Comedians share their experiences with the UAE’s growing, diverse comedy scene

As the appetite for a local comedy scene grows with more than 25 shows each month, comedy troupe Dubai Laughing have launched the first annual UAE Comedy Awards, which will be held on February 27

Ray Addison, left, and Salman Qureshi, founders of Dubai Laughing. Pawan Singh / The National
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When Ray Addison and Salman Qureshi, the founders of comedy troupe Dubai Laughing rounded up a group of resident entertainers for their first stand-up gig in 2012, they had to call on every friend and relative to try to fill up the venue they hired in Tecom.

Four years later, the underground comedy scene in the UAE has transformed into a vibrant mainstream performance circuit, with more than 25 shows in theatres and restaurants every month. The growing appetite for home-grown laughs has encouraged many aspiring comedians from diverse backgrounds and walks of life to grab a mic and start performing at night after their day jobs.

This dedication encouraged Dubai Laughing to launch the first UAE Comedy Awards. The winners in 19 categories, chosen by an online public vote, will receive their awards during a comedy night at Stables Restaurant on Saturday.

“It’s credible for us to be hosting these awards now because there are so many comedians performing regularly and several comedy nights all over the country,” says Addison. “It’s a chance to recognise these people who are doing day jobs then gigging four times a week on top of that, and each time they get better at comedy. It’s also our way to bring public attention to the thriving comedy scene.”

The categories including Male and Female Stand-Up, International Act, Comedy Night, Venue, Compere, Variety Act, Improv Troupe and Improviser. Voting remains open until Thursday, February 25.

Pushing boundaries

Emirati comedians are taking advantage of the growing local comedy scene to highlight cultural and societal issues.

Abdullah Al Qassab, fondly known as “The Butcher”, for example, likes to use comedy to push boundaries. The Emirati has been nominated for the Best Corporate Comedian and Social Media awards. He joins fellow local nominees, the scene veteran Ali Al Sayed and Omar Ismail, who are both up for Best Male Stand-Up and Best Joke Writer.

“Comedy has been around forever but the type of comedy is changing now,” says Al Qassab, who is from Sharjah.

He says a lot of the young Emirati comics use social media to test new material.

“What I’ve noticed is that younger ones prefer online and aren’t refining themselves for stage,” he says. He adds that there are “some really good UAE nationals who work in serious jobs such as the aviation and advertising industry, but once they are on stage they bring the house down”.

Al Qassab says the awards offergreat motivation: “For comedians who dedicate so much time and effort to come up with good sets, this is a good recognition, too.”

Funny and personal

Having a go at stand-up comedy was on Bronwyn Byrnes bucket list of things to try before she turned 40. When she lost her job after becoming pregnant, she decided it was “now or never” .

"This happened about seven years ago, and I enrolled in a stand-up course and drama classes," says the 44-year-old, who lives in Dubai. "But back then there weren't many opportunities and open-mic nights. So I stopped. Two years ago I did another comedy course, with Dubai Laughing and, just like the character in the movie Yes Man, I agreed to do every stand-up gig."

Byrnes, who now makes a living performing comedy and theatre at corporate gigs, says her material revolves around her family and experiences as a mother. She does about two to three shows a month. A nominee for the Best Female Stand-Up award, she says the local comedy circuit has come a long way. “The great thing now is you have a choice of these unlicensed venues that give people the option to watch comedy in family-friendly spaces,” says Byrnes. She says venues such as The Courtyard Playhouse in Al Quoz, Ductac (nominated in the Best Venue category), and new black-box theatre space, The Junction in Alserkal Avenue, have a loyal following. “They are always busy and the turnout to the shows is great.”

Shaking things up

Variety Act nominee Luke Hacker has performed at 150 shows in the past 18 months. But when the lawyer moved from London to Dubai three years ago, a local comedy scene was virtually unheard of. “I’ve always been a comedy fan and when I got here, the main shows were these international acts being brought in,” he says. “The big change I’ve seen is that there are many more opportunities for residents to perform.”

Hacker, who often breaks into silly songs during his routines, says that the diversity in the UAE offers the perfect chance to come up with zany material that a local audience can relate to.

“When you perform, you make certain assumptions and cultural references,” he says. “When I started, I assumed people here would understand certain references that comedians use in London, and they didn’t. So it’s a challenge and interesting to deal with that and work our material accordingly.”

The UAE Comedy Awards are at Stables restaurant on Saturday from 9pm. Entry is free. To vote, visit