If comedians are the new rock stars, then Nemr might just be Lebanon’s Mick Jagger.
The Lebanese-American stand-up comedian has made waves in the Middle East for his hilarious, biting and thoughtful comedy. He is the only Arab comic to have a special out in the U.S.: “No Bombing in Beirut,” which premiered in 2017 on Showtime. Filmed in both Lebanon and America, the special cuts from location to location to emphasize the fundamental truth that people from all different backgrounds and cultures can laugh at the same things. His new show, “Love Isn’t the Answer,” (an intentionally provocative title) can be seen at Irvine Improv on May 10 and centers on the philosophy that love makes people complacent and hate is what spurs progress and change.
“Love isn’t the answer,” said Nemr in an interview. “The answer is actually hate! Everyone is saying ‘love trumps hate’ but that doesn’t create change. Love can be terrible in the wrong hands and hate can be great in the right hands.”
For Nemr, people must truly hate a situation for them to do something about it and create change for the better. While some may not agree with that philosophy, as long as they’re laughing at his shows, he’s done his job.
His love for comedy emerged at a young age after his family moved from Lebanon to San Diego during the Lebanese Civil War. Listening to old comedy shows made him realize the power of being able to make someone laugh. When Nemr’s family moved back to Lebanon in 1993, he struggled to adjust. Sometimes there was no electricity, no hot water — it certainly wasn’t America. After getting over his initial culture shock, Nemr says he fell in love with Lebanon and its people, which is why it became so important for him to bring a Lebanese perspective to a wider audience.
“I fell fiercely in love with the country,” said Nemr. “We have so much history and culture, going back to the Phoenicians, and we’ve learned so much that needs to be shared with the rest of the world.”
That perspective, Nemr says, is often drowned out by the media’s narrative of terrorism and chaos which he believes is the responsibility of other Arabs to change in the United States. For him, comedy is the key. After graduating from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 2005 as a finance major with a minor in philosophy, and seeing a resurgence in war the following year, Nemr began working to build a foundation for comedians.
Arab culture tends to steer away from the arts and focus on more “stable” jobs like becoming a doctor or an engineer. First, Nemr had to prove that comedy was actually a business that could be a concrete way to make a living. Then he had to show people there was a market for comedy in the Middle East and comics were worth hiring. Finally, and most importantly, there had to be talent. While in America, becoming a comedian and getting on stage to perform stand-up can be facilitated, Nemr was facing the unprecedented challenge of creating a space for comedy in a country and culture that seemed initially hesitant to embrace it.
“It takes a long time and it’s going to take a long time before there is really a thriving comedy scene,” said Nemr. “I just helped build the infrastructure.”
His unique cocktail of business and philosophical approach (thanks to his degree from the AUB) to comedy has given him the title of Lebanon’s “King of Comedy,” but if it sounds like Nemr is a lone wolf, it’s because he is. While admitting that it is fitting a stand-up comedian should find himself alone in the industry, Nemr was still surprised by the response he got from his peers.
“You’re really alone,” said Nemr. “The most support I’ve gotten is from the most American of the American and the people who have been the least supportive are the other Arab American comics in the industry. That’s not at all the case for people who come to the show though.”
While his audiences in the U.S. are still primarily from Arab backgrounds (although he pointedly does his entire set in English only), he hopes that if even one American is in the audience, his comedy will enlighten them to a perspective they wouldn’t be able to get from the news. In the Middle East, Nemr fills thousands of seats, but he hopes to become a household name in America as well. With the non-existent representation of Lebanese voices in the entertainment industry, his comedy is an exciting and encouraging voice to listen to. He’s the comic whose show you want to drag your friends who know nothing about Lebanese culture to, just so they can taste something a bit more than the hummus and tabbouleh we’re famous for. Nemr embodies all the qualities that make Lebanese people great – determination, resilience, intellect, and of course, humor.