No-one, says the Emirati comedian Omar Ismail, takes a joke more seriously than people in the Middle East.
“I tell my family I do stand-up,” his routine goes. “And they say [folding arms], ‘So, you think you’re funny, huh? Go on then: make us laugh.’”
It is these words running through my mind as, in the heart of the Middle East, I climb onto a stage in front of more than 200 people.
I am about to try and make them laugh. I have spent the last two weeks writing a stand-up routine and now I am to perform it. I’m absolutely terrified. I have never done anything like this before. The only time strangers have chuckled at something I’ve said in this city was when I was new here and I was overheard saying to a friend, “I won’t be long – I’m just nipping out for an Etisalat sim card.’” So, right now, squinting into the stage lights, I feel about as funny as a kneecapping.
“Hello,” I say into the microphone, and prepare to – how do comedians delicately put it? – die…
So, how on Earth did I get into this situation?
Simple, really. I interviewed the UAE’s most famous comedian Ali Al Sayed (sample joke: “Everyone has this stereotype about Emiratis, but some of us have it tough – growing up we only had one Ferrari”).
He and his American wife Mina Liccione run Dubomedy, a pioneering comedy business that promotes shows, organises the Dubai Comedy Festival and has a charitable wing (Clowns Who Care). It also runs a regular stand-up school – Comedy 101 – where wannabe comics sign up for seven Saturdays’ worth of lessons, culminating in a live performance at the Centre For Musical Arts in Gold & Diamond Park.
“You should try the school,” Ali said. And I laughed at him. And then I mentioned it to the editor of Time Out Dubai.
“You should try the school,” he said. And then I didn’t laugh so much, because it wasn’t really a suggestion. It was an instruction.
So, spent my Saturdays learning how to be funny with ten other amateurs. There was Jill from Canada and Anthony from the Philippines. There was Mohammed from Algeria and Anastasia who, when you asked where she was from, had one of those Dubai answers that go on for ten minutes and you’re still none the wiser when they finish (“Well, my mum is half Kyrgyzstani and half Russian, but my dad is from…” etc etc).
Why were they doing these classes? To improve their confidence. To learn how to write jokes. To hone their improvisation skills. To meet girls (well one guy, Majed, was anyway).
Our teacher, Mina, worked us hard. As class leader, she’s equal thirds performer, encourager and shouter. On a couple of occasions, I didn’t do the homework that was set. If you ever take these classes, I wouldn’t recommend that. Do what Mina tells you.
She’s also, however, a treasure trove of hints and tips – and ridiculously good at getting the most out of her students.
Over the seven weeks, we spent time playing improv games, studying famous comedians, analysing everything from anecdotes to one-liners and, crucially, mining our own lives for material. We were put through paces, shipped into shape, and honed as comics. The course itse;f was a touch enough challenge. And it all led to this: this moment, on this stage, looking out at these 200 expectant faces.
“Hello,” I say into the microphone, and then off I go…
“I actually decided to try stand-up classes because all my life people have laughed at me,” I say. “I don’t try and be funny. They just laugh at me.”
Yeah. I know. It’s not exactly Chris Rock. But it gets a murmur, and that’ll do me. At the very least, they knew that was supposed to be a punchline and acknowledged it. Oh boy, they’re on my side here! And so, for the next five minutes I pace the stage, microphone in hand, growing in confidence as chuckling greets gags about my job and my school days and my utter bewilderment at Dubai’s roads. A few lines fall flat, but I can live with that.
By the end, I’m almost enjoying it.
“You’ve been great,” I tell the audience. “And so have I.”
Which isn’t quite true. I’ve been average. But I’ve done it. I’ve stood on a stage and managed to make people in the Middle East laugh. I walk off feeling invincible.
Dubomedy Comedy 101 starts its next term on January 30, 2016. Dh1,000 (early-bird tickets). Visit www.dubomedy.com for more details.
Colin's four best
The one about his looks “Listen, I know I’m not the most attractive bloke around. At school they said I was so ugly that I’d never need to worry about girls. They said my face would be the only deterrent I’d ever need…Teachers can be cruel to pupils, can’t they?”
The one about his driving
“I love Dubai. Some days I’ll just take half an hour out my day to drive round, taking it all in. Actually, I've never planned to do that. It’s just I miss my turn off and then I have no option but to take half an hour my day, driving round, taking it all in…”
The one about his accent
“I come from a little village in the north of England. Hence the ridiculous accent. When I first arrived in Dubai, I got asked why I didn't speak proper English. I said, ‘How's this for the Queen's enunciation mate: Get lorrrst? He did too. Which was annoying, because I was in a taxi.”
The one about his nana
“My nana’s of that age now where she just says what she likes and can get away with it. I told her I was doing this stand-up show. I said, ‘Nana, I have to be charismatic, funny and charming.’ She said, ‘That’s a shame, love – why won’t they let you just be yourself?’”