A stand-up story: Breaking boundaries and cracking jokes with Nour Hadidi

Nour Hadidi will be at the Shenkman Arts Centre on New Year's Eve.

When Nour Hadidi came to Canada from Jordan a decade ago, she was planning to pursue a career in finance. She was enrolled at McGill University and was on a certain track.

But in the back of her mind she had another passion waiting in the wings.

“In Canada, you can get a work visa for three years after you graduate. So I thought I thought I would get work experience, become a permanent resident and become a citizen. Then the possibilities are endless.

“I started working my way up through a bank. Then, two years in, I started doing stand-up.” Comedy, that is.

It wasn’t quite out of the blue, she said. She had always enjoyed theatre arts in high school and she loved TV programs like Fresh Prince of Belair and Mad About You and Robin Williams.

“I was drawn to comedy but I truly never thought I could do it.”

Then she started attending comedy events in Montreal and she saw some comics who were Arab and Muslim and thought to herself “‘If they can do it, maybe I can do it.’ I could see myself on stage and I thought there might be room for me.”

A key person she was watching is the Toronto-based comic Ali Hassan, who is often heard on CBC Radio.

“He was getting booked everywhere in Montreal and he would host a lot of events,” she said.

She dipped a toe in the water at McGill via the school’s Arab Association. “We did a talent show just for fun.”

And she got laughs. It was an incentive.

But still it wasn’t stand-up where “it’s way scarier when you are starting out.”

In her cubicle at the bank Hadidi was also thinking about comedy and dreaming.

She finally worked up the courage to talk to Ali Hassan after a show and asked him how to start.

“He gave me the name of a club called Jimbo’s ComedyWorks. It had an open mic night and he gave me the phone number.”

Finally, “I decided I was just going to do it.”

That was April 2012 and she hasn’t stopped since.

These days she’s booked regularly, has been named a comic to watch and has a regular writing gig with This Hour Has 22 Minutes. She will be in Ottawa at the Shenkman Arts Centre on New Year’s Eve in an annual comedy revue.

She says starting so young was helpful.

“When you are young, if you are knocked down, you are more likely to get back up. It’s not like you are the only one bombing. Everyone is getting back up there.”

It helped that she started in a supportive scene in Montreal, where people root for each other.

“They were happy when other comics succeeded. I wasn’t left thinking this is a crazy thing that I am doing.”

She started to set goals: “I wanted to be a better writer and I wanted to be able to look people in the eye. I wanted to be able to talk back if somebody heckled me. You see the milestones in your head when you are starting. That keeps you going.”

Her comedy often refers to her father, who is a doctor in Jordan.

“My dad is the funniest person. When we are in conversation, he is so quick, so smart. I think that is where I get it from. He is a practical guy. He grew up in the Middle East and he wanted me to be a doctor. I said no, but my sister became a doctor.”

Her dad wasn’t too fond of her decision, but he has come around.

“Six or seven years into comedy, he is finally OK with it. He’s supportive even. The job with 22 Minutes helped. You should have heard his tone change.”

He called her and she said she had to leave the writers’ room to talk to him.

“And he goes: ‘Oh, you’re writing for TV?’

“I also got to do this taping in Dubai for Comedy Central. He wasn’t able to come and hang out with me because of work, but my sister told me he was going to come to the taping. I would have to drag him to shows in the past.

“Now, I get nervous if he’s in the crowd. I’ll be in front of hundreds of people and I want my dad to see me do well on stage.”

Hadidi is part of a group of young Muslim comics (male and female) emerging on the scene today.

“Just like life, comedy should present all different voices and backgrounds.

“I think comedy is so different than it was 10 to 20 years ago. It is becoming more accessible to people. Second-generation immigrants have a different life than their parents and they are willing to go out and do comedy.

“Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have seen anyone. But I saw Ali Hassan and maybe other people are seeing me. The more of us who are out there, it empowers others to start.”

She also believes Muslim comics are “taking back the narrative” that has settled around their community.

“When I first started comedy I was learning how to write a joke. When you are starting out you are talking about family. Everyone can relate to family.

“Then the more you do it, the more you start to discover things you want to talk about because you have gained that ability.”

These days, in between the cracks about her dad, she’ll joke about Islamophobia.

“Given the current political climate, you read something in the news and you feel a reaction. Everyone I know is a political comic now. How can you not be?”

She is based in Toronto, but she’s often in Halifax with 22 Minutes and in cities with festivals such as Winnipeg, where got her first big break.

“There are fewer comics who are Muslim and female in those cities. I feel when I go up on stage, however, people are open and receptive and they enjoy it and welcome it. I have never seen anyone opposed to it. I have been fortunate.”

She does feel a responsibility to represent her own background.

“I have learned you should never care about what other comics think. You shouldn’t care what you think other people will find funny. You should care about what you think is funny.

“If I’m not talking about these things who will. Now, I feel I can talk about those topics, but it’s my decision to do so.”

The experience in the writers room at 22 Minutes has honed her joke muscles.

The show itself is 26 years old. She’s four years older. But there are a few writers in the room who are younger than the show.

Her first writing job was with The Beaverton. She got an offer to write for 22 Minutes for four weeks last season and was hired on again last September.

It’s hard, intense work. The writers are in the room on three week stints with breaks to go home.

In those breaks, Hadidi books as many stand-up gigs as she can.

But, “it is hard to get back into stand-up when you stop for a period of time.” and she feels depleted creatively after a writing stint.

The New Year’s Eve show includes a 30-minute set for Hadidi in which she’ll mix in new and old material. And once that is done it’s back to Halifax and the road.

“It’s never really stable. It is this freelance life that you have to get used to. You have to hustle and it never stops.”

The New Year’s Eve Comedy Night
Where: Shenkman Arts Centre
When: Dec. 31 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: shenkmanarts.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.