Comedy and the Middle East are two things that are normally not (or ever) mentioned in the same sentence. Lebanese-American comedian Nemr Abou Nassar is hoping to change that! He’s been called the “Lebanese King of Comedy” and rightfully so. Nemr is the first comedian to tour all over the Middle East as well as produce several successful comedy specials. He’s also brought his comedy to North America and will be joining the mega-talented line-up at the Ethnic Show for the 2016 Montreal Just For Laughs Festival. Nemr’s main goal is to not only entertain but also bring unity to the comedy stage proving that no matter what’s going on in the world, we still need to have a good laugh! We were fortunate to get the chance to chat with him about everything from comedy, media perceptions, and even food. Don’t worry, nothing too serious! We are here to talk about Just For Laughs after all.
Welcome to Montreal and to the 2016 Just for Laughs Festival! We’re so excited to have you here for this year’s Ethnic Show. The Ethnic Show is a very popular show for JFL. How did this opportunity come your way and was the decision to join this year’s line-up an easy one?
It was definitely an easy decision! I’ve established comedy and have been touring around the Middle East for some time and it’s been a lonely affair! When you’re starting something with nobody around you, you don’t get to hang out with many comics. Apart from the times when I’ve brought comics over to the region, there weren’t too many to hang out with. Everybody knows about the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival and in my opinion it’s the most important comedy festival in the world. It’s been something I’ve always wanted to do. I was very fortunate to have the right people representing me who threw my name out for the Just Laughs Festival. They asked if I’d like to do it and I said of course!
What can we expect from this year’s Ethnic Show?
I think for the first time you’re going to get a point of view and perspective that’s never been had before from a part of the world that’s been in the headlines for generations and has had a global impact in more ways than one. I know there’s a lot of Arab-American comics in the world but none of them have lived in the Middle East and in the thick of it (Beirut). I’m very excited to bring to Montreal the perspective that I feel has been missing from the comedy world.
You have quite an interesting background. You’ve moved back and forth between the US and Lebanon as well as have degrees in Finance and Philosophy. How and when did you decide that you wanted to become a comedian?
I’ve wanted to be a comedian since I was about four years old. When we first left Lebanon in ’85 because of the war and came to San Diego, my parents used to watch stand up comedy and would laugh so hard. I became exposed to it and made very positive associations with something that was very joyful during a very dark time for us. I would watch what they recorded. Dana Carvey made a huge impression on me and I would constantly repeat this comedy. I used to tell everyone that I was either going to become a Ninja Turtle or a stand-up comedian. I haven’t given up on being a Ninja Turtle yet! If it wasn’t for my business background, I don’t think I’d be here today. When I started touring the Middle East, I had started it from scratch and built the industry from the ground up first in Lebanon and then all across the Middle East. I did the first comedy shows in each country and brought in many other comics to the area and to the Beirut Comedy Festival, which I also organized.
You’ve toured and sold out shows all over the Lebanon and the Middle East, which no comic has done before. How was the response and did you face any sort of issues?
I’m a comic who doesn’t do any political or religious jokes and luckily have had zero issues! I’ll talk about the culture that contributes to the politics and religions that hold up our developments as people but I will not make jokes about religion, religious figures, or specific politicians. I’ve had an amazing response. I’m the highest selling artist in the Middle East and it’s been great! I’ve been touring the area for about 10 years now. Beirut will always be the capital of stand up comedy because it’s the most liberal. You can really go anywhere with your material there and discuss anything whereas in other countries, it’s helped push them to be a bit more liberal.
What are some significant differences and similarities between Middle Eastern and North American audiences?
In terms of what they laugh at they’re similar. I thought I was going to have to change my material around but was very happy that I just had to be myself and that everyone’s laughing at the same jokes. When I’m in the Middle East, there’s a sense of purpose. People are brought together who haven’t been brought together for a long time. They know it’s safe where I’m performing and there aren’t any political or religious divisions being exploited and that it’s a show about coming together. When I perform in the US, there isn’t that sense of purpose. However lately, with everything going on at the moment (Presidential campaign, Black Lives Matter, etc), I’ve been doing a few shows that I feel have been having a similar purpose and people are starting to realize the reality of the world we live in like we’ve known in the Middle East for years.
You’ve got great energy onstage and love to interact with your audience. You talk about a wide range of topics from Lebanese customs to popular culture. You also talk about your family. How do they feel about being the inspiration of your jokes and your decision to be a comedian?
At first it was very typical. Parents weren’t too supportive (as I imagine they shouldn’t have been), since what I was doing was considered absurd. But when they saw it was successful and that their son was going to be all right they relaxed bit and were very proud. I’ve been doing well and I make them proud because I stand for something. As for them being the butt of my jokes, my mom doesn’t really get into it but my father sort of smiles and asks me in advance if there’s anything he should know about what I’ll say about him. His friends love my shows a lot because I make fun of him. It’s all in good spirits.
You have a wonderful message about bringing unity onstage. Shows like the Ethnic Show are great examples about different cultures coming together to entertain and have a good time, especially in today’s times with the media painting some unflattering portraits of many different groups. How important is humour during these crazy times?
I come from a country where the only way to get through the most horrible and violent things on this planet is through humour. It’s been a survival mechanism more than a defence mechanism. Even during massacres, people would be making jokes. The reason is because we’ve come to realize what the reality of life is. Our entire society is very introspective. When a bomb goes off in Beirut and people die, most nations would react by staying home; we party harder. It’s a reminder of how fleeting our lives are. The reason we act this way is also because our enemies are incredibly frustrated that nothing brings us down and our spirits cannot be broken. I think that laughter is a very powerful weapon in the face of animosity and brings people together like nothing else. If you put two people in a room who are enemies and they both laugh at the same joke, you’ve done more progress than anything else in the world. All you gotta to do is make them laugh! It’s the most powerful indication that you’ve reached them somehow. The best way to fight the negative media perception of who Arabs are is just to make everybody laugh. I feel that we haven’t exported anything from the Middle East except very bad examples. I’m the first example of an export from that area who’s American as well and directly talking to the West in their language. I believe that there’s going to be a big change by the time I’m done with my career. My intentions are to bring people together and remind them that nothing differentiates us whatsoever.
You’ve become a pioneer for Lebanese and Middle Eastern comedians. Are you hoping for more growth of great comedians to come from this part of the world?
Yeah, I can’t wait! I’ve been doing what nobody in this business would ever do and that’s training competition. I’ve been encouraging, trailblazing, and opening up the path for other comedians to come forward. It’s important that people say, “I hate Nemr” and “I like this guy or girl instead.” We need there to be more competition and more voices in the industry. Right now there are a lot of comedians in the Middle East but none have put out a special, they’ve just put out 15 to 20 minutes. It’s going to take time; the Arabs are a very risk adverse people. But I do think sooner or later somebody will turn around and say that “Hey this Nemr guy, I’m funnier than him.” I can’t wait for that to happen and for them to give me a run for my money.
Who are some of your comedic inspirations and idols?
Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock for sure. Bill Burr is currently my favourite. I just saw his latest special for the 15th time and I find him just amazing. I’ve always loved Lewis Black, Greg Geraldo, Patrice O’Neal… the list goes on! They’re a lot of great people who’ve had an impact on me in one way or another.
You’ve been to Montreal before! You were here back in 2011 for your successful EPIC tour. How do you like coming to our fair city?
I absolutely loved it! I had a great tour guide who was a local DJ and has become a very good friend of mine. He’s also Lebanese and took me around and I had a blast. We went to so many places. I’ve been trying to come back for a while but the schedules just never worked out. We always wanted to time it properly seasonally; last time I came here it was freezing! I remember going to the clubs and people were like “why don’t you come back in the summertime?” So that worked out and I’m glad to be back.
Montreal’s known for some of the best dining experiences in North America. Have you had a chance to try some of our great food?
Yes, I have! When I was here in 2011 I couldn’t walk down the streets without people telling me all the places I had to try out. I’ve tried some Lebanese restaurants and I’ve also tried Schwartz’s; I went about 6 times! The food is amazing. Montreal is a very diverse place and when you have diversity that’s always where it’s the best place to live because you have so much of the world in one place. Being in Montreal felt like home and a place where I would belong.
A huge thank you to Nemr for taking the time to chat with us! Be sure to check out the Ethnic Showgoing down from July 13th to 28th at the 2016 Just For Laughs Festival. Click here to get your tickets and check out the entire Festival’s star-studded line-up