“I started when I was 17. I used to, in school, the way I talked and the way I addressed people was pretty much like a guy standing onstage. It’s always been like that.”
In Lebanon, he has been heralded as their “King of Comedy.” His face has graced the cover of the Middle East’s edition of Rolling Stone. He has been performing for years, having first started emceeing for a band competition when he was 17. He has released numerous specials, including a concert film that was shown in theaters all around the Middle East. This is a man who has that entire section of the world in the palm of his comic hands, as he packs in 5,000 seat arenas of adoring fans.
This is all incredible, especially coming from someone who spent the first 10 years of his life in San Diego.
If you were to ask a comedian who most inspired them and made them want to go into stand-up, you’re often going to hear the same oft-regarded names; Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Eddie Murphy, and so on. But, as far as Nemr is concerned, nobody captures quite what it means to be a good and successful stand up as much as Dana Carvey.
“He was more than an influence, he’s the reason all of this happened,” says Nemr. “I was 5 years old when I first saw him on T.V., and I didn’t really understand any other comics. Dana Carvey was able to nail the romantic side of stand-up. Get a crowd laughing uncontrollably, doing it with ease, control the entire room, and look like he was genuinely enjoying it. I’m sure that he doesn’t even realize that the course of the Middle East has changed because of him. Through me, and his influence on me, he did work that made ISIS’s job difficult in Lebanon.”
Nemr had started doing stand-up comedy in Lebanon at the age of 17, and singlehandedly has been credited for bringing comedy to the Middle East. While there, he had done more than a half a dozen shows, 4 specials, and a concert movie. Certainly, in the Middle East, you have the constant social and political tensions going on, in the midst of war, ISIS, and basically every negative thing you can imagine. What Nemr decided to do was create an escape for that world around him.
“There were a lot of things that happened with me,” says Nemr, who has now been residing in Los Angeles for the past 3 years. “And there was war going on, there was stuff going on. So we built the scene really brick by brick through a lot of difficulties and a lot of challenges. We’d have a war, we’d have ISIS trying to get in. In 2014, we’d have ISIS conduct terrorist attacks and trying to be seen by the entire country. At the height of their push into Lebanon, I’d put on a show and 4,000 people came out in the middle of a country under siege. We came together to laugh. Which was bad for people like ISIS, who can’t even stop a comedy show. It says a lot.”
Given his success that he literally had to build from the ground up in Lebanon, the next logical step would be testing the waters in America. The fact that he had already honed his craft as a stand up comedian in the Middle East only made that transition, which could be both daunting and horrifying to most comics, all the easier.
“Anything that humbles you only does good for stand-up,” states Nemr. “Coming here and having to walk into a room where nobody knows you and winning them over is actually a huge validation of who you are, as an artist. If I can be huge in the Middle East but can’t get people to come see me here, all that says is that I’m a funny Arab. But if I can be huge in the Middle East and huge in America to American audiences, then it says that I’m a funny person.”
Nemr’s newest special, just released on Showtime titled, No Bombing in Beirut. He decided to film the same show in both Los Angeles and Lebanon. This, to Nemr, is more than just a comedy special in which he tells joke. There’s actually a clear message he wants to come across as you watch it.
“I had an objective,” says Nemr of the special, which he personally directed and edited. “The objective was to film these two places, and you could watch it and feel like it was one show and thus we’re really one people. That was what I wanted to put across. From a directorial point of view, what differentiated this special from the others was with the others, we were filming a really great show. With this one, we were filming a really great show but we were filming it to represent what the show was actually trying to say.”
The way in which Nemr has chosen to shoot this special is something that has not really been seen before. We have certainly seen comedians film multiple performances and compile them into one special, thus was the case of Chris Rock’s Kill the Messenger. Additionally, in this current political landscape, countless comedians are using their stature as an opportunity to comment on what is going on before us all. But what new ground Nemr treads upon here is his uncanny ability to make you forget that there’s a statement he’s making while you’re watching the special. He never loses sight of his statement, but you, the audience, gets so caught up in the humor that you can forget that there’s an underlining texture. This allows him to tie it up beautifully at the end, when all of a sudden, everything he has been saying finally clicks in. And the flow with which it is delivered is seamless.
Obviously, the idea behind having a special like this, with such a strong “We are all one” message, coming from someone of Middle Eastern descent resonates strongly in this current climate. However, smartly, the name Donald Trump is only mentioned once, with Nemr instead opting to focus his efforts on the “bigger picture.”
“What’s the point of saying ‘Trump’s an asshole’ or ‘he’s this or that,'” says Nemr. “That’s not the point here. That doesn’t mean anything. If it isn’t Trump, it’s somebody else. Don’t go after the symptom, go after the cause.” He continues, “I don’t name people, I don’t name names. I talk about the philosophies and what’s the underlining currents to all of them.”
This is Nemr’s first special to be shown here in America. If you’re going to make an entrance, you’ve got to make it big. It’s the old saying of “Go big or go home.” Not only does Nemr go big, he also accomplishes something that rises way above himself. It is something that is way bigger than a singular man on a stage with a microphone in his hand. But at the same time, it always comes back to the words he is saying, “I wanted Arabs to see Americans supporting an Arab dude. I wanted the Americans to see the Arabs supporting an American dude. I wanted to show “You guys have no idea how much better we could all do.”
Nemr’s comedy special is currently on Showtime on Demand. You can find out additional dates on his website.