Lebanese Comic Nemr Aims For Deeper Political Satire Than Simply “Screw The King!”

Nemr laughs to himself
Nemr laughs to himself Photo by Maria Abou Nassar

Even with all the resources and opportunity at our disposal, it takes a lot to make a career in comedy in America. Now: try making it in a land when there are no clubs, no open mikes, no other stand-ups on your side of the globe.

That’s the situation that a Beirut native named Nemr found himself in almost 20 years ago. But despite the odds, funny found a way.

“We immigrated [to the United States] when I was 2 years old from the Middle East, and I was exposed to stand-up comedy here, in San Diego,” the 34-year old reflects. “I fell in love with it at a very young age, I must have been 5 years old. I told everyone in my family that I’m gonna be a stand-up comic one day.” A stand-up, or as he recalls, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. “I stuck with the stand-up… for now,” he laughs.

Then in 1993, his family moved back to Beirut, and at 11 years old, it seemed like his dreams of telling jokes were a hemisphere away. Instead of counting the seconds until he could return to the chuckle huts of San Diego, he charted a different course of action. “I started the stand-up comedy scene in the Middle East, from scratch, in the year 2000,” he states matter-of-factly. “There were no clubs, there were no stand-up theaters. No other comics, no ability to go to an open mike and test out five minutes of material. Every show I ever did was in front of a huge crowd, and every show I ever did had to be like an hour long. It was pretty daunting, but I carried the whole thing on my shoulders."

Starting during his college years, Nemr put his free time into crafting an act that fit what he wanted to see on stage, as opposed to simply what he thought may be successful. “From 2000-2014, we developed the industry. I trained a lot of other comics and developed my own competition and I traveled to every country in the Middle East, did the first stand-up comedy show in each and every country.”

Ambitious beyond his years, Nemr planted his flag on the comedy scene of the Middle East and needed a new challenge – he needed an American homecoming.

click to enlarge
Photo by Maria Abou Nassar
“I pushed the genre, I made the industry happen, so my experience as a stand-up comic is very different from any American comedian would go through, which is why I came here in 2014. I’d done everything there was to do in the Middle East. And I figured let me find out if I’m a funny Arab or a funny comic. If I can come to the U.S. and make people who don’t know who the hell I am laugh - that means I’m just funny.”

With years of performing under his belt, the world traveler is playing the big rooms in not only the Middle East, but Europe and the Americas, including a weekend run here at the Houston Improv. “I don’t want to say something to sound cocky, but the only real challenge is being good enough to earn the respect of so many people. That’s the main challenge - putting together a show, especially in the times we’re in and a world where people are so misled, and [where audiences are] looking for someone to make sense of everything. The challenge has been not thinking: ‘I’m playing these 15 different countries and I gotta be on my toes to ensure that everyone likes me.’ The challenge has been: ‘I’m playing all these different countries, I gotta make sure my show means something to everyone.’ The challenge has been to make sure the show is great and has that global appeal, that everyone gets behind and feels growth. At the end of the day, as a comic, you want your voice to be the biggest on the planet so you gotta be that good.”

Last year, the global appeal of Nemr received a sly test with the comic’s Showtime special No Bombing In Beirut. The performer explains: “My special was filmed in Los Angeles and Beirut – that same exact show toured the world with the exact same content here as it was in the Middle East, except here I had to tone down a few of the jokes, where as in the Middle East I didn’t!”

A fan himself, Nemr mentions Bill Burr’s 2014 Netflix special I’m Sorry You Feel That Way as a large influence. “I thought it was radically brilliant,” he says. “I tell everyone its one of the best comedy specials of the last decade. You look for those specials where somebody is saying something, and really discussing tough topics in a non-friendly setting. It’s in black and white, no flashy colors to mask imperfections. Filmed it in Alabama, I think. Talking about gun control, nothing in that special is prepared for him to succeed. But he went up and killed, the material was on point and powerful. There have been so many great specials, but only a few would I call iconic. I really like Bill Burr – I don’t know if you can tell.”

On the concept of free speech in his native region, Nemr aims to clarify what many Americans likely believe. “Free Speech all depends on what country you’re in!” he exclaims. “In Beirut, it’s very common and in many ways Lebanon is more progressive than the U.S. is, in terms of what you can say and express and how people take things. Jordan is very open. Going to Saudi Arabia, not so much. Syria wasn’t very open, and its no longer much of a country.

"But what I’ve found was as long as you steer clear of politics and religion, and by that I mean: you don’t want to go into Saudi Arabia and make jokes about the king. It’s not a democracy. You can say what you want as long as it’s clever, I can say anything. Honestly, anything. I’m not a vulgar or dirty comic, so its not like I’m trying to get away with stuff. But they love to hear opinions; they love to hear thoughts on anything. Free speech is widely available to everyone in the Middle East… you just gotta be smart about what you say.”

click to enlarge
Photo by Maria Abou Nassar

In fact, Nemr dissects – free speech is more about how you critique verses what you critique. “If you take a look at politics and religion: nobody in America has a problem with the Republican Party as a concept, per se. Nor the Democratic party, or Christianity, or Islam – people don’t have a problem with the book sitting in front of you, everyone has a problem with what people do with it. The easy thing to do in today’s USA would be to go up and say, “Screw Donald Trump,” right? And you can do that, but what you’re doing is – people aren’t going to listen. Only the people that are with you are going to listen, people who are against you are gonna tune off. You’re not really achieving anything – but [what] if you talk about the things that led to a society having a person like this in power?

While No Politics and No Religion has become a bit of a calling card phrase for the performer, its averse sounding nature doesn’t mean Nemr declines the opportunity to deal with the big issues entirely. “It doesn’t mean don’t be controversial, it means be controversially… smart,” he says. “It’s the same topic world wide, but culturally, it forces me to go for a deeper explanation. Instead of going for the easy cut like, ‘Screw the King!” - its more like, ‘Screw all of these things… and you make your decision on the king!’”

Nemr has big aspirations for the future, but he’s already built quite a legacy both for himself and his homeland to be proud of. “Because Lebanon is a democracy that everybody looks to for guidance, it’s a great place to be the capital of stand-up comedy and free speech in that region. And stand-up in the Middle East is great, thriving and growing. My advice is the same to everybody, whether you’re at the open mike or 50 levels beyond: its all about the fight to find your voice and cling onto it. I think so much time is wasted on people saying I should be this kind of comic, where the reality is you should be yourself and hope it resonates. It’s the struggle to fiercely be yourself on that stage. If it doesn’t resonate, its not gonna happen, that’s the bottom line. You can’t act stand-up, it’s the most honest noble art form I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 15, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, March 16, 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 17 and 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 18 at Houston Improv on 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit $25-35.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee