As the only active Filipino comic performing in English in the UAE, one would assume Imah Dumagay would have the run of the house. But that distinction has not led to a full-time career in stand-up, even after three years in the business.
“Stand-up is booming, but you cannot make a living out of this,” says Dumagay, who works as an executive secretary in Dubai. “Here, it’s just a hobby and pastime for most comedians.”
Still, that has not stopped the 37-year-old from passionately pursuing what she calls her “true love” – making people laugh. And it’s something the world desperately needs in the middle of a pandemic, she says.
“People are craving something to help them de-stress, some distraction.”
Dumagay will aim to provide just that when she performs two back-to-back shows of The Shelarious Imah on Friday, March 12 at The Theatre, Mall of the Emirates. The gig will also feature three other female comediennes: Zahra Mirza and Grace Gil-Morlis will open, while Liz Bains will host.
“This is a celebration of women. We wanted to do it for International Women’s Day on March 8, but we couldn’t book the venue,” she says, laughing.
Male audiences are also welcome, she adds.
Dumagay, who says she’s always had a knack for making people laugh, discovered stand-up three years ago when she did a course at Dubai comedy school Dubomedy.
“I wanted to do something out of my daily routine of sitting in the office. So I enrolled in three different courses – one for film acting, another for stage monologue and then for stand-up comedy,” she recalls.
“For the comedy class, we once performed in front of friends and family and that went really well. I felt like I was doing something right. So I ditched the other two classes and focused on comedy and it became my true love.”
This weekend will mark Dumagay's second solo show. Her first one, Imah's Day Off, was in November last year.
She says her comedy is mostly observational and lighthearted, peppered with self-deprecating humour.
“Just being a Filipina in the UAE itself is a funny experience,” she says. “The fact that we have so many stereotypes of my people, there’s an endless source of material there. Also, I’m married to an Egyptian, and they’re trending in the Filipino community right now.
“I’ll try not to touch any controversial topics and I’m not into politics or social issues – anything that is divisive. I’m more into storytelling and I’m not a big fan of put-down jokes. Also, everyone can watch my comedy. Sure, there are innuendos, but it’s generally family friendly."
Being a female comedienne in a male-dominated industry can be challenging sometimes, she says. But it can also be food for comedy.
“Most men are sceptical when they see a woman on stage doing stand-up. But I have this innate capability to be friendly, and that helps me break the ice and connect with the audience,” she says.
“We’re lucky in the UAE because we don’t have major gender issues. The country empowers women. Even male comics are very supportive. Maybe that’s why comedians are all equally underpaid.”
Dumagay, who has lived in the UAE for 14 years, says she got her comedic chops from her mother while growing up in the Philippines.
“She had her own way of being really funny, and she used to annoy my dad,” she says. “And I learnt from her how to generate funny in everything I observe. Even when I moved to Dubai I would entertain all my colleagues at lunch. I used to joke that I would start charging them.”
While the stand-up comedy scene in the UAE is growing, major event producers need to lend a hand for it to really thrive and enable people like her to pursue it as a career, she adds.
“Right now there are not enough places for comedians to perform. If the big producers will just look into what we have already in the UAE, that would be a big help. I know commercially it’s more viable to bring in known names, but there are so many talents here,” she says.
“Also, comedians need to come together to step up. Other art forms have associations and groups. Comics will need such a platform where we can standardise the fees, secure more venues, etc.”
When it comes to international comedians, Dumagay says that American-Filipino funnyman Jo Koy is her inspiration. The comedian, best known globally for his Netflix specials, made his UAE stage debut last year.
“He’s been doing it for 30 years and is still unstoppable. I really want to do what he’s doing,” she says. “I actually wanted to open for him but the organisers told me they already found someone. But I met him backstage and had a chat with him. I was completely starstruck.”
With plans to eventually go full time, Dumagay says she wants to start doing tours, first in the Middle East and then internationally.
“I love being on stage and I love making people laugh,” she says. “I will be the next Jo Koy. One day, he will introduce me on stage.”
Tickets to The Shelarious Imah cost Dh65 and Dh100, for both the 6pm and 9pm shows, and are available on bookmyshow.com