Tragedy may illuminate what's universal in human affairs, but most comedy, like most politics, is provincial. More often than not, what's funny is specific to a place: to a certain set of cultural references, local hang-ups and - when push comes to shove - stereotypes about people from other places. Jokes and geography, in other words, go together like an Indian, a Filipino and an Arab walking into a bar.
One evening this week at Club Eight, in Abu Dhabi's Souq Qaryat al Beri, a handful of aspiring comedians showed up to audition for a forthcoming fortnightly variety show called Monday Night Funnies. It was just after 6pm, and a crew of uniformed waiters were pushing brooms around the well-lit club, sweeping up the previous night's gum wrappers and cocktail straws. Onstage, a man in a pinstriped shirt, an undersized bow tie, a large fake moustache, and a sticking plaster over his right eyebrow recited poetry to a couple of people taking notes at the front table.
"This poem is about trying to catch the attention of a taxi in the middle of August," he said. "It's called Heatwave." While gradually crumpling to the ground, he wailed breathily once, twice, then three times - referring to his notebook in between moans as if actually reciting a poem - then abruptly got back up. "There are another 12 pages, but I think you get the gist." The comedian was an experienced performer named - or at least stage-named - Hartley Pool, after his hometown in the north-east of England. Having been in Abu Dhabi just six months, he was still working up local material. He recited a poem about ordering takeaway food in a city with no addressing system, then followed it with another on the theme of local navigational challenges, called Love and Stupidity: "I smile at the elevators coming down/But you are not in any of them/Then I realise/I am in the wrong building."
That first act unwittingly posed a vexing question: in the UAE, what reference points do we all share besides a few very sweaty months and a sense of disorientation? Other would-be comedians at the audition had more experience in the Emirates (if usually somewhat less experience behind the microphone) and listening to them, a pattern seemed to emerge: what's funny here is where people come from. A guy named Omar Abdul Aziz Hassan Awad Mfour Hsein Gheith Abu Holy immediately introduced himself as Palestinian and then launched into a series of jokes about long Arabic names. "My mum used to hold me and say, 'What's my baby's name!? What's my baby's name!?'" he said, a look of panic on his face. Then he launched into a rapid series of cultural caricatures, some (of Lebanese and Syrians) delivered in Arabic, the last (of Indians) delivered in English. "Oh my God, Rajiv, did you see the new Nissan Tiida?" he cried with eye-popping excitement. "They say it only seats five, but I know it can seat 10."
A prim-looking young man in a button-front sweater came onstage and immediately cracked a joke about Filipinos and karaoke, then introduced himself as "Ricky from New Zealand" and apologised that his act might include some profanity. "I am from a country where there are as many swear words as there are sheep," he said. Then came a few jokes about the forthcoming 2012 Olympics. "East London is already like an Olympic village," he said, betting on his audience's familiarity with a neighbourhood 5,000 kilometres away. "You've already got lots of people walking around in tracksuits struggling to speak English." (Afterwards, Ricky - again, a stage name - revealed that he spends most of his time in the air, working as a flight attendant for a local carrier that starts with the letter "E".)
Next! "Being Syrian means being so hairy. It's the major story of my life," said a large, slow-spoken and deep-voiced young man named Assem. "In grade five I started shaving. In grade six I had hair on my chest. In grade seven I had hair on my back. And in grade eight I got married." Then he added: "Just kidding." And on and on it went. Xulf, the stage name of a moonlighting estate agent named Zulfiqar Ali, lampooned the bad dancing styles of various ethnic groups in Dubai's nightclubs. A young woman got up and started speaking in a completely untraceable accent that bore the signature of about five different places. "Hi everyone," she said, "My name's Tanvi and I'm, like, home-grown Abu Dhabian." It wasn't a joke.
"People are tied to stereotypes here," said Ali al Sayed, an organiser of the event. Comedy is often about baiting - and then lampooning - prevailing notions of us and them. But the UAE presents an unusual case: a shooting gallery of "thems" where there is extraordinarily little safety in any unified notion of "us". "Breaking stereotypes is a big part of comedy," said al Sayed. But what happens when a shuffling deck of stereotypes is what binds a place together? Al Sayed, an Emirati, runs a number of initiatives - including a comedy school in Dubai and a talent-management company - designed to create a self-sustaining community of comedians in the UAE. "Eventually we'll get to that stage where people will let loose and stop talking about where they come from," he said. But he allowed that it could take a while: "It's because we don't know each other yet."
* John Gravois