It’s the question that can plague even the most seasoned of comedians: do I still have it?
And after what veteran Emirati performer Ali Al Sayed experienced when returning to the stage after three months away, that question can be applied to the crowd as well.
To be fair to both, this was not the typical kind of gig.
Al Sayed’s set was part of the Restart Dubai conference, held in July at Dubai World Trade Centre. With this being the first major event in the emirate in the wake of the pandemic, Al Sayed admits both he and the crowd were rusty.
“It was really interesting in that from the stage, I saw the crowd and their eyes seemed rather glazed. This is what I call the 'Netflix face' ... we spent so much time watching television at home that many people didn’t know what to do in a live performance any more," he recalls.
“Normally, I have some material in the opening that would make people laugh and build momentum but it wasn’t working. I thought the show went horribly, but someone from the crowd said that people enjoyed it. I couldn’t tell because everyone was wearing a mask.”
The situation has gradually changed since that gig. While he has now returned to his open-ended weekly residency at Dubai's Antika Bar, the emirate's entertainment landscape is also back in full swing.
Although his show will follow stringent health guidelines including limited capacity and social distancing measures, Al Sayed says he is glad to be back on stage and looking at people’s faces once again. This time around, masks are only worn when guests make their way in or out of the venue.
“It makes you not take anything for granted,” he says. “And by that I am not just referring to the stage, but the audience as well. Being able to stand in front of them again after all these months made me really appreciate how, as stand-up comics, our job is not just to tell jokes but to initiate that relationship with people as well.
"Because, at the end of the day, stand-up comedy is really a duet between the comedian and the crowd.”
Helping a new generation of comedians
And Al Sayed knows his audience well.
For nearly 15 years, he blazed a pioneering path as an Emirati stand-up comic, instructor and event organiser.
When it came to the former, not only did he perform across Europe and the US, he also landed his own special on the TV network Comedy Central with a 2017 set shot at The Square in Dubai.
As for his work behind the scenes, he played a leading part in establishing the 2015 Dubai Comedy Festival which brought stars such as Dave Chappelle and Hannibal Buress to the UAE. In addition, he also set up – alongside his American comic wife Mina Liccione – Dubomedy, a performance school teaching the next generation of comics in the UAE.
Al Sayed admits he doesn't envy any fresh talent stepping on stage today. While serious about his craft, he laments how stand-up comedy is presently viewed without humour and context. This often results in comedians overcompensating to the detriment of their material.
“Too many newer comics today are just over correcting their positions on things before they even tell a joke,” he says. “So you will find someone, for example, say ‘look, I am a feminist and I believe in this and that’ before they start talking about their significant other and that takes away from the material.”
Al Sayed is not advocating for comics to try to shock audiences, that would be too tacky. Seasoned comics are often responsible, he says, because they know how far to push the crowd.
What he is urging, however, is for audiences to simply enjoy the material for what it is.
“As long as you are not attacking anybody and stick to your subject, then you should have that conversation and hopefully even move that subject forward,” he says.
'I view my shows as an experiment'
With weekly shows to perform, Al Sayed will use his residency to explore many personal topics, including raising his 2-year-old twins amid the pandemic.
While he's confident about his material, he admits it may take the crowd extra time to warm up.
“Normally, when the crowd comes to a comedy show they are excited and ready to laugh. But now, with the pandemic, they come to shows with that extra stress because they have to be extra conscious about so many things, such as wearing that face mask, carrying that hand sanitiser and being extra careful about social distancing,” he says.
“I totally understand that and this is why I view my shows as an experiment. We are learning how to have fun again.”
Ali Al Sayed performs every Tuesday at 8pm at Antika Bar; Dh80; Level one, Al Fattan Currency House; DIFC, Dubai; for reservations, call 050 735 9177 or 050 972 917