Meet the UAE comics stepping back in the spotlight after pandemic: 'Comedy is a catharsis'

Stand-up nights are giving comedians the chance to test out material on an audience once again, after Covid-19 put a pause on many live shows

“Ask any woman what she looks for in a man and she will say a sense of humour,” says Sundeep Fernandes, holding a microphone and eyeing the crowd in a darkened room.

“I’ve been doing comedy for years. Where are all the ladies? I’m beginning to think someone’s lying here.”

He smiles when laughter ripples through the room. The Indian comedian, who performs in English and Hindi, works as a hotel pre-opening procurement consultant by day. On stage, he lets loose. The deadpan comedian jokes about catfishing as "Bikini Girl" to check what his son is doing online, and his aversion to vegans who look down on butter chicken.

After 18 months of restrictions, local comedians in the UAE are finally getting a chance to test new material and interact with a live audience again.

“The funny stories are all from my life,” says Fernandes, who took classes with Dubomedy, a local performing arts school founded in 2008. “Comedy is a catharsis for all my annoying issues. I don’t need therapy, I prefer to talk to strangers in a dark room.”

The amateur stand-up scene in the Arab world has grown organically. It was kick-started 15 years ago after the wildly successful The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour brought comedians of Middle Eastern origin to stages and screens all around the region. Jamil Abu-Wardeh, the creator and producer of the regional tour, still lives in Dubai.

“We sold out 27 shows in five countries in a single month,” he says. “The real achievement was inspiring young talent who built comedy careers and event companies that are still growing.”

Today, a diverse generation of comedians in the UAE speak to the heart of millennials, third culture kids and anyone tired of Zoom. And they actively practise their craft every chance they get in a post-pandemic world.

“I’m trying to convince my British husband to ‘Brexit’ our marriage,” says Indian comic Saaniya Abbas when it's her turn on stage. “It’s one less immigrant in his life.”

The art director works at an advertising agency, but enjoys making funny Reels for her Instagram and TikTok followers as a creative outlet. She regularly performs at Dubai venues, from restaurants such as Hi Five at Holiday Inn Express Dubai – Internet City to cafes including Kave in Alserkal Avenue.

On Monday, September 20, Abbas and Fernandes will be joined by Emirati comedian Abdalla "Abz" Ali and seasoned South African comic Simmi Areff for a comedy special at Kave. The quirky venue, with colourful art and upcycled bicycle frames on the walls, offers a place for these comedians to unleash their creativity.

Ali, an Emirati dentist by day and comedian by night, tries to perform up to twice a week in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The first time he ever took to the stage was for a talent competition at the American University of Dubai. The judges? The Axis of Evil crew – Maz Jobrani, Aron Kader and Ahmed Ahmed – alongside their regional producer, Abu-Wardeh.

“There wasn’t a real stand-up comedy scene in the region, so The Axis of Evil coming here was a big deal. I attended the event at AUD and ended up trying out in front of some of my comedy idols,” said Ali. “Getting up on that stage, unprepared, was a turning point for me. It was my first performance and I was hooked.”

He spent the next few years going back and forth between the UAE and New Zealand, where he had a scholarship to study dentistry, performing in small comedy groups in both countries to hone his skills. The practise paid off; things came full circle when he was asked to open for Kader only two years after that fateful audition night at AUD. Most recently, in early September, he opened for American comedian Wayne Brady at the Coca-Cola Arena.

“It was my first big show after the pandemic in front of hundreds of people,” Ali says.

During the pandemic, he took a nine-month hiatus from comedy to serve as a frontline healthcare worker, performing Covid-19 tests near the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Comedy is one of his first loves, so getting back on stage was the first crucial step towards normalcy for him.

South African comedian and podcast host Areff felt the same way when he also opened for Brady at the Coca-Cola Arena. The established comedian, who also runs a successful podcasting agency, has recently moved to Dubai.

“I enjoy testing my craft to see how strong I am overseas,” says Areff. “I like Dubai because it’s a developing comedy scene, so you can be part of shaping the narratives and gigs.”

They may have diverse backgrounds and different styles, but one thing unites these comedians.

“Comedy forces you to write better, make punchlines stronger, see what resonates with different audiences,” says Aref. “But, also, who doesn’t love making people laugh?”

Saaniya Abbas, Sundeep Fernandes, Abdalla "Abz" Ali and Simmi Areff will perform at the Komedy Kave Stand-up Comedy Night at Kave in Alserkal Avenue on Monday, September 20. Tickets cost Dh50; more information is available at thestoryofthings.com

Updated: September 10th 2021, 3:23 AM
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