Nemr is a comedian with a purpose. The 35-year old Lebanese-American stand-up is finishing up the tour of his latest show, Love Isn’t the Answer, which has brought him to Raleigh, San Francisco, Tampa, Dubai, New York, Beirut and more. Peppering in material about Trump and America’s amnesia regarding past outrages, he jokes about Lebanese food’s adoption by vegans and how he learned of Lebanon’s civil war later in his childhood. Nemr’s comedy crosses borders and spans decades.
We interviewed Nemr about his newest material since his Showtime special No Bombing in Beirut, plans for the future, and some of the thought-provoking ideas in his set. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Libby Coleman: How’s your comedy evolved since you wrote No Bombing in Beirut?
Nemr Abou Nassar: After I wrote No Bombing in Beirut, my life changed. I started to be able to perform more places. Before, I would go to some cities and I could sell out and perform. But after, I could go to Jacksonville, Florida or Nashville, Tennessee, doing multiple shows. It was the first time in my life I’ve been able to work out the material in front of crowds who have no idea what to expect, who maybe saw a clip online that was funny and that’s it. I was able to write the show I’d always wanted to write where if you were watching stand-up comedy for the first time or you were a seasoned veteran, you’d find it hilarious. No Bombing in Beirut was like if you were American or Arab, you’re going to love it. With this, I wanted to perform anywhere in the world and get a reaction.
LC: You went from Utah to UAE to Canada in a stretch of shows. How does your set change for different audiences?
NAN: Look if it’s funny, it’s funny. You’d be surprised. With this show, I barely change the material from country to country. The presentation is all that changes. [In one bit], here in America, I’ll say ‘You’re out here fighting Sharia law and we don’t even have it in the Middle East.’ That line changes, or at least, the angle at which it’s presented changes in the Middle East. Then, it’s ‘The world is messed up, feel better about yourselves. We’re having more fun here even though we have a lot more against us.’
LC: How would you outline the goals of your comedy?
NAN: I’m very old school with my approach to stand up. When I moved to Lebanon from San Diego at ten years old, my mom had some Woody Allen tapes or Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor to listen to. These are all comics that when they said something, they would change the narrative. It’s my way of saying that even though you’re in a comedy show, I want to be taken seriously. Comedy’s been more commercialized. The goal is sometimes to have something go viral. I’m trying to have a comedy show that stands for something. Five years ago, I moved from the Middle East where I’m making more money and paying no taxes. [I moved] to make a difference. I’ve lost friends in the Middle East to wars that didn’t need to happen. In America, I see us going to a place of no return, and I know that narrative can fix all of that. What I said about fighting ISIS with jokes, it’s to make people laugh, but it’s also to remind people we can do better. It’s to get everyone to listen and to laugh. If you laugh, I’ve won. The laughter … you can’t fake it. You agree with me spiritually when you laugh. I want people to leave and question everything they thought they knew.
LC: You have interesting ideas in your show. You say celebrate our commonalities, not our differences, for instance. What do you mean by that?
NAN: There’s that saying ‘Celebrate our differences’ that’s going around. Just like ‘love trumps hate.’ Just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s absurd. You’re admitting there are different human beings. But that’s not right. And what we do differently is often the bad things. If in another country they believe you shouldn’t use protection because it’s a sin and then a massive outbreak occurs, you shouldn’t celebrate that they do that. You should help make them stronger. We’re only as strong as our weakest link. But take an example like a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. People come up to me after shows and say: What you’re saying is in America covering up should be removed. I say no I didn’t say that at all. What Americans try to do is live their lives happily and be themselves. And if a Muslim woman covering up feels the same way, then she should cover up. If you were to sit down and try to learn more about them, then you might learn more about your quest to be more at peace with yourself.
LC: Why do you end the show on your fiancée?
NAN: I included her because she is Muslim and I am Christian. In Lebanon, really nobody cared. To come to America and see it be such an issue, as an American, that breaks my heart. To think Beirut would be a more progressive country than America that means something’s very wrong. Beirut became progressive in part because of western and American cinema and ideas. So at the end of the show you think I’m a swell guy. That’s when I’ll let you know I’m marrying a woman of a different faith because then you’ll think: if he can do it, it’s not a big deal. Love isn’t the answer; a harsh reality is the answer. I have a hatred for that kind of stuff. I end the show on that note because I’m putting my hatred on full display. When I say I’m marrying a Muslim woman, it makes me furious I’d have to defend that. People don’t ask me ‘Tell me about the woman,’ or what made me want to marry her, which would be an hour long answer. Instead everyone says you’re marrying a Muslim, well when did you find out? Everyone fixates on that. If you are a human being who believes in evolution, then you know that when people of different backgrounds come together, you’ll become stronger. The first question I’d ask is ‘How did that make your life better?’ but our priorities are so out of whack.
LC: You make comedy out of intense moments, like having a gun pulled on you. How do you transform that into comedy and why?
NAN: The point of the story is that he had a gun. It can end a life, but a joke was able to halt that bullet from leaving that gun. You can shift someone’s entire intention by being funny or witty. The only weapon we have is spirit, and the biggest indication of spirit is jokes. There is nothing worse than being defeated and losing your spirit. If your enemy throws everything at you and you respond with laughter, they have nothing. It’s not a defense mechanism, it’s an offense mechanism.
LC: You started off asking about which races or ethnicities were there in the audience. Why do you choose to do that?
NAN: I want to make sure that people know if everyone’s laughing that it’s not because we’ve got a niche carved out, like all Arabs or all black people or all white people. When I filmed No Bombing in Beirut, I filmed in Lebanon and Los Angeles. But people felt like it was all one energy, one show. I want everyone to know they’re sitting with a diverse audience. It’s a uniting thing. We’re all laughing together.
LC: What’s next for you?
NAN: I want to put out this show [Love Isn’t the Answer]. I want to put this special out as soon as possible. I want to become famous not so I have fans, but to speak so people listen. To do that, I need a body of work people trust. What’s always going to be next for me is to put my best work out. I am working on a docu-series that’s a bit more serious; we’re far in the process of pitching this thing to networks. I can’t say much, but it’s an international perspective brought to America again. And I’ve got to tour more, grind more, get more people to see my show and write another one.