DUBAI: Adel Karam has been a fixture on the Lebanese comedy scene since the 1990s. Now he is breaking new ground for Middle Eastern performers with his latest television stand-up special, Live from Beirut, the first Arabic-language comedy special produced by Netflix.
“It gave me a lot of pride that Netflix actually chose me as their step into Arabic content and Arabic comedy,” he said. “It’s a big step for me to be the first one. To be the leader in Netflix’s Arabic content is a big source of pride.”
Yet Karam never intended to become a stand up comedian He first gained fame in 1993 when he was cast on SL Chi, a popular Lebanese sketch-comedy TV show. Since then, he has become a prominent figure in Lebanese film and television. His credits include the comedy show Mafe Metlo, his talk show Hayda Haki, and acclaimed films such as 2007’s Caramel and The Insult, which is nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2018 Academy Awards.
His stand-up career began in 2005. He is still not sure how or why it happened.
“I’ve been in the comedy business for 25 years but it wasn’t my intention to do stand-up comedy. It was a coincidence,” Karam said.
Nevertheless, he is proud of what he has accomplished in the medium, even claiming credit for introducing stand-up to the Middle East with his first big show, in Beirut in 2005.
“Stand-up comedy wasn’t present in the Middle East. I was the first one,” he said.
The claim is not without some merit. While Nemr Abou Nassar started the bilingual stand-up comedy scene in Beirut in 2000, and Fadi Reaidy was performing Arabic-language stand-up before 2005, Karam’s huge reach as an established television star brought stand-up to much wider audiences in the region.
That is not to say the transition to stand-up was easy for him. The most difficult thing, he explained, was the need to be vulnerable on stage and reveal more of himself to the audience than he ever had before.
“I started doing comedy about myself and my own personal experiences,”he said. “I started noticing that what makes me laugh at myself can make other people laugh, as well. Nonetheless, it’s very difficult for me to be vulnerable. Even now. It’s a big challenge for me every single time I do stand-up.”
For his Netflix special, Karam decided that his routine would be unrehearsed and true to his experiences, down to the most uncomfortable details.
“I just write and I go with it,” he said. “I live the story again on stage. Almost all of it is true. Every joke is based on an almost 100-percent-true story.”
The segment he was most nervous about is also the longest part of the show: the story of a real-life trip to the hospital for a colonoscopy, and the fellow patient he befriended.
“It was a little tricky for me,” said Karam. “I didn’t know if the audience will love this. It was very detailed: how they act in the hospital, the differences between ‘first-class’ health insurance and ‘second-class’, and how they treat the patients differently. I’m a good actor, so I have to embody the scene.”
Whether or not he might have over-shared his personal experiences does not concern Karam at all.
“My only concern is to make them laugh, that’s it,” he said. “To laugh about the subject, to laugh about me, to laugh at the situation—I just want them to laugh.”
While he has grown more comfortable about opening up to the audience on stage, that is not the case in real life. Even now, having become a household name in Lebanon, he remains skeptical of his own fame and why people are so interested in him.
“I’m a shy person. I’m a very shy person,” he said. “I still don’t understand why, when people approach me, I still feel shy. Sometimes I forget myself – I forget that I’m famous. I ask my brother, ‘What’s going on?’ He tells me, ‘You’re freaking famous.’ I say, ‘Oh OK sorry.’”
Next up for Karam is the Academy Awards on March 4, when he will find out whether The Insult wins the Oscar. While his stand-up comedy is never meant to push the audience too far out of its comfort zone, the film, which depicts the extreme cultural tensions in present-day Lebanon, does just that.
“I don’t try to make them uncomfortable,” he said of his stand-up fans. “The Insult is a different story.”
Karam is proud that the film is representing Lebanon at the Oscars and views it as a major development in his career.
“It’s a big step, a giant step, to do such a thing, and to be involved in the Oscars,” he said.
What future challenge it might be a step is towards, he is less sure of.
“I don’t know – going to the moon, maybe?”
* Adel Karam: Live from Beirut will be available on Netflix from March 1, 2018.