The Birth of a Scene

Here’s an article I wrote about my trip to Dubai before I ever had this site.  People seem to enjoy it so I’m posting it again, here.

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A piece of advice I’ve often heard passed around is that as a comic you should never book a holiday destination that has 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 paid work in an attempt 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.

Not performing.

I recently booked a holiday to Dubai as I had always wanted to go and a friend stationed there gave me a great opportunity for free accommodation.  It wasn’t long before I was putting the feelers out for some spots.  I came across something aptly named “Comedy Dubai” and met a warm response with a request for some video evidence of my alleged funny-ness.

The eventual response was not only a “yes we have 2 shows on while you’re here”, but also “we’d love to have you headline both shows”.   Though 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.  I gladly accepted with the same inherent arrogance that demands at least twice a week, a room full of people should listen to me whilst I pontificate.

The day I landed I met two of the wonderful women behind this small power circle.  They explained to me that Comedy Dubai was a group of budding comics who took a course and decided to unite and put on their own shows.  Feyaza and Sheida took me to see the first venue, a “space” known as The Pavillion.  Whilst they deliberated on whether to use the larger more vacuous room or the more intimate mini cinema I lent my expertise on sound quality, lighting and atmosphere.  I was excited when we decided on the intimate room and the only thing left was to make sure I’d be funny.

with Feyaza and Sheida

One of the main things we’re always told about Dubai in 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.  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.  Whilst I had been on a journey to free myself on stage, I met face to face with stage discipline and a level of preparation akin to a military operation.  A typed stand up script was 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 realized that the beauty of this show was the freshness and infancy of its development.  It 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 potential gains and scope for success in the field. 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 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 saying “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.  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, I felt it necessary to keep the purist exploration of stand-up in Dubai going and so I went to the Laughter Factory a few days later.  For those who don’t know, it’s an expat gig in conjunction with the Comedy Store in London.

As I arrived, 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 ex-patriots in the short dresses and high heels not normally seen on the streets of Dubai.  I saw food tokens, popcorn and 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 expat gig was that the acts couldn’t drink beer on stage, but 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 felt hollow as I taxi-wrangled my way through the night lights of this beautiful city, back to my friend’s apartment.

the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world) at sunset

My last night in town saw me performing at the Rock Bottom Café, an American themed bar and side venue of the Regent Palace Hotel.  Ray Addison, a British ex-patriot who was a part of the same Comedy Dubai cartel at the time, organized the show.  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 little more mixed with local acts, Indian acts and even a young ex-pat Brummie black woman.  I co-headlined the show with a successful 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 the rules in place regarding shows.  I was told it was actually illegal for acts to mingle with the audience as in past years; dance shows were put on as fronts to advertise prostitution services.  I was still fascinated by the differences in performing there, but maybe the fact that I was ready to go home or I had the time to calm down, I was a little more balanced in my views.  I saw great examples of budding comedy talent, but I also saw “hack” usage of the Indian accent that I would like to believe most acts on the UK circuit have risen beyond.  I saw more daring material being performed and some of the value of being in Dubai began to wear off a little.  Incidentally, I felt the same when I ate at the McDonalds in the Food Court of the Dubai Mall.  This really was the in-between show.

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.  This really was the in-between show.  As the band came on after the comedy and the venue became a live music club, 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 guys including the aforementioned Ray Addison are taking a show to Edinburgh this year entitled “Big in Dubai” which is laden with oxymoronic irony.  One technically could be Big in Dubai, but with such an infant scene, is one really “Big”?  Ray subsequently informed me he had left Comedy Dubai to start another brand in “Dubai Laughing”.  It was an amicable split that will eventually see more shows for comics to perform. That’s a great thing right?

UAE National Dress. I officially love Dubai. 

Re-watching my footage and editing it to be Youtube ready, I really feel torn.   I feel so lucky to have seen the Dubai scene at its infant stage and to have been recognized 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 these moments to immortalise this birth of a scene.

After the gigs, this article and the editing, I think I need a holiday.

Ola – @olathecomedian

Comedy Dubai – @ComedyDubai

Dubai Laughing – @DubaiLaughing

Feyaza – @FeyazaK

Sheida – @LaSheidakeh

Ray Addison – @RayAddison78

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