Fady Kassab: Writing from the back of your head

Fady is walking me through his set from the 2019 RAW Comedy Competition National Final, a set I must have heard at least 6 times. As he does I’m taken aback by the number of details that went over my head: a biblical reference to the Garden of Eden hidden in a one liner; an allusion to his father’s battle with diabetes disguised in a joke about sugar cravings; a hero’s journey story arc jammed into a five minute performance. When illuminated, the brilliance is clear, but you’d struggle to see any of it if you weren’t looking for it. I ask Fady, what is the point of this level of subtext if an audience doesn’t pick up on it?

“It’s for you…you always write for you” 

Every year, close to a thousand comedians across Australia compete in the RAW Comedy Competition. As an amateur-only event, judged by representatives of the country’s foremost talent agencies, success at RAW serves as recognition from the industry of a rare yet essential characteristic of new comedians – potential. To qualify for the National Final, comedians must first progress through three stages within their State – a Heat, Semi Final and Final, outperforming hundreds of their peers in the process. Fady has entered RAW twice, first in 2018 when he was unable to make it past the first Heat, and again in 2019, when he was crowned National champion. The difference in those two years? A fundamental shift in mindset:

Last time I tried to do things that would make people laugh…this year I said I’m going to say what I want to say…George Carlin is the reason I won Raw…he said you need to write from the back of your head, not the front. Not what would people think is funny, but what is it you want to say” 

When you watch Fady perform, you could be forgiven for thinking his approach to comedy is flippant; filled with wordplay, puns and one liners, his material feels light and joyful, but Fady’s silliness should not be mistaken for irreverence. Fiercely funny on the surface, with endless layers of subtext beneath it, Fady’s comedy is a manifestation of an exceptional life story. 

Fady was seven when Israel invaded Lebanon; as a boy he would spend summer afternoons with his brother searching for undetonated bombs in the fields of his village, and using them to make fireworks. The son of a translator, Fady remembers sitting with his father and converting English classics like Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist into Arabic; an experience that was fundamental to developing his own passion for languages; today he speaks six. When Fady moved to Australia in the early 2000s, the world was in the midst of post-9/11 hysteria, and as a Middle Eastern man, he was subject to all of the subtle and not so subtle racism that came with it. A father, a soldier, a business owner, a linguist, a scholar, a comedian…this combination of identities is what makes Fady so fascinating on stage; he possesses life experiences that have culminated in a truly unique perspective of the world, and a love of language that has offered him an undeniably captivating way of expressing it. 

As a result, there is a purposefulness to Fady’s performance. Despite first impressions, nothing he says is frivolous, every joke has a point and every word is working towards it. Fady credits the precision of his writing to a course he took over a decade ago, while working as a journalist for SBS:

“They gave us a bunch of facts…a tornado had come in and destroyed this many houses and 20 people died and $30 million in damage was done, and so on, and they told us to write a radio story about it. So I wrote my piece, included all the key details, then we went around the table and all read what we wrote.
The teacher said ‘Fady had the best, most succinct version, but it’s still wrong.’ 
I said ‘why is it wrong?’
He said ‘Fady, what’s the story?…20 people died today Fady…that’s the story’. 
That one sitting influenced my life from that day on. Whenever I’m writing, I’m asking myself; what is my joke? What am I trying to say?” 

In 2018, another RAW winner was responsible for a divisive moment in the world of comedy. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette was the starting point of an unresolved debate about the purpose of comedy – should comedians sacrifice laughs in the pursuit of making a point? The brilliance of Fady’s stand up is rendering such a sacrifice irrelevant – his approach to comedy allows him to convey his perspective through his jokes, not in spite of them. Whether the majority of an audience can explicitly pick up on the depth of his material is arbitrary, it is there for anyone who cares to look for it. 

Winning RAW brings its accolades and opportunities, but with them, an expectation is placed on the comic’s shoulders – now that their potential has been recognised, what will they do with it? In May this year, Fady will perform his debut solo show ‘Borderline’ at the Sydney Comedy Festival. While all comedians cut their teeth in five and ten minute sets, they make their career on hour long performances. A debut show is the first step to a true career. After watching Fady’s RAW performance, witnessing the level of depth, arc and resolution he can fit into five minutes, I can’t be alone in wondering; what could he do with an hour?

Fady will be performing his Sydney Comedy Festival Show ‘Borderline’ at The Factory Theatre on Saturday & Sunday, 16/17th May. For tickets, visit https://www.sydneycomedyfest.com.au/single-event?show_id=2591

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