x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Comedy night co-founder is playing it for laughs

The Laughter Factory, in its 15th year, hosts the biggest monthly comedy night in the Gulf region, and the co-founder Gail Clough's tenacity is part of the reason why.

The co-founder of The Laughter Factory, Gail Clough, at the Crowne Plaza's Zinc Nightclub, Dubai in July.
The co-founder of The Laughter Factory, Gail Clough, at the Crowne Plaza's Zinc Nightclub, Dubai in July.

Another night, another gig.

After having the crowd in gut-busting hysterics for half an hour with his comic blend of the observational, the political and the crass, Canadian comedian Glenn Wool bids farewell to the crowd at Heroes in Abu Dhabi's Crowne Plaza.

His performance earlier this summer marked the end of the city's leg of The Laughter Factory's July tour, the last series of monthly shows until the new season launches at Souk Madinat Jumeirah's Jambase in Dubai on Wednesday night.

In the small foyer outside, Wool mans his own merchandise stand, and it is clear he is tired.

It's understandable, considering his frantic stage persona has him screaming his best punch lines at the top of his lungs.

Despite his weariness, he still manages to pose for photos and shake the hands of gushing punters.

A Middle Eastern couple in their 50s approach.

"I just want to say," the woman says, chuckling, barely containing her own joke, "that you look like a Mexican hit-man!"

Wool is at a loss for words. With a goatee and trainers, his style is more grubby-1970s-rock band than member of the underworld.

He quickly recovers his composure and manages to sell them a CD of his greatest comic hits.

"In the western media, people from the Middle East are portrayed as being fanatical," he says. "But when you come here, I've found they are some of the funniest people I ever met in my life. Sometimes I wonder what they need me for."

Wool is suddenly interrupted by a short woman, her blond hair slightly frazzled with a demeanour that is both friendly and somewhat authoritarian.

She is Gail Clough, a 45-year-old Briton and co-founder of The Laughter Factory. She pops by to make sure Wool is fulfilling his media commitment before walking back to the stage to continue packing up.

Wool affectionately describes Clough as a taskmaster. His UAE tour consists of eight performances in 10 days, with Abu Dhabi's standard Crowne Plaza one-nighter sandwiched midweek between Dubai shows.

"It grinds you," he concedes. "But it's the only way to get better. You can think about it all you want, but the only way to become good is to just keep doing it."

It is that same rugged determination that is responsible for the rise of The Laughter Factory as well. Now in its 15th year, the factory rose from humble beginnings with sporadic shows in the UAE to become the biggest monthly comedy night in the Gulf, featuring the cream of the global comedy circuit.

Comics who have gone on to fame and success after gracing the factory's stages include Russell Peters and Frankie Boyle.

With each tour stopping in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and occasionally Qatar and Bahrain, The Laughter Factory has played a major role in introducing quality comedy to the Gulf as well as promoting the region as an important destination for comics.

None of this would have been possible without the tenacity of founders Clough and Duncan Jones. They both arrived separately in the UAE in the early 1990s to entertain audiences: Clough as a DJ in the former Dubai InterContinental (now the Radisson Blu) and Jones as a musician performing in various UAE venues.

Clough describes Dubai's entertainment scene at the time as devoid of any genuine live thrills.

"It was boring," she says, laughing. "What can I say? The only thing you had were these bands in hotels performing Hotel California - there was nothing much really."

The biggest hole in the entertainment calendar was for live comedy. With the exception of one-off, high-profile comedy tours, the only way one could sample the latest comic observations was on television.

Fed up the with the situation and "needing to laugh", Clough and Jones turned to their contacts to create their own comedy night.

"I knew a chap who ran a comedy club in Manchester called The Frog and Bucket," she recalls. "I used to DJ for him years ago and he helped us in arranging some comedians to come here."

With a mere £5,000 (Dh29,800) budget, the first-ever Laughter Factory night was launched in 1996 with shows in Dubai's Hyatt Hotel and the British Club in Abu Dhabi, with comics Noel James, Gary Skyner and Alan Bates headlining. The shows were a sell-out but after the air fares, hotel accommodation, food and local excursions, the profits were just enough to produce another show months later.

While happy with the enthusiastic audience response, Clough was less impressed with the quality of talent she was able to bring over during the factory's first five years.

"The standard of comedy wasn't very good and inconsistent," she admits. "Back in those days the only real comedy scene outside the UK was Hong Kong. No one was interested in coming to the UAE... they probably didn't know where it was."

Despite the geographical constraints, the factory did host a few comic gems, one of which was the fledgling young Canadian-Indian comic Peters.

"I knew there was something special about him when everyone from the staff ran from the back to the hotel and went hiding in the kitchen to see him," she says.

Clough says her "life changed" when The Laughter Factory began, sourcing its talent exclusively from the London comedy institution The Comedy Store.

After a meeting was arranged through one of the performers, Clough flew to London in 2001 to iron out an agreement where The Comedy Store would provide performers for a fee.

The result was an immediate injection of high-quality talent, including Peters.

Then there were the more esoteric comics, who bombed in front of a Middle Eastern audience unaccustomed to anything other than broad, standard comic fare. They included Britons Daniel Kitson and Ross Noble.

"They already had a massive cult following, and they died," Clough says ruefully. "They were just too quirky and our audience didn't understand them."

Despite these high-profile casualties, Clough and Jones resisted the urge to "dumb down" the jokes.

"I thought instead of changing the comics," she says, "we will change the audience".

Clough credits the Dubai boom, from 2003 onwards, for bringing forth the desired evolution of her clientele.

Where once the crowd was dominated by British fortysomethings, she says a younger, hipper group of global expatriates have taken over.

Already exposed to the latest comic styles from years abroad, these youngsters immediately embraced the factory's line-up.

As a result the factory cemented itself as a monthly fixture, added extra dates in Abu Dhabi and Dubai - there are now seven - and employed five full-time staff. This month's tour boasts a new venue, in Dubai's Movenpick Hotel in Jumeirah Beach.

One person set to benefit from the Gulf's sophisticated audience is the British-Jamaican Junior Simpson.

Returning to the UAE for the sixth time this week, he will perform alongside Michael Smiley and Paul Tonkinson.

Speaking on tour from Mumbai, the comedian says it was not long ago when comedians thought the UK or the US was the extent of their comic universe.

"The opportunity to play in the UAE, America, Europe, Australia...places I thought I would never see and now go there for semi-regular visits, is just a joy," he says.

"I keep thinking that there is so much more to explore. I feel like I am living the dream, but on a limited budget."

The Laughter Factory comedy nights run in Dubai and Abu Dhabi from Wednesday until September 16. For more information, visit www.thelaughterfactory.com.