As The Laughter Factory celebrates its 18th year with a Jason Manford gig, Rob Garratt takes a nostalgic look back at the lifetime of a UAE nightlife institution.
When Gail Clough and Duncan Jones flew over a few comics to host their first comedy night at the Hyatt Regency back in May 1997, they had little idea they’d still be making the UAE laugh nearly two decades on. Now billed as the longest-running regular night in the Middle East, The Laughter Factory is a GCC institution, renowned for serving up a reliable roster of decent comedians to gigs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha on 11 monthly bills a year. This week, the team go one better by hosting UK comedy heavyweight Jason Manford for two nights at the Crowne Plaza Dubai from Sunday June 22-23.
It nearly didn’t happen though. Starring a hypnotist and an armless comedian, the opening night was a commercial success, but offered little indication that the team would be celebrating the start of their 18th year this month.
‘It was not the greatest show,’ admits Gail. And the second gig was such a disaster that Duncan, a drummer by trade, wanted to pull the plug. ‘We died,’ he remembers. One comic didn’t show and the main attraction was the now-famous clairvoyant Derek Acorah, who ‘spent 20 minutes walking round the audience telling people they had cancer.’
Still, both gigs provided something different for a then entertainment-starved expat audience. ‘It all started really because Dubai was so boring 20 years ago,’ says Gail. ‘There was nothing on TV and no internet – if you went out it was just hotel cover bands with sequins and tight perms.’ Thankfully Gail, then a wedding DJ, convinced Duncan to give it another crack and the pair never looked back. ‘I just think it’s because we don’t do it for the money,’ adds Duncan, talking of their enduring success. ‘It’s not a business – it’s a passion.’
Quickly established as a regular monthly happening with the now-familiar three-comic bill, gigs were added at the Dubai Country Club, and within four years the night moved to the Crowne Plaza on Sheikh Zayed Road, where it still hosts shows.
It wasn’t long before the enterprise expanded to include regular gigs in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and Muscat, while other Dubai venues conquered at different times include Al Badia Golf Club, Al Manzil Hotel, the now closed Jimmy Dix (still one of our favourite LF venues of all time), the Greens Courtyard Marriott and The Irish Village.
The Laughter Factory really came of age though in 2000 after signing a partnership with the UK’s iconic Comedy Store club, who brought with them a guarantee of quality, road-tested talents. ‘We went from being hit-and-miss to constantly good,’ remembers Gail.
That partnership helped add to the staggering list of now-huge comics who have played UAE shores on their way up. Michael McIntyre, Ross Noble, Frankie Boyle, Richard Blackwood and Dara Ó Briain are just a few of the comedy stars who played The Laughter Factory before hitting the big time (see right for more).
Among the highlights was hosting Russell Peters in 2002, who tempted scores of hotel staff to abandon their posts and sneak in the back for the novelty of seeing an Asian comedian on stage.
Daniel Kitson however bombed when faced with an expat crowd, while Frankie Boyle appeared barely more than ‘a timid little boy’ back in 2000, says Gail. And the biggest name to date? ‘I thought Michael McIntyre was a good club comic,’ adds Duncan, ‘but I never thought he’d be worth £20 million [Dhs123 million].’
By hosting all these trailblazing names, it’s no exaggeration to say The Laughter Factory has not just entertained the region, but educated it. ‘When we started, the audience wanted a joke with a start, middle and a punchline,’ remembers Gail. ‘But people come back and get more comedy literate.’
Thanks to the pair’s hard work, today punters are guaranteed a consistent stream of 33 decent comedians a year, with regular Dubai gigs currently hosted at the Mövenpick Jumeirah Beach Hotel, Grand Millennium TECOM, Els Club in Dubai Sports City and – still – Zinc at the Crowne Plaza Dubai. Plus there are plans to follow-up this week’s Manford gig with more one-off big names. We’re clearly keeping our fingers firmly crossed for another 18 years. Any chance?
‘I hope so,’ says Gail. ‘We love the job more than ever.’
‘If we don’t get shut down by then,’ Duncan laughs. ‘Eighteen years? Hopefully I’ll be in the South of France by then.’
www.thelaughterfactory.com. Buy tickets for all upcoming shows from www.timeouttickets.com
Fun times: The Laughter Factory’s greatest hits
1997 Ross Noble
1998 Lee Mack
1999 Dara Ó Briain
2000 Frankie Boyle
2001 Daniel Kitson
2002 Russell Peters
2003 Adam Hills
2004 Reginald D Hunter
2005 Ed Byrne
2006 Micky Flanagan
2007 Rhod Gilbert
2008 Milton Jones
2009 Michael McIntyre
2010 Kevin Bridges
2011 Sarah Millican
2012 Jack Whitehall
2013 Sean Hughes
2014 Jason Manford