Wassim El-Mounzer is contemplating what material he’ll use when he cuts his first solo album in front of a live audience Saturday night at the 3rd Floor Comedy Club.
It probably won’t matter much. It’s safe to say that whatever fodder El-Mounzer chooses will connect with the audience.
Since embarking on a standup career five years ago here, El-Mounzer has been winning converts with his self-deprecating patter. So much so that he is being touted for greatness well beyond city limits.
“Wassim could be the next big headliner to come out of Montreal,” says David Acer, co-owner of the Comedy Nest, where El-Mounzer first developed a following. “He has an original comedy voice, but it’s also very relatable. It isn’t just multicultural — it’s cross-cultural. It would easily translate in the rest of Canada, and who knows how far beyond that?”
It takes a major headliner to recognize one.
“Wassim is at the forefront of the new wave of comedy heavyweights coming out of this city,” says Sugar Sammy, the biggest national headliner to emerge from Montreal. “I’m privileged to have witnessed his journey in the past few years and am always impressed by the polish and professionalism in his work.”
Sugar Sammy spotted El-Mounzer’s talent early on and signed the newcomer to open for him on his 2019 national tour.
The two wits have much in common: allophones who see the world through the lens of their immigrant backgrounds. But whereas Sugar Sammy, performing in English and French, loves to poke fun at the two solitudes and their political and cultural Brahmins, El-Mounzer is more introspective, yet equally at ease on stage.
“No, I’m faking it completely,” he says during a rehearsal break at the 3rd Floor Comedy Club. “It might seem effortless, but there’s a lot of internal strife for sure. Sammy is just unbelievably charismatic. I don’t feel I have that, but people keep telling me I must have something to make audiences laugh.”
El-Mounzer credits the city for really shaping his humour.
“You always have the comedy advantage by being an outsider,” he says. “Being an anglophone in Montreal is one element in being an outsider. But being an immigrant is doubly removed from the majority and it gives you a different perspective, which creates this interesting mosaic, always being on the periphery. You see things from a different vantage point.”
Says Acer: “Wassim is casually hilarious. It feels like he’s just chatting with you, then suddenly you realize you’re in the middle of a great bit about something that he’s lived, and the laughs come fast and hard. He has that special gift. He’s going places.”
There are those who have taken the path less travelled to reach prominence. But it’s safe to say El-Mounzer has taken a path never travelled.
Can’t recall ever hearing a story like that of El-Mounzer.
Born in Beirut, he moved to Montreal with his family when he was two.
“I like to say that I actually grew up in the heart of Lebanon … right outside the Côte-Vertu métro station,” he cracks.
Much to his family’s delight, El-Mounzer graduated from McGill with a degree in physiology. But much to his family’s chagrin, he decided to give up a career in physiology after spending a summer “dissecting fruit-fly larvae.”
Ever unpredictable, El-Mounzer then bolted to South Korea to teach English as a second language at a Seoul school called — really — U Can English.
And, naturally, a career in comedy was soon born.
To break the tedium of teaching by day, he did open-mic nights at Korean clubs catering to anglos. Upon his return to Montreal, he started popping up at comedy clubs here.
To hear him just once on stage, as I did in 2018, success seemed inevitable. In the Montreal Gazette’s annual series on artists to watch out for, El-Mounzer was the comic selected as the pick to click back then.
He had the audience in his hip pocket then by apologizing for not looking the part of a typical Canadian comedian: “I know I look like I was genetically engineered to ask if you would like extra garlic sauce.”
“I really don’t know why, but I milked garlic heavily in my act at the beginning,” El-Mounzer recalls.
Clearly, garlic hasn’t kept him at bay.
He was a late starter, but El-Mounzer, now 35, has made up for lost time.
In addition to touring with Sugar Sammy, he has since been featured on the BBC Arts Hour and CBC’s Laughter at Lion d’Or, has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival three times and has appeared in the New Faces Canada show at Just for Laughs.
“I was always a little shy and thought you had to be one of those confident, cool people to make it. I was never the life-of-a-party kind of person. I’m not one of those who commands a room,” he says. “I’m still not that kind of person, but I kept a notebook going since I was 18 of comedy bits I had come up with, just in case I ever got the nerve to go on stage.”
Having found the nerve, El-Mounzer has set his sights on another goal: “I have to be around the absolute best in the business if I want to be the best. There are no shortcuts.
“Otherwise, I could be hitting people for spare change outside the Côte-Vertu métro station.”
AT A GLANCE
Wassim El-Mounzer does a live recording for an album Saturday at the 3rd Floor Comedy Club, 2015 Crescent St. The 8 p.m. show is sold out; tickets remain for the 10 p.m. performance. For more information, see 3rdFloorComedyClub.com.
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