Veterans of the UAE stand-up scene tell Chris Newbould why Comedy Central’s first locally produced TV show, which was filmed in Dubai, is a big step in the country’s evolution as a regional hub for comedy.
Comedy Central Presents on OSN offers a big break for UAE comics
When Comedy Central launched its new regional channel last January, there was much talk from the broadcaster about how it would work with local comedians to support and grow the regional comedy scene, most obviously through the production of local content.
We will see the first fruits of these efforts when the channel’s first local show, a regional version of the popular Comedy Central Presents, begins on Sunday.
Filmed entirely in Dubai, the series will showcase 35 stand-ups from the region. It is hosted by Arab-American comic Mo Amer, and Ali Al Sayed, a mainstay of the Dubai comedy scene. The debut episode will feature a set by Saudi comic Talal Al Sheikhi.
Al Sayed, who has been running comedy performance and training initiative, Dubomedy, for almost nine years, is understandably excited about the new TV venture.
“This is what we’ve been working for,” he says. “When we first started out, we couldn’t even get a venue. Now we’ve got festivals interested, the government is supporting us, I’m getting emails from public and private companies around the region and internationally. This is the biggest validation yet for comedy in the region.
“In the past we’ve had people that might come in and invest for a year or two then go ‘this is too expensive’ or ‘this is too much work’. We know Comedy Central won’t do that, because their whole job is to make comedy happen and work. It’s a beautiful moment.”
Yaser Bakr, the founder of the Jeddah Comedy Club in Saudi Arabia, hopes the show will help to develop the fledgling regional scene.
“Seeing comedians perform and stay true to their voice, culture and generation makes the show totally unique,” he says.
“I’m a big fan of Comedy Central and it’s a dream come true to be on Comedy Central Presents. It is a catalyst for change in comedy, continuously introducing new formats, shows and stars – content that gives inspiration to all comedians.”
Gail Clough is possibly the most-established promoter of comedy events in the region. She is behind the successful Laughter Factory comedy nights in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha, which began more than 20 years ago.
She is also hopeful the new show will be the start of bigger and better things for the local scene. “What local comedians lack is stage time,” she says. “I always say it takes seven years of performing every night to make a comedian.
“If you look at the UK scene 21 years ago [when we were starting out in the UAE], you had to be based in London, but now the scene has grown and you can perform all around the country.
“There’s a situation where a comic such as Jason Manford or Johnny Vegas can be based in Manchester and still be successful – and that’s what we need here. You need the stage time, and if there’s more opportunities like this, and this can itself inspire more new comedy nights, then the comics are getting that time.”
While the TV show gathers comics from all over the region on the stage in Dubai – including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – Al Sayed says the nationality of the comics is of little relevance.
“They didn’t want to bring in an American format and just do it the American way,” he says. “So they had meetings, they asked questions and they said: ‘OK, we want to do this the Comedy Central way and make sure everything’s done well, but at the same time we’re not here to dictate how comedy in this region works’,” he says.
“At no point in this process did anyone ask: ‘What’s the nationality of this comic?’ The only question was: ‘Is this guy funny?’ That’s all we’re looking for.”
Al Sayed adds the UAE is becoming a regional hub for comedy and live performances in general. Comedy Central Presents can surely only hasten the progress.
“The UAE, and Dubai in particular, is becoming the New York of the region,” says Al Sayed. “A lot of Arab comedians are now moving to Dubai from Egypt and Lebanon. They were well-known in their own communities, but now Dubai is where you come if you want to succeed in the region. It’s the place to be in terms of live performance.”
While Al Sayed and Clough note that the process of applying for permits and visas for performances has become easier in recent years, it is still an expensive process and they say that lower costs could help the process of supporting and developing a successful local scene.
Right now there is little chance of making a living from the open-mic nights in the UAE that mostly feature unknowns who aspire to be the UAE’s first global comedy star.
Perhaps the arrival of Comedy Central will bring that dream a little closer.
• Comedy Central Presents begins on Sunday at 10.30pm on Comedy Central Arabia, exclusively available on OSN. www.osn.com