The Epic Dreams of Nemr Abou Nassar

The power of failure, the brutality of being in the spotlight, and his drive to become 'the greatest': The Middle East's most successful stand-up comic talks to Rolling Stone

Nemr Abou Nassar
Maria Abou Nassar
By Adam Grundey
May 07, 2014

LET'S SAY YOU'RE NEMR ABOU NASSAR. You’ve just finished playing the latest in a long run of stand-up comedy shows that attract thousands of people each time and – along with a hugely popular afternoon show on independent radio station Mix FM, six stand-up specials, a movie of one of those specials (Epic), numerous hosting gigs for major events, and a successful YouTube channel, as well as appearances on serious talk shows – have established you as the biggest name in stand-up in the Middle East. You’ve spent two hours soaking up the laughter, relishing the adrenaline rush of performance, the thrill of not knowing whether the next thing to come out of your mouth will bomb (or just of not knowing what the next thing to come out of your mouth will be), and now you’re heading offstage. What will you be doing for the next few hours? Hitting one of Beirut’s hottest clubs, getting wasted and relishing the compliments? Picking up groupies? Snorting coke off a hooker? All of the above?


If you’re the real Nemr Abou Nassar, you’ll be sitting alone in silence on your couch playing video games. You’ll be wearing just your boxer shorts, eating tuna out of a can, and being ignored by your cat. And you’ll be loving every second of it.

“That’s the romantic part,” Abou Nassar says of his post-show comedown. “That you could be out there onstage, and then – within an hour or so – be here,” he gestures around his apartment (or “man-lair,” as he refers to it, replete as it is with comic books, guitars, amplifiers, a vocal-recording booth, a drum kit, PlayStation games, a great deal of hi-tech video recording and editing equipment, and a ton of other things that most financially successful 30-year-old men would like to spend their money on). “For any show now, I get thousands [in the crowd]. That’s a huge ego thing for anyone: You get up onstage and there are people there who’ve paid you to talk. No one else gets that. Politicians and religious people do it for free, and they’re begging people to listen to them. As Bill Hicks said, stand-up comedians are the only people that people pay money and say, ‘Make me listen.’ And that’s a big responsibility. And people might think that that power is the highlight. But for me, it’s right afterwards. It’s an adventure. I wish people could feel it. That drop is f***ing shocking. I guess that’s why a lot of musicians and comics do drugs. But for me, that drop is so unique, so difficult for anyone to ever experience, that there’s something very romantic about it. It’s indescribable unless you feel it: Screams, and then the silence. There’s something beautiful in that moment.”

And as Abou Nassar prepares to relaunch his YouTube channel with shorter, snappier material and higher production values (its original incarnation attracted over 33,000 subscribers; his new target’s one million), having signed a deal with the L.A.-based content provider and creator, Fullscreen Network, and readies himself for a return to the U.S. comedy circuit, that drop could well become even more of an adventure in the near future.

ABOU NASSAR IS NOT SHY about his ambitions (nor his accomplishments, which could make him appear arrogant, but it’s worth knowing that he’s equally upfront about his failures, and peppers his conversation with a healthy level of self-deprecation too). Over the course of a few hours – in which the topic veers from comedy to his other great passion, music, to video games to relationships (he’s currently single) to cats to fishing to movies to film editing to comic books and back to comedy – he reiterates one goal several times: “I want to be the greatest.” By which he means the most-accomplished, most-acclaimed stand-up comedian in the world. Ever. Better than Richard Pryor, better than Louis C.K., better than Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Hicks, Eddie Murphy, George Carlin, Robin Williams... You get the idea; he’s aiming high. “That’s my goal,” he says. “I believe I am, until now, the best there’s ever been in the Middle East.” He pauses. “I say that because there’s no one but me doing it here.”

An important distinction here: Abou Nassar is not referring to someone simply performing comedy on stage, which is what many in the region categorize as stand-up comedy. He’s talking about the American school of stand-up, where comics take the stage as themselves. They’re not playing characters, they’re not doing sketches, or slapstick; they’re talking about real life.

“The other [well-known] comics here, they’re not stand-ups,” Abou Nassar says. “And that’s not an insult, because that’s not what they’re trying to be. Their stuff is more character-based, very close to French comedy; they’re doing sketches, playing roles. They might have monologues, but there’s a huge difference between stand-up comedy and monologues. No hating on them, there are some very talented comedians doing that. They do stuff I can’t do: they’ll sing, dance, do improv characters… f***, if I could do that, maybe I wouldn’t be a stand-up. I don’t know. But stand-up isn’t about getting up on stage and being a clown. You lay yourself bare. There’s a raw brutality to it. You strip yourself down to the core. I’m not imitating someone to get a laugh out of you; I’m being myself. That’s where I would differentiate myself from these other comics.”

Abou Nassar’s brand of comedy, he stresses, succeeds and fails based purely on his content. There’re no costumes, make-up or impressions (although, as a keen – and accomplished – musician, he’ll often throw some songs into his shows). “That’s why it’s beautiful,” he says of being onstage. “There’s a light, there’s a microphone and there you go. That’s it. There are no dancers, no choreography, no flashiness to cover you. It’s not a Justin Bieber show. There’s no bullshit to cover up the fact that there’s no content. It’s content or get out.” If all this makes it sound like Abou Nassar’s comedy is made up only of soul-searching, earnest, cerebral social commentary, don’t be fooled. He’s smart, yes, and he’s fond of social commentary. But he’s often extremely silly, too (as shown in any number of the videos he’s created for his YouTube channel). He just happens to take being silly very seriously.

“My definition of stand-up comedy,” he says, “is the ability to create a world that’s yours. And when people come and watch you, they leave their world and enter your world. And when you finish your show and they leave your world, your success as a stand-up depends on if they see their world differently or not. If they do, then you’ve succeeded. But if they come in, spend 90 minutes with you, walk out and don’t even think about you again, even if you were funny, then you’re not a stand-up comic. You might be a practicing stand-up comic, but you’re not a stand-up comic. Just like, if you’ve got a white belt, you might be practicing karate. OK great. You practice karate. But are you a f***ing sensei? That’s the question.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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