Ola of Arabia

One British comedian's experience of the Dubai circuit

A piece of advice I’ve often heard is that a comic should never book a holiday where there is a comedy club.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, comedians will still sniff out the nearest comedy club to get some of that coveted stage time, or even a paid gig to break even on the holiday. The second is that there are few holiday destinations left in the world that don’t have a comedy club of some sort.

I recently took a holiday to Dubai – and it wasn’t long before I was putting the feelers out for some spots. And a collective called Comedy Dubai, set up by budding comics who’d taken a course and decided to put on their own shows, offered me the chance to headline both of their shows. Although the spots were unpaid I was being recognised in a way that not only excited me, but worried me. I had never been to Asia let alone gigged in the Middle East. Now I’m headlining.

Still I gladly accepted with the same inherent arrogance that demands at least twice a week, a room full of people should listen to me pontificate.

One of the main things we’re always told about Dubai in the Western media is how strict the people are and about their intolerance for our Western frivolities. I wasn’t too surprised that the organisers wanted to know what I’d say, but I was shocked at the request for a script.

In return, they were shocked that I didn’t have a script. It was a beautiful moment in which I realised one of the many differences in our schools of thought. While I had been on a journey to free myself on stage, I met a discipline and level of preparation akin to a military operation. A typed stand up script was a restriction to me, but perfect for the popular radio personality who hosted the show.

So as it came up to my first ever performance in Dubai/Middle East/Asia I watched the acts on before me. I realised that the beauty of this show was the freshness and infancy of its development. This was like nothing I had seen before.

When you go to see a show at the Comedy Store or Comedy Café you see experience, maturity and polish. When I’ve been at an open mic gig in London or New York I’ve seen infancy, but a certain precocious infancy that is already aware of the success it is possible to attain through comedy. You essentially look at someone who wants to be noticed and would often like to be a professional.

What I saw in Dubai was a group of individuals who had genuinely come together for the love of something, and it refreshed me. The show was free. There were no agents, bookers or producers in the audience. The venue was downtown. There was no huge flashing sign outside screaming ‘Free live comedy’. It was just a dark little private cinema room with beanbag chairs, budding comics and punters who just wanted to partake in the magic. No one heckled.

By the time I got up to do my set I felt like it couldn’t go wrong.

It didn’t go wrong.

In fact, it went beautifully. I made local references, I went off the cuff, I was clean and I was freakin’ hilarious – if I may say so myself. The moment was beautiful as my eagerness to be accepted met their eagerness to accept me. It was like the moment you realise your crush is your secret admirer.

High off the euphoria of storming a gig, a few days later I went to the Laughter Factory, an expat gig run in conjunction with the London Comedy Store.

Here the atmosphere was completely different and a lot closer to what I was used to, except with a little more glamour. As I arrived at the top floor of the Grand Millennium Hotel, I saw all the expats in the short dresses and high heels not normally seen on the streets of Dubai.

I saw alcohol being sold freely. I saw comics swearing on stage. I saw Josh Howie expertly deal with a heckler in his trademark intellectually-superior style. In fact I was told that the only real restriction given at this gig was that the acts couldn’t drink beer on stage… but they could stand in front of a huge banner for the show’s sponsor, Fosters.

I saw almost everything I had wanted in terms of success as a comic, but it felt hollow as I made my way back through the night lights of this beautiful city.

On my last night in town, I performed at the American themed Rock Bottom Café. Organised by British expat Ray Addison, this was the in-between gig. This had the lights and seating of a comedy club but was not shut off from the venue’s other patrons who came for just a meal.

The bill was a mix of with local acts, Indian acts and a young expat Brummie black woman. I co-headlined the show with a touring Indian comic named Nitin Mirani. He had brought a small camera crew for a video he was putting together and I was gladly interviewed.

The vibe was still nice and I learnt a few more of Dubai’s rules. I was told it was illegal for acts to mingle with the audience as previously dance shows were fronts for prostitution.

Here I saw great examples of budding comedy talent, but I also saw such ‘hack’ usage of the Indian accent that I would like to believe most acts on the UK circuit have risen above. I saw more daring material, too, but some of the value of being in Dubai began to wear off a little.

I got on stage to a lukewarm reception from a possibly tired audience and gave them the business. I hit and missed but still managed to have a fairly decent performance. As the band came on after the comedy, I had plenty of time to reflect.

In Dubai, I had seen the cute baby of comedy. I had seen the grown adult of comedy. Then finally I had seen the awkward adolescent teenager of comedy.

A few of the local acts, including Addison, are taking a show to Edinburgh next month with the ironic title Big in Dubai. One technically could be big in Dubai, but with such an infant scene, is one really ‘big’?

Re-watching footage of my shows, I feel torn. I feel so lucky to have seen the Dubai comedy scene at its infant stage and to have been recognised in the way I was. Like a proud uncle, I want to see my ‘nephew’ scene grow. But also, like a doting aunt, I want to keep cute pictures of the infant scene before it grows up.

After all that, I think I need a holiday.

  • Ola (Twitter) will be performing at Big Value Comedy at Just The Tonic @ The Caves at 7.30pm throughout the Fringe.

Published: 9 Jul 2012

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