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Nemr's narrative weapon: Using comedy to combat ISIS

Thanks, Kanye.

If the stand-up comic Nemr ever needed a reminder why he stepped away from playing in front of thousands in the Middle East, where he has graced the cover of Rolling Stone and is a household name, the rapper provided it this week.

“The whole country has been talking about Kanye West and his tweets,” said Nemr, a 34-year-old Lebanese-American performer who has branded himself with that single name. He spoke with me by phone a few days ago to promote his show Sunday at Helium Comedy Club.

“He’s one of the biggest imbeciles I’ve ever seen in my life,” Nemr said of West, who made news in the last couple weeks by professing his “love” for President Trump and by characterizing slavery as “a choice.”

“His tweets are absolutely ludicrous and completely stupid on so many levels,” Nemr said. “But he has such a large platform, he’s controlling the narrative. The only things that would come up against the narrative like that is somebody with an equal-size or larger platform, or slightly smaller platform, but with a better argument. That’s the bottom line: Narrative is the ultimate weapon.”

In the Middle East, Nemr already has the narrative and the platform. He was born in Lebanon, spent much of his childhood in San Diego, then moved back to his home country, where in 2006 he started performing comedy and helped build the little-existent stand-up scene.

Now, he’s trying to build his platform and narrative in United States. Last October, his comedy special “No Bombing in Beirut” was released on Showtime, and he’s touring comedy clubs around the country with his show “Love Isn’t the Answer.”

Here are excerpts of our conversation, edited for space and clarity:

Q: Why isn’t love the answer?

A: That’s not how you fight hate at all. If you hate something, you have to make it change. You do that because you hate something. Love is complacency. When you’re in love, you want the feeling to remain forever. But when you hate something, you make a difference. The only thing stronger than hate is a better, more disciplined and focused hate.

Nemr's comedy special "No Bombing in Beirut" debuted in October 2017 on Showtime.

Q: In the Middle East you’ve been playing for thousands. Here, you’re working clubs with a couple hundred. How does that change the dynamic for you?

A: The difference has been in those 2,000-, 3000-seaters, I was known. The excitement was there. When I went to the clubs, I was unknown. People were experiencing me for the first time. The fun in it was I was walking in without that initial break, where no matter what I say, people are going to (laugh) and be so excited to see you.

That’s why I came here — because it became too easy. I want to get better. I want to increase my skills as a comic. I want to work on my craft, so what better way to do that than in front of people who’ve never seen me before? They’re not going to give me a break.

Q: I was talking with a big-name comic who is tackling deeply personal, sad material and making it funny. He told me that 10 years ago, even though he was famous and successful, he wouldn’t have been able to do that. But now his skills have evolved to the point where he can. Do you find that to be true for you?

A: This entire show, I couldn’t have done five years ago. It’s really complicated. I’m dealing with how to use humor to overcome terrorism and extremism. I give an example of how an ISIS suicide bomber killed 56 Lebanese people, and how we overcame it. The room dies when I bring that up. Within 20 seconds, people are on the floor. Those topics are not easy to breach.

Or when I’m talking about how difficult it is for America to deal with anger, and I can contrast it with an Arab experience. Or when I’m talking about the real problems we have moving forward, like child abuse, and how we need to have a different approach toward drugs here in America, especially with medicating children and immediately diagnosing them with stuff like ADHD when maybe they’re just a bit over-energetic, and the danger of putting them on stuff like Ritalin instead of them losing self-control. These topics are in the show, but at no point in time does it sound like what I just told you. That’s what you get from the joke, but I’m using my skill set to make it so funny that I can get the point across.

Q: Is your comedy a way of coming to terms with those struggles?

A: It’s not me coming to terms with it. It’s me trying to change it. I’ve always been purpose-driven.

Q: What would that change look like?

A: I saw it in the Middle East: ISIS and other extremists trying to get into the country. They need to latch into the spirit of the people. They need to be able to infiltrate the ideology. It’s a spiritual thing. In order for their ideology to spread, they need to change the narrative. When ISIS is trying to get into the country and we do a show, and 4,000 people show up in a country of 4 million; that’s a huge amount of people. That’s a statement. It actually demoralizes people like ISIS. I’ve seen firsthand how powerful changing the narrative – and controlling it – can be.

All I have to do here in America is become as famous as I was in the Middle East, and then I can start to really shift the narrative.

Comedy preview


Where: Helium Comedy Club, 30 Mississippi St.

When: 7:15 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $20 GA; $35 VIP.

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