(MENAFN - Arab News) Lebanese-American stand-up comedian Nemr Abou Nassar is a hero. He created a thriving stand-up comedy scene in his country, Lebanon, at a time when its people needed laughter the most and is now spreading it throughout the Middle East.
The tall and handsome 28-year-old who is also known as "Lebanon's King of Comedy," is, in fact, the first comedian in the Middle East who started in the Middle East and stayed in the Middle East. He cites his comedic influences as Dana Carvey, Bill Cosby, Dane Cook, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock.
Nemr's credits include headlining his own feature specials ("This is Why I'm Hot," "Eye of the Tiger," "Made in USA," and "Epic") and producing and starring in the sold out Beirut Stand Up Comedy Festival. Furthermore, he is famous for his radio show, "The Comedy Revolution," which is the Middle East's first live comedy radio show and the most in demand show in Lebanon. Nemr is also a promoter and producer with his own production company, Vanguard Productions, where he does work for film, TV and radio.
Nemr's road to success wasn't easy, but it definitely is memorable and inspiring. In 1985, when Nemr was just two years old, his family fled to the US during the Lebanese civil war.
"My dad, underneath shelling, applied for a visa to the US and got everything going. We got on a boat and escaped to Cyprus. It's a dramatic story," he told Arab News after his show in Jeddah last month. Eight years later, in 1993, he and his family returned to Lebanon where they have remained since.
Nemr started doing stand-up comedy in 2001 where he would host concerts as an MC/stand-up comedian in his university, the American University of Beirut (AUB), from which he graduated with a major in finance and a minor in philosophy.
Then, right after the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, he decided to perform stand-up comedy on a professional basis with the purpose of uniting people and creating a scene of cultural entertainment where people can escape in order to return with a different approach. He did that through his creed, which is built on: "No Politics, No Religion, One Love."
Passionate about bringing joy and laughter to his war-torn country, he also did shows during periods of terrorist bombings, political assassinations, regional strife and civil unrest.
"I was doing shows in underground venues so people could come," he said. "When I announced my last show before the latest car bombings, we had 500 people pack the place. People were there supporting; it was kind of a defiance thing. So we built this through literally some of the toughest times you'll ever see. Once you do it through that, you become bulletproof."
According to Nemr, the result was definitely worth it. "It's literally made a mark on Lebanon and people now look for comedy without religion and politics," he explained. "That's how you unite people, not by getting a crowd because they hate the same politician you hate, but because I'm funny. Well, at least I think so!"
Nemr credits his success to Mix FM Lebanon, specifically, its owner, Roger Saad. "Mix FM has been one of the biggest reasons why this has been successful because they supported me from day one," he said. "Roger taught me everything I know. It was his idea that I do phone pranks and have a radio show. He would sit there in the studio and teach me. He is my hero."
In this exclusive interview with Arab News, Nemr also spoke to us about his love for stand-up comedy, his goal and his journey so far. Not only is Nemr hilarious, but he is also charming, friendly and humble. Chatting with him was delightful to say the very least.
Did you always know you were going to be a stand-up comedian?
When I was five years old, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up and I would either say a ninja turtle or a stand-up comic. From a young age, I've always been doing stand-up comedy. I would be hanging with my friends and as I'd start talking, they would gather around me as a group and I'd address them as a crowd. It was kind of natural.
What do you love most about stand-up comedy?
When I'm on stage, I'm not putting on an act. I'm really being myself. This is the thing I love about stand-up comedy the most. To me, it's the most romantic, beautiful thing in the world. It's amazing. When you're connecting to the crowd, it is some of the best moments in your life and can't be repeated.
How did you learn it?
You can't learn stand-up comedy; there's no school. You can take acting lessons if you want to be a better actor, but stand-up comedy is about the ability to unlock who you are on stage and the only way you can do that is by doing many shows and really sucking for a long period of time until you find out who you really are.
You can't teach comedy; there's no way to set up a punch line. Every comic has his own style and his own unique approach. It's all about the style and persona. At the same time, there's nothing called writing. You may write ideas down, but you should never write lines down.
How are people in the Middle East reacting to your jokes?
They hit me with shoes and slippers! They're reacting incredibly. I think I'm providing a very good level of comedy, but they are providing an incredible amount of support. I'm not a vulgar comic, I'm family friendly and I don't insult anyone. I just make fun of people and have a good time, and the Arabs respond very well to people.
The important thing, and I tell all comedians this: don't make an act and don't show-off because as soon as you start feeling like that you're an amazing person, there's a vibe that you give off that the crowd gets and they automatically turn off.
What do you hope to achieve through comedy?
I'm trying to give people a good time. Arabs are the most incredible, loving, funny and hospitable people, and we have the best ability out of anyone in the world to be brothers and sisters. I'm just reminding people what it's like to laugh together.
I really believe that comedy will be the saving grace of our region. I want to make politicians and politics uncool, and I want people to see this as a way of expressing themselves and earning respect from people.
Do you think you're being able to reach your true potential in the Middle East? Why?
Of course! The crowds in the Middle East are incredible, and when we bring comics from outside the Middle East, they love it. It's an incredible market. In the Middle East, I have a purpose; there's something I can do here. We keep bringing people together.
I know it will work because people have a hunger for an alternative entertainment that we're providing. In times of war, people needed an escape; we were that escape, so for me, that's what it is.
Who is able to relate more to your comedy? Your North American fans or those in the Middle East?
Until I went to the US, it was those in the Middle East. My first show in the US was not good at all. I didn't know where I was going and I had to work it out. I learned to change my comedy according the country I'm performing in so people can relate to my jokes.
I spent four months in the US and trained there. I performed at the Improv and the Laugh Factory. These are big clubs, and for a comic like myself, it means a lot. It was like boot camp. It was an incredible experience. In LA, I was performing to American crowds as an Arab - the first time it had ever been done. No Arab left here and went there and said I'm an Arab and this is how I see things. People were coming up to me after the show and saying: "You're hilarious! Are you really an Arab?" That's what I consider building bridges.
I could have gone to the US and booked hundreds of shows for Lebanese crowds, just like many Arab-American comics do who fall into a comfort zone or are after the dollar, but I didn't. I worked my way up at the Improv because I wanted to prove to myself: "Am I an Arab comic or am I a funny comic?"
After finding out that US audiences relate to me as well, I can probably say that I'm a universal comic.
Are there any obstacles that you face as a stand-up comedian in the Middle East?
Yeah, stand-up comedy. Nobody knows what it is. Nobody understands it. Our biggest obstacles are promoters and producers. There are no promoters and producers other than Mix FM Lebanon, Smile Productions and Vanguard Productions. These are the only people I can work with, and I've worked with all of them. So our biggest obstacle is that and the industry. There is no industry. However we're working on it and soon it won't be an obstacle anymore. Other than that, the people are amazing.
How have you progressed as a stand-up comedian and do you feel your style has changed?
Oh wow it's changed a lot. In my first show, "This is Why I'm Hot," I was a lot more timid than "Eye of the Tiger." I was not as energetic and I was still finding myself. So my style evolved like that.
How do you see the future of stand-up comedy in the Middle East? And what do you think needs to be done to make it equal to that of the US?
I think many years from now, the Middle East will one day become one of the stand-up comedy capitals in the world because we have a very vibrant culture, and I believe we'll be just as good as the US. I believe US comics will come to the Middle East to try the club circuits that we will have here one day. My ultimate goal is to open up an exchange of talent between here, Europe and the US. It's just a matter of time, persistence, effort and sacrifice.
How do you prepare for a show?
I get in the right mood. Sometimes I'll put headphones and listen to an old show. May times, I put music, walk around and start making jokes. I try to be in the right mood. I have to be in the right mood.I'm an emotional person; if I'm not in the right mood, it takes a lot more energy for me to deliver a show.
What advice would you give to aspiring stand-up comedians?
Don't be afraid to fail. If you understand failure, you'll be able to understand success. No comic is ever going to do well on a continuous basis.
Also, work on your PR, get your name out there and post videos. You have to understand: it's not whether or not you're funny; it's whether or not you can sell seats.
Also, work on your act. When you go up on stage, take people out of their world and put them in yours, for that hour or hour and a half, to see the way you live and the way you see things. Present them with a fantasy world. Then, when you're done, send them back to their world, and when you do, make sure they see everything differently. If you can achieve that, I believe you're on your way to becoming a notable comic. If you can't, you'll be a pretty good and fun comedian. That's where your style comes in.
In my opinion, the goal is to get to a level where you would be more comfortable on stage than off stage.
What's next for you? And any upcoming DVDs?
I intend to release "EPIC" on Blu-ray and DVD sometime soon where we filmed many shows across the Middle East and did six shows in Lebanon. Once released, it will be available in malls around the Middle East, and hopefully, worldwide.
I also have a special that I want to do in April, which is a tour across the Middle East.
Finally, I have my own TV show that will come out on a major network sometime soon. It will be on satellite and will air all across the Middle East and Europe. It's going to be a stand-up comedy/sketch show, like the format of the Chappelle show. I will do stand-up to introduce the topic and then bring in a sketch on that topic.