"You know who are the worst hecklers?" says Markus Birdman, breaking off from an anecdote to reveal a trade secret. "Ask any comedian and they'll tell you: teachers." Teachers are disruptive? "That's right. You'd think they'd be the most respectful of people, but they just won't shut up." It's a curious observation, but at least Birdman can put his tutor-related turmoil to one side this week. The London-based comic is enjoying a run of gigs in Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi, where, apparently, the audiences are much more attentive than back home. And "enjoying" is the apposite term, as Birdman is a regular visitor to these shores.
"It's gorgeous. The weather is exactly the right temperature," he says after returning to his Dubai hotel room after an evening jog. "There are so many positives. The architecture is so progressive." Then again, you would quite understand if he wished to escape British audiences for a while. The subject of hecklers arose because Birdman recently played a prominent but unwanted role in a tale that has become a popular talking point on the UK stand-up scene.
The well-established comic was booked to perform at a famous London club run by the former TV star Lee Hurst, but hadn't bargained on a particularly boisterous group of spectators who became increasingly disruptive as the evening wore on. (Yes, they were teachers.) By the time Birdman took to the stage, things had become somewhat surreal. "I was doing my gig and it was going perfectly all right, and this dude just kept shouting out 'Labrador!' which had no relevance to what I was saying. I returned fire and got a laugh two or three times, but he kept saying it."
Eventually Birdman held an audience vote to decide whether the vociferous group should pipe down, a motion that was unanimously and uproariously upheld, but this caused various factions of the crowd to start heckling each other. One of the teachers then tried to storm the stage and Hurst, the host, was forced to interrupt Birdman's set to have the group ejected. This proved a lengthy and difficult process, but Birdman resumed his routine and assumed he'd heard the last of it. Not so.
"The next day I got comments on my blog and my Facebook page - as did Lee - going: 'You were dying up there. You can't take a heckle. One of my friends said something innocuous and we were thrown out by Lee's hooligans.' They were wrong on so many points. I wrote several missives in reply but eventually I never sent any of them." Hurst, however, felt the need to respond, penning a formal letter that quickly found its way onto the internet. Each of the heckler's points received a withering riposte, notably the threat that he would be "shouting from the rooftops" about what a bully Hurst is.
"Clearly, shouting is a hobby of yours," responded the veteran comic. "I sincerely hope that when you shout it from the rooftops, as you put it, you take several steps forward and do us all a favour." While clearly amused by that rebuttal and its subsequent online popularity, Birdman does wish to clarify a couple of points. Firstly, "I wasn't dying," he says. "I do occasionally, and have done spectacularly, and I'd admit it. But I wasn't." Secondly, he doesn't think such disruptive behaviour should be classed as heckling at all. "Shouting out stuff that's got nothing to do with what the person onstage is saying isn't heckling. It's just shouting out stuff," he says. "A heckle doesn't necessarily have to be funny, but it should be relevant. It's like a conversation. Say we're discussing whether you should have a political agenda in comedy, then you suddenly shout out 'Labrador!' That's just causing a disturbance. "I love actual hecklers," he continues. "The comic is in such a position of power that I'm quite happy for someone to stick their leg out to see how well you can jump over it. Unfortunately, the amount of people who actually heckle as opposed to shouting out rubbish is very small. But a good heckle is great. I'd be very gracious if someone did something that was genuinely funny: if everyone is laughing and I'm on stage, that's fine. I can still claim it." That said, Birdman spends much of his working life in environments where contributions from the crowd are rare to non-existent. Heckling, it seems, is very much an Anglo-American phenomenon, whereas this aptly named comic is a frequent flyer to gigs much farther afield. A week before the current trip, he was in Sweden, and after the Emirates he'll be performing in Oman and Mumbai. Such a jet-set lifestyle is rare among English comics, given the large number of clubs in the UK, but it can be rewarding. "I like to challenge myself," he says. "I like it for the travel, and I like it for the artistic challenge. I think it's interesting to try and push yourself. The audiences do react differently. I was in Sweden, and their English is impeccable; I can use longer words in Sweden than I can in some bits of England. But they don't interrupt, which can be peculiar. For all our moaning about how audiences in England can be, I think we'd miss that interaction. It's particularly noticeable in Sweden and Holland. They sit very patiently and give you a huge round of applause at the end. You can think 'I'm struggling here' because they don't make much noise. But also I'm not interrupted, so you can work through ideas. And I like trying to do that." An attentive crowd suits Birdman's style, as his material is invariably thought-provoking as well as funny. Followers of his act over the years may even observe a definable through-line, with certain themes recurring. The comic came to the attention of a wider audience with some well-received routines about his relationship with his father a few years ago, and parenting figures heavily in his current sets. "I've got a five-year-old daughter and so that's kind of my focus at the moment. I'm examining how to bring her up right and things she gets exposed to. Is Cinderella a good thing for her, to be learning to be a princess? Aren't there much better things I could steer her into?" Not that Birdman would ever suggest that his views should be taken particularly seriously. Nor, indeed, would he recommend attaching too much weight to the work of his fellow comics, however portentously they pontificate. "I think there are very few people on the circuit who have the intellectual capacity to be worth listening to just for their views, me included. Absolutely, I'm funnier than I am interesting. Having said that, I've got things that are of interest to me, and other comedians have issues that interest or plague or anger them, and I think it's right to put that in your stand-up. But in second place. It shouldn't be the lead thing." Birdman may be pushing those boundaries further in the future, however, as he ponders a new direction for his comedy career. Always very much a stand-up rather than a TV-star-in-waiting, he's thinking of changing tack and curtailing the trips abroad. Playing exotic gigs may be culturally enriching, but long spells away from the UK can also lessen an artist's profile back home. Headlining your own tours, under your own name, is the ambition of most working comics, and you certainly get a better calibre of heckler that way. But gaining the requisite level of recognition usually involves a fair bit of media exposure first. "I haven't been bothered about that up until recently, but I think I've got a bit of a sea-change coming on," admits the comic. "I've shied away from doing TV because I just wanted to be a stand-up, but now I'd quite like to do something else. I mean, it'll be comedy. It's not like I want to go off and be a ballet dancer or something. So I might start doing a bit less gadding around. "It's getting difficult now, with having a daughter," he concludes, "I think my girlfriend is a bit long-suffering about it." Make the most of this visit, then. The well-travelled Birdman may soon be grounded. Markus Birdman will perform with The Laughter Factory tonight at the Crowne Plaza in Abu Dhabi and at the Country Club Hotel in Dubai on Thursday. For more information, visit www.thelaughterfactory.com.