With more than a million viewers of his YouTube channel, thousands of Facebook friends, a CD of his 16 “most tolerable” songs, and a T-shirt of his alter ego “guaranteeing you an additional screening at the airport” on sale, Remy Munasifi, an American comedian of Lebanese origin, has undoubtedly and unconventionally made it big. In addition to using YouTube as a platform, the “Middle-Eastern comedian with the Hummus and the Pita bread”, as he puts it in one of his songs, has challenged the stereotype of the angry Arab. Using the “new media” of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, this funny Lebanese expat, through his alter ego of Habib Abdul-Habib, has put out more than 40 videos, including the world’s best – and probably only – tabbouleh dance song. Remy’s work can be viewed on www.goremy.com by those “not allergic to awesome”, as he warns.
NOW talked to Remy to discuss his successes so far, his future plans and, of course, his love of tabbouleh.
What did you study and what made you give up law school and your banking job for this? Did your friends and family support this move initially?
Munasifi: I graduated from Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia, where I studied business. But comedy was something that always interested me; it just never seemed like a realistic career choice. Being introduced to YouTube was when it first occurred to me as a realistic endeavor.
Explaining to Lebanese parents that you're not returning to law school but will instead be starting a YouTube channel is an interesting conversation. I learned a lot from it, though. Did you know a shoe could be a projectile?
Did you imagine this kind of success when you purchased your camera in 2006 and started this?
Munasifi: That's a good question. I think you have to imagine success when you start any project, otherwise failure is inevitable. If you're thinking "this will never happen," you've effectively sealed your fate. I was just hoping I could put out some content that folks would watch and enjoy and so far it seems to be working. Of course that could always change, but so far so good.
So, is this your job? Does it pay at all, or is it just the fame and glory?
Munasifi: This is what I do now, so that is a blessing. I've been fortunate to have such supportive fans and it is a testament to their kindness that I am able to do this full time. I just hope I can continue to post videos that they will enjoy.
Did you approach anyone in the entertainment business when you first started, or did you directly go through YouTube, Facebook, My Space and Twitter? Do you think they would’ve been interested?
Munasifi: YouTube is the reason I gave it a shot. They created an environment in which people could broadcast themselves to the world with just a camera and a computer. It has drastically reduced the barrier of entry. I had always wanted to try comedy but it always seemed unrealistic. When I came across YouTube I was instantly hooked. There are so many talented people on the site who likely would have never had a chance to reach people worldwide without YouTube. As a fan of YouTube, I couldn't be happier about being able to discover them and, as a producer, I'm thankful for the medium and support they've given us. But any success the channel has had comes from the support of friends and fans online, checking out the new videos, sharing them with friends, etc. It is something for which I am incredibly thankful.
Was your CD with “16 of your most tolerable songs”, as you put it, an independent production or do you already have a record deal?
Munasifi: That's definitely independent. I'm not sure how a meeting would go with a record label on that one. Trying to explain to a record executive why he should mass-produce a dance song about tabbouleh sounds like a good way to be escorted out of a building.
Especially with the songs “ARAB—the rap”, “Hey There Khalifah”, “Tabbouleh”, among others, you (through Habib) seem to be ridiculing stereotypes of Arabs. Was the aim of these videos to implicitly challenge them or just pure fun?
Munasifi: It certainly illustrates how ridiculous some existing stereotypes are, so that is certainly part of it. Most of the Arab characters you see in North American entertainment are terrorists and villains so I think people find it refreshing to see that image finally portrayed in a positive and humorous light.
In light of your videos on the Virginia Senate Race, your question to the CNN presidential debates, your taxes song and the Habib series, do you see yourself as a political comedian with an agenda?
Munasifi: I don't see myself as anything political. There are no videos on my channel that say "vote for this person," or "don't vote for this person." I have simply chimed in on the political process a couple times, but it's usually told through the eyes of an apathetic or jaded American voter.
How is the reception of your work in general, and which of your videos is the most popular? Does it vary from region to region?
Munasifi: The response has been overwhelmingly positive from people everywhere, which has been great.
I think the most popular video on my channel currently is one I made about my love for McDonald's. I guess it was something a lot of people could relate to.
You have a massive following from around the world on Facebook. Did you expect that? Are you in contact with your Facebook friends?
Munasifi: Make no mistake, my Facebook friends are awesome. Facebook has been a great way to connect with all sorts of people I otherwise would never had a chance to talk to. I post on there all the time, it is a lot of fun. I'm glad I finally caved and created the page. I wasn't convinced anyone would add me as a friend online, since nobody adds me as a friend in real life, but so far it's working out.
There has been a recent rise in the field of stand-up comedy in the Arab world, ranging from the Axis of Evil comedy tour and Nemr Abou Nassar, to the traditional Lebanese political satire shows. Are you in contact with any other Arab comedians, and do you see yourself as contributing to this trend?
Munasifi: I performed at the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival for the last two years and have met a lot of nice folks as a result. I certainly don't set out each morning and say "okay, today I will create some Arab comedy!" I just try to come up with something I think people will find entertaining. A lot of times, though, it comes out like that anyway.
You have a Lebanese mother who you suspect is behind the many hits on your videos. Have you been to Lebanon? Will you consider coming for a gig?
Munasifi: Performing in Beirut would be a dream come true. I have been to Lebanon on a couple occasions to visit family and I just love it there. Everybody is so nice! When I started my website, I hoped to one day be able to come to Beirut and perform in front of my grandmother so I could show her what I do, since it was hard to explain since she didn't have internet. She died last year, so I'm sad that unfortunately that dream won't be completely realized. But I do hope to come perform there some day. I love the landscape, history, and people of Lebanon. And food, of course. I could eat Kababji three times a day if given the opportunity. Plus, Hallab in Tripoli is probably my favorite restaurant on Earth. Their lahme b'ajeen is so good. But I'm making it to a stage in Beirut someday. That's a promise. I love you Lebanon, I'll see you folks there.
And finally and perhaps most importantly, do you know how to make tabbouleh? Or does it just make you dance?
Munasifi: My recipe for tabbouleh is simple. Step 1: beg Mom to make tabbouleh. Step 2: repeat. I love tabbouleh, but don't know how to make it. And Lebanese people don't have recipes, they just blindly throw in burghul, parsley, etc and it just comes out perfect. It's a skill I wish I had. But then again, if I did, I probably wouldn't be able to do this interview. I'd be at home eating tabbouleh.