When Prince Abdi embarked on a career as a comedian six years ago, he could not possibly have imagined that one day he would share a stage, in Cape Town, with Desmond Tutu.
“He’s a regular at their comedy festival,” Abdi explains, “and every year he comes on stage and tells a joke. He’s very funny. He’s got the funniest laugh in the world. I reckon he could have become a stand-up actually.”
The London-based comic is enjoying an eventful few months and his next novel experience is a first trip to the Emirates for the monthly Laughter Factory comedy tour, which kicks off at Heroes in Abu Dhabi’s Crowne Plaza on Wednesday before heading to Dubai and Doha. The versatility of his material is being vigorously tested in a variety of settings.
The aforementioned South Africa jaunt was a month-long stint at the Cape Town Comedy Festival. There he often found himself discussing his Somali roots onstage, “because at the time there was a lot of xenophobia in South Africa, a lot of Somalis were being targeted because they were opening businesses in the townships and the locals didn’t like the competition,” he recalls. “So I was talking about how paranoid I was!”
Abdi’s attempt at learning phrases from the local Afrikaans and Xhosa languages also “paid off, as they really appreciated the effort”, but more challenging was the tour he embarked on shortly afterwards.
Back in Britain, his intriguing role as the opening act for the popular Somali singer Aar Maanta was not appreciated by every audience. “They weren’t expecting me so it was a bit like ‘Where’s the band?’” he laughs. “But I spoke in Somali some nights and that kind of helped.”
The open-minded comic is clearly adept at adapting. Abdi moved from Somalia to the UK as a four-year-old and made his mark as a gifted young footballer, garnering interest from several professional clubs. That dream was destroyed in his teens by a serious knee injury and he admits: “I had no idea what I was doing after football.”
He was still young enough to refocus on schoolwork and eventually became a teacher before turning those class-entertaining talents into a full-time comedy career. This new direction then suffered a serious setback, however, as what looked set to be his big television break turned into a nightmare.
In 2011, Abdi secured a coveted slot on a primetime UK talent show called Show Me the Funny, but was swiftly voted off after some unkind comments from the judges and some unkind editing by the producers. Whole seven-minute sets were cut down to a couple of unsuccessful gags and such a high-profile failure adversely affected his regular shows. “It was really hard,” he says. “I’d be doing gigs and people wouldn’t give me a chance to be funny. I’d get booed.”
Abdi is a hardy soul and his career has evolved significantly since then. As one of the few Muslim stand-ups on the UK circuit, and the only Somali, his early themes could be somewhat stereotypical. “In the past I might have offended some people,” he admits, “doing jokes about Al Qaeda.”
Now the 31-year-old has a wider, richer, more accessible supply of material and an increasingly international presence – including some New York gigs immediately after this first Laughter Factory trip. Interestingly, one routine that he says “always works” is an elaborate deconstruction of Bollywood movies, with Abdi singing several parts. “I do the lady, too,” he says, “so people look at it and go: ‘Wow, OK.’ It’ll be interesting to see how it goes over in the Emirates.”