “We’d be better off without those Christians, or better off without those Muslims, or better off without those Jews.” It turned out nobody was better off. So now everybody learns we’re better off when our paths cross and that’s what it’s all about.
Teme: Lebanon sounds like such a beautiful, strong country. I hope I get to go there one day.
Nemr: I hope you do, too. You’d absolutely love it. The nightlife, the entertainment, people are always partying. The food is unbelievable. It’s just this atmosphere of celebrate life, because you don’t know when it’s going to be taken away from you and that is intoxicating.
Teme: Yes, it sounds like it! What is a typical day like for you?
Nemr: I’m usually up at four in the morning. I hit the gym for a few hours. While I’m working out, I’ll be taking phone calls because I work in multiple time zones, from the Middle East and Europe to Australia and the U.S.
Around 9:00 a.m., I’ll be dealing with the tour. Traveling, promoting, talking to people in different cities and states and countries, getting things going, and then I go and do the show. The common thread is I stay focused. That’s why I go to the gym. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I stay as disciplined as possible. I’m very lucky to have a wonderful fiancée. She’s a rock. I surround myself with stability so I can always deliver one-hundred percent and more at every single show.
Every time I step on that stage, I have the same attitude I had the first time I stepped on that stage in the Middle East. If this show doesn’t go good, everything’s lost. At the time, I was the only guy doing it, and people were coming out and I was stand-up. If they saw a show and it sucked, they’re not coming back. So I used to get on stage every single time with a do-or-die attitude. I do that now still.
Teme: What are your tips for performing at that level?
Nemr: My advice is stop making excuses. It’s like fishing. If you keep throwing in the bait, eventually you’re going to catch a big fish. Just don’t stop. Don’t be deterred and don’t make excuses. The only thing that’s going to change your trajectory is time. It’s either going to happen now or it’s going to happen later.
Hard work, hustle, grit, and sacrifice don’t require talent. Those are things you can do right now. So if you really want something, and you don’t have the talent, it’s fine. You still have all the other stuff; grit, hustle, sacrifice, determination, discipline. Work on those. Those are the things in your control, and then hope that your talent comes through.
Teme: What are you most looking forward to in Chicago?
Nemr: Besides the show, because nothing makes me happier than being on stage, I’m looking forward to being in Chicago because the people have an unbelievable vibe. I can’t wait to be part of that energy again. I’m also looking forward to going to a place I went to the last time, Bubba Gump’s. I had the best time when I was in Chicago.
Teme: What should the audience expect?
Nemr: I guarantee them the funniest show they’ve ever seen, but I also guarantee them the most meaningful show they’ve ever seen. So they can expect an event that they won’t forget.
I also want people to know that I’m not coming to perform for Arabs. I’m not coming to perform for Americans. I’m coming to perform for everybody.
It’s very important to me that people understand this show is geared towards them. It’s not geared towards one political group. It’s geared towards us all. So I really hope everybody comes to hear what I’ve got to say and I hope that when they leave, they feel like they’re more in touch with themselves and everybody around them.
Visit Nemr at nemrcomedy.com.