Raleigh, N.C. — Pioneers of any sort — people who create something where nothing was before — must find it difficult to remain humble once they start getting attention for the wonderful thing they made. Or maybe not worrying about who gets the credit is the reason, at least in part, why they’re a trailblazer in the first place.
Somehow, superlatives still stop short of describing Nemr, a stand-up comedian who brought comedy to the Middle East and is now sharing his gift with audiences on an extensive North American tour that stops at Goodnights Comedy Club in Raleigh for one show Tuesday night.
• Special Event: Nemr
During a phone interview last Tuesday, Nemr, a native of Lebanon who grew up in San Diego before moving back to the Middle East with his family, described a story in which he’s clearly the hero without sounding braggadocious.
That is no small feat. If any of us had done what Nemr did and is doing, I imagine we’d engage in more than a little self-aggrandizement.
And we wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in doing so because it’s an incredible tale.
In addition to providing the sometimes harrowing play-by-play of his past, Nemr also discussed being on the cover of Middle East Rolling Stone, his Showtime special No Bombing in Beirut, the thrill of winging it when he visits American cities for the first time and more. Enjoy the interview, follow Nemr on Twitter and don’t forget The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes at the end.
Tony Castleberry: In the biography section of your website, you’re credited with establishing a comedy scene where there wasn’t one before. Was that part of your plan or did it just happen?
Nemr: That’s a good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that. I envisioned it because I knew without that happening, I would never be able to have the career I wanted. And two, I recognized the power of stand-up comedy as a medium to effect meaningful change throughout not only the Middle East but as a bridge builder between two worlds that we’re so disconnected — the west and the Middle East.
At the same time, I know in my own experience we’re one in the same. I think that’s going to be the legacy of my career. At least that’s what I envision is that people will come to the realization one day that this guy’s work came to clarify and redefine what we all think of each other.
TC: Stand-up can be just about silliness and the laughs and that’s great, but it definitely had a deeper meaning for you. Was it difficult early on?
N: Big time. Think of it like when Lenny Bruce got started. There are the same barriers to entry that you would expect in that, but on top of that there are no spoken word clubs per se. When Lenny Bruce was formalizing stand-up comedy as an art form, before that there were Vaudeville performers. There was something there. In the Middle East, it was either, you’re a band, musician or you’re a play that’s comedic. There wasn’t a stand-up comic per se.
There were those barriers. You have to establish the industry. Where tickets get sold, what kind of venues, where they’re set up, do you have intermissions in the middle or not? And on top of it, there are no other comics, no other acts that you can combine with. Every show I had to do had to be:
A. Outstanding and excellent, cause I was carrying the whole scene on my shoulders. Everybody’s first interaction with it was that.
B. Full of material that was on point and brand new every time. I was coming up with a new hour for every show almost, having to push myself in ways that I can’t even describe. Very difficult. There was nobody else to rely on. There was no fraternization where you could be with other comics and bounce material off them. You’re just on your own.
On top of that, there is the regional instability. You’re navigating through war zones. You’re doing comedy and that’s where the real value of stand-up was very quickly apparent and that I was correct in my reasoning that it can make meaningful change because I was putting people in a room together that would never usually sit together. They were having a laugh together and that began to affect a huge change not just in Beirut but across the entire region.
We were doing shows in Saudi Arabia where you had religious police, which are now no more, and crowds couldn’t mix. You couldn’t have men and women sitting together. They had to be split up. I used to go into Saudi Arabia and do shows that were illegal. We’d have to lie to the religious police to get into the show. We’ve been in very dangerous experiences, but I refused to let stand-up comedy be a thing of the past. It had to be the future. We had to push the envelope not just with the material, but with everything we were doing.
Now in Saudi Arabia, and I’m not saying stand-up made this change, but stand-up comedy was one of the art forms that was bringing out thousands of Saudi Arabians who were starting to realize that having people sit together is not the end of the world. Now, with the new king and stuff like that, all the religious police have been done with and crowds are mixing. They’re allowing public events.
Just under a year ago, I did the first legal stand-up comedy show in Saudi Arabia with a mixed crowd. I can’t explain to you how proud I was. This is work I started doing in 1999, 2000. To come back and see huge progress like that, it’s a testament to how powerful it can be, when people come together and when stand-up comedy rises to its maximum potential.
You said it. It could just be about the jokes and that’s totally fine, but as a foundation builder, take a look at every stand-up comic that’s ever started a scene or started something meaningful, it’s always been about meaning. I go back to Lenny Bruce a lot because he was one of the first here in America.
Whether it was him or Danny Thomas, who was Lebanese as well, these were all people who put meaning behind their art form. When comedy is just about the jokes, that means it’s coming after the maximum potential. That’s where you get to, “Let’s just have a show where we’re joking around. Let’s have a show where it’s just for these people. Let’s have alternative comedy.” You can’t have any of that without the establishment of comedy as an art form and that’s what I had to take care of.
TC: Did it feel overwhelming? Did you ever think, “I’m not sure I’m up for this,” or did you just want to push through and get it done no matter what?
N: For me, the more daunting it was meant the more exciting it would be when we were victorious. Every time I’d come up against these impossible situations, all I would see is what’s going to be different once we pass this line. It’s something that was going to happen not in a week or two, but was going to take a decade at least to get to where I wanted to be. It took about 14 years actually. That allowed me to adjust my expectations and to know that, OK, we’re in this for the long haul. If we don’t win it today, we’ll win it tomorrow.
It was this certainty and understanding that this American art form is undeniable and undefeatable. I knew that stand-up comedy could not be stopped. I just needed to get it going and I figured if I do it right, then we’ll overcome all odds. Okay, I have to have a brand new show every time. So be it. That means I’ve got to be a better comic. I’m going to have to do this without other comedians to support me.
I can’t walk in and test five minutes of material. I have to find ways where I can tuck that five minutes into an old joke in front of a new crowd so I can test it out there and if it works, I can test it out another time. But I can’t test it out that many times because if I want to do a show and put it in, people shouldn’t have heard it, so I need to maximize how much result I can get from every time I try it.
Instead of having the luxury of saying, “I’m going to do this bit 40, 50 times. It’s OK if I’m off a few nights,” it became a thing where I have to be in a place in my life spiritually and mentally where I’m always on, where I’m always at the top of my game. It didn’t bring me down. It actually made me a much better comic. That’s why my rise here in America has been so swift, and I’m still far from getting where I want to go, but we’re making huge strides. I’ve got a Showtime special and I’ve only been here for like two and a half years. Scoring something like that and having a whole tour, selling out all over the US and still a lot of people haven’t heard of me. Getting all of that done so quickly was because of the boot camp, if you will, that I went through and the singular experience in the Middle East.
TC: Was being on the cover of Middle East Rolling Stone as cool as it looked? That photo was sweet.
N: [laughs] Thank you. My sister took that. She’s a photographer here in Los Angeles. She’s a fashion photographer so she made me look a lot better than I really do.
TC: That was really cool though. Not a lot of people get a chance to say they were on the cover of a Rolling Stone magazine. It looked awesome.
N: It was the coolest. I was the first Arab to ever be on the cover of a Rolling Stone magazine in the Middle East. Up until that point, they were just mirroring Rolling Stone international or the American version.
They got in touch with me and they were like, “We want to put you on the cover.” It was a huge thing. When I revealed the cover on my social networks, a lot of people were like, “Hey man, keep pushing. One day it’ll happen.” People thought it was a Photoshop. [interviewer laughs] I had to post it with the magazine like, “Guys, this is legit” and people we’re like, “Holy s***!” I started getting people saying like, “Ah, it’s the Illuminati” and I’m like, “You don’t think I deserve this?’ [Nemr, interviewer laugh] It was very humbling and at the same time, what an honor. I know I’m going to do great things in my life but I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment.
TC: Is this your first trip to Raleigh and Goodnights?
N: Yes. It will be.
TC: Have you heard anything about the city or the club?
N: Nothing. When I was in Charlotte last year doing one show — now we’re going back for six — you do one show and you just kind of prove yourself like, A. I can draw a crowd; B. My material’s really great and your local crowd will really enjoy it; C. I want to learn more about the place I’m going so I can come back and do a huge show and give more value to the people coming.
When I was in Charlotte, everybody kept telling me, “You’ve got to go to Raleigh. There’s a lot of people out there that would love your comedy. You’ve got to go check it out. It’s a great place.” All I’ve heard is amazing things. I jump on the phone with my agent and was like, “Can we book in Raleigh?” That was basically it. He was like, “Of course.” He got me the date. Every comic I’ve met has told me that club is outstanding. Everybody says, “You’re going to love playing that room and playing that city.” I’m super excited. I don’t know much because I’m going in blind, but that’s how I like it. You get the maximum experience.
Here it is, The Best Tweet I Can Find in Five Minutes: