Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there
Gail Clough and a friend launched The Laughter Factory as bored expats in the '90s seeking something more to do.
At 20, the Briton quit her industrial chemistry career to become a nightclub DJ and took her decks around the world, eventually ending up in Dubai.
Twenty-five years on, Ms Clough is the face of the UAE's best-known touring comedy club, staging shows in hotel venues throughout the year.
She has hosted hundreds of comedians – some now global stars – while also keeping herself “match fit” with stand-up spots at amateur open mic nights in case one of her acts cancels.
Ms Clough, 57, invited The National along to the closing night of a recent tour to discuss her journey.
Why start comedy nights?
I was earning lots of money because there were no other DJs here in Dubai at the time.
The entertainment scene comprised musical couples sporting mullets, murdering Hotel California.
So my business partner and drummer, Duncan Jones, and I started putting on shows to stop ourselves going nuts.
I knew a guy in Manchester who had a comedy club. He sent us some comedians and then The Laughter Factory was born.
I was unique as a female comedy promoter then, and there were barely any female stand-ups.
How did you end up here?
I quit my day job to become a DJ and spent seven years travelling to 11 countries.
I drove to Norway with my records, and lived in the Arctic Circle.
I worked for the Sultan of Brunei at his palace and at a high-end hotel in St Moritz, Switzerland, where the Kennedys and Liz Taylor stayed.
I was in Cairo for a year before I came to Dubai at the start of 1993.
We put on bands and club nights. Five years later, we started doing the comedy.
We weren't entrepreneurs, but I'm a massive people pleaser.
Was it hard to secure the comedians?
During the first 10 years, if there was a war in Afghanistan or Iraq, or if something happened in the region, people would cancel shows. They thought Dubai was the same place.
Now that never happens. That's the good thing about the internet, and obviously, the destination is so desirable. People want to be here.
Plus, our audience is highly educated. We used to be 90 per cent British, 20 per cent mixed. Now we're 80 per cent mixed.
We literally have people from every conceivable country, but you need to speak fluent, book-level English to enjoy the show.
So has the comedic talent also changed?
If you've a UK act talking about Primark and Gregg's, it's not going to work like it would have done.
With the new audience we've acquired over the last five years, it's become very global and cosmopolitan.
I've got the club and the audience that I want, so we have to make sure that the acts are not parochial.
The internet opened people's minds. Before they would say: “I'm British, I only like British comedy.”
We broke into the American market and I've got stand-ups coming … people can barely breathe from laughing.
People who regularly go to comedy clubs like that, it's not just one person for two hours on our stage, but three difference accents, different opinions and voices.
How do you find the acts?
We have 36 comedians a year. I do a lot of research and I get great advice from the other comics. YouTube’s not really reliable, because sometimes there’s canned laughter. You can really slip up.
When you see the video is good and other comics are telling you so, and you keep hearing the same name … then you know.
Obviously, you’re going to like some comics more than others, and people who go to clubs regularly accept that.
Have any gone on to become big stars?
Russell Peters, Indian comic Vir Das who just sold out Dubai Opera, Michael McIntyre, Jack Whitehall and Kevin Bridges. Jason Manford still comes for us every year.
The famous ones are not necessarily the best ones, but they have always got the best work ethic. They are business comics.
People ask me if we are gutted when we lose them and they go off and become famous. No, it shows we're booking well.
Are you still passionate about staging comedy nights?
It’s consumed me and I love it a thousand times more than ever, although now it’s more difficult to make money. It’s more competitive.
People go online and buy a ticket for a KISS concert. They live out in the sticks and they only come into town for that gig and nothing else.
Whereas before, the married people lived in Jumeirah and it was a Dh5 cab ride. TV was rubbish so they used to go out. Everyone was earning good wages and paying low rent.
The cost of living is higher now. People find the money for the big shows and the smaller ones struggle.
You’re fighting for people’s attention, people are working harder, they’ve got more bills to pay, cabs have got more expensive, they have more choice of things to do here.
They are also using their smartphones to watch more stuff online. YouTube and other platforms have savaged attention spans.
Technology was meant to make our lives easier, but my life was much easier 20 years ago. I would send out a press release, put an advert in (the newspaper) and sell out, 300 people a night. Now, I never stop working to get a third of the people and your information is in 100 places.
So how has The Laughter Factory evolved?
I’m having to rebuild the brand and get people who’ve never been to live comedy to come because a lot of my customers left (during Covid).
But during the lockdown, I had an epiphany. Covid wiped me out financially, but I wasn’t panicking about losing money.
I was in my flat alone for three months, but I didn't feel lonely because I remembered when I went to the Arctic Circle when I was 20 years old after I felt I had hit rock bottom.
I've never felt lonely again since then, but I realise that other people do.
With The Laughter Factory, I try to take that away. And, at the end of the night, I host an after-party. No chairs, everybody has to stand, and I introduce people to others.
I'm on a crusade, saving the world one laugh at a time.
Are you offering a public service?
Life has got more stressful. People need comedy so much more, to interact with other people, have something else to talk about.
You never know who is in the room, maybe someone is feeling down, lost a job or gone through a break up. They can come to a comedy show and feel better. I’m not saying psychiatrists don’t have their place …
Jokes are meant to be laughed at and I make sure people are packed together so they cannot just hear but can feel each other’s laughter.
There’s nothing better than a roomful of people laughing together and you’ve played a part in it.
And I’ll do it as long as people still want to come.