Nearly an hour before the show started, the space at KED Beirut appeared to be half-full. Normally, Lebanese like to arrive fashionably late, but that didn't seem to be the case when Wissam Kamal was headed for the stage last week. By 9 p.m. the room was fully-seated. A total of 210 people were eagerly awaiting jokes as though life depended on it. Well, in a country that has suffered as much as Lebanon, such shows have become an escape for individuals who are tired of the political, economic, and social woes at every corner.
Just minutes after the 27-year-old made it on stage, the loud munching on nachos and slurping of drinks vanished. A different kind of noise occupied the space. Loud waves of laughter and rhythmic claps filled the room as the person speaking behind the microphone emitted signs of free speech.
"I love the power of laughter, and how it is a peaceful weapon of change. Change of thoughts, opinions, and especially mood," Wissam Kamal told StepFeed in the aftermath of his stand-up comedy show in Beirut last month.
Kamal was born and raised in a tiny apartment in the Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud up until he was 15 years old. His upbringing came to be the opening anecdote of his show Shashma, which is an Arabic word for "toilet." Apparently, Kamal didn't know what the word meant prior to naming his show as such.
"I had finished testing the show and the writing process and was about to launch my first official show. For about one week, I was trying to come up with a cool name that is relatable to what I am talking about."
He couldn't find a name that just stuck. That was until his friend Chaker Abou Abdallah, a comic as well, helped him figure it out. Speaking about his struggle, Kamal gave Abou Abdallah a brief explanation of what the show will be about. It will highlight "shitty things people go through in Lebanon," Kamal told his friend. Seconds later, the light bulb in Abou Abdallah's brain went off.
"After 30 seconds, he looks at me and calmly he says: 'Shashma' and I was like 'What? What is Shashma?' and he was shocked that I didn't know that this word existed."
And the rest is history. Leaving Kamal's show mirrors that feeling when you get off the toilet. You feel 10 kgs lighter — except in Kamal's case it's more of a mental relaxation rather than a physical one.
Kamal's journey into comedy began early on in life.
"It started with cartoons, then moved to film (especially with Chaplin, and then I discovered stand-up and loved how freeing the artform really is," Kamal told StepFeed.
He started writing bits as a teenager, and then made his way onto stage for the first time in December 2009. He was just 17 at the time. "I opened for a comedy sketch troupe at 'Electro Mechanique.' At 18/19 years of age, I was able to formulate my first-hour show called 'Humor Therapy.'"
Kamal now has four specials: Humor Therapy, Injection, Censored, and Shashma as he believes stand-up comedy is the most "freeing" and "liberating" art form. His shows in Beirut, powered by Lebanon's first underground stand-up comedy platform awk.word, have a strict no-filming policy to ensure freedom of expression is never comprised. It also ensures copyright over the materials being shared by the comic. The underground comedy platform which Kamal described as a "genuine blessing for the comedy scene in Lebanon" applies this policy to all its shows.
"Getting your set leaked online can make you lose an audience since people will watch it virtually and won't physically attend the show anymore," Kamal explained.
If no such policy were in place, comedians would probably have to self-censor to avoid trouble or backlash from the community and/or authorities.
People sometimes refer to Lebanon as a "joke of a country," but the comedy scene in Beirut uses those jokes to better the community. The shows embrace free speech in a land overflowing with taboos. What better way to challenge social norms than with humor?
This is not to say Kamal hasn't received hate comments during the course of his career, both online and offline.
"I always receive hate comments, even on my videos. If the comment is constructive, I'll be extremely happy to take it into consideration to make the show better. If the person actually helped with his/her criticism, I automatically invite them to the show," Kamal explained.
It's not easy making someone laugh. Imagine trying to make hundreds of people laugh. Still, ear-to-ear smiles and loud giggles were pretty prevalent during Kamal's September show. But, apparently, it took lots of trial and error to get it right.
"The hardest thing about making people laugh is making people laugh, period. Comedians are the only artists who always needs an audience to test out their material. And 'bombing' (means failing in Comedy) is a huge part of a comic's career because when the joke is created, you have to test and edit, test and edit, test and edit until it works with the audience."
This month, Kamal was meant to take his show abroad, however, for reasons that have not been made clear, his upcoming Qatar show has been canceled. His first international show took place in Dubai back in May. His Qatar performance was scheduled to take place on Oct. 14.
"I am getting a lot of messages from Lebanese abroad, asking me to take my show to their country," he explained.
"My sets are not restricted to one audience. I speak about stuff that are universal and timeless. So far, everything is going well abroad," Kamal said.
On a brighter note, the comedian will be taking the stage in Tripoli, a city in North Lebanon, next month. Kamal's jokes are worth hearing in person. A joke in writing just doesn't do the 27-year-old comedian justice.
"Hey reader, you are reading this part expecting a joke. Even if I wrote the funniest joke, the most you will do is to blow out your nose. So why bother. Come to my show."