Image Credit: Supplied

The UAE seems to take a goal and run with it. First it was construction — and along came the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa — then came art and culture — the capital now has a Louvre and Guggenheim. And now it seems committed to becoming a hub of comics? A fleet of abras full of comedians seem to be descending on the UAE and bringing the laughs. But there’s also home-grown talent and those who’ve been lured to its sunny climes. Woman pioneer of stand-up Mina Liccione and her opening act Jyotsna Lakhiani spoke to Gulf News tabloid! ahead of comedy special Araby By Nature and explained why they love performing in the city and why comedy is so important to them.

What is Araby By Nature?

“It’s going to be a one-hour comedy special,” said the cheerful Liccione, an award-winning performing artist, comedian, emcee and arts educator hailing from New York. “And it’s also going to be a live recording...Netflix right now [has] been releasing a lot of comedy specials from American comedians more regularly, so I really kinda wanted to film mine in the Middle East to give kind of a different point of view and a different perspective, from a New Yorker who moved to the Middle East...

“A majority of the jokes are from my life and observations of living in the UAE; that East meets West world; and there’ll also be physical comedy and some impressions, and I’m even going to end with a little musical comedy at the end — surprise everybody.”

For Lakhiani, performing was more about getting over a visceral fear of the stage. She got into comedy over a year ago. “I did it to build up my presentation skills and sort of have that little bit of improvisational humour,” she explained, adding that she’s actually “petrified of the stage.”

But working through her clammy hands proved to be therapeutic. “I realised it’s [a] pretty powerful...outlet. There’s not a lot of Indian girls who do this [stand-up]. It demystifies what the Indian girl stereotype is for me. And I like that.”

Liccione, who was awarded Best One Woman Show at the WOW Festival in San Francisco and rated Funniest People in 2012 by Rolling Stone Magazine, does a routine with a little difference. She’s a certified dancer — and not afraid to show her moves. “It’s an interesting transition...when you have two passions and you are performing them a lot, they somehow find their way together, so I do a series of jokes about the history of (the origins of) dance, and I take one dance from Bollywood and I have a theory of what the choreographer was thinking when he choreographed these dance moves, and then there’s an Iranian dance and some hip hop and the moonwalk, so somehow the two found a really good way to unite. So I’ll be finishing the night with that — dance jokes and a parody.”

Long journey

Liccione says the journey to stand-up being appreciated in Dubai has been a long one. She’s been in Dubai for nine years, and recalls the journey with pride and wistfulness. She and her husband, the Arabic comic Ali Al Sayed, started training school Dubomedy in 2008. She says the idea came in part due to the lack of an existing comedy scene. “In New York it’s [the comedy scene is] existing...there’s a circuit, there are hundreds of nights...every night of the week there are ten different ones [comedy clubs] to choose from. Here [in Dubai], in 2008, when we started Dubomedy, we had to build something, there wasn’t something in place that we could build on top of....There was no structure there. So we [Sayed and her] started off with the training school, because anything sustainable really kind of starts with education, being able to train local people who aspire to be comedians.”

The scene has evolved, however, she says. “And [now] there’s a lot of comedians that have gone professional, some people just do it on the side, and we’ve really grown — we aren’t just flying in comedians anymore, you know, and the Middle East is now even starting to export some comedians going to the States, and it’s a really exciting time, I think. Comedy in the region now is really at its peak, with comedy central Arabia launching and other TV channels that are leading more towards comedy, and the local scene has been growing.”

“And it took time but we literally had to build something so it makes sense.”

Name matters

And then I stumble on the name of the institute: Dubomedy. “Dubai and comedy: Dubomedy,” explained a patient Liccione. Where the husband-wife duo train comics, expats and Emiratis alike, on how to be funny.

But does the comic come across other women who are enthusiastic about stand-up? “In the UAE specifically as a female, I’m sometimes the only female...[But] I don’t really notice it, I’m just a comedian....”

“I love performing in the UAE, and after shows a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen a female perform a stand-up live.’ Sometimes, I’ll get, [does an Arabic accent], ‘You din’t have to be dirty, and you were still funny.’ I like it.”

Lakhiani, who learnt stand-up at the institute, said she’s had audience members come up to her and say that she’s “representing Indian women stand-ups”. “If I can make someone’s day five minutes better, that means the world [to me],” she adds.

And while it took the Dubai “born-and-raised” graphic designer convince her apprehensive father that stand-up was a good idea for her, she now feels he’s more proud of her hobby than her day job.

The duo cater to different segments of people, but it helps that Dubai is such a mix of cultures.

“I’ve been really lucky to be able to connect with a lot of different nationalities and cultures here,” said Liccione.

As for censorship, “Well, there is definitely more censorship here [than in the States],” explained Liccione.

“But for me, as an individual, whether I perform in the states or whether I perform here, I don’t perform vulgur content to begin with, so honestly it doesn’t really affect me — and I don’t really do any jokes about religion. ...

“Sometimes I think you have be a little more creative, in the point of view is what it is, the point of view might shift [depending on] where you are performing it, but I definitely feel very lucky to not have been challenged by that.”

Guess the UAE is ready to bring home the funny — one abra-full of comics at a time.

Don’t miss it!

Araby By Nature runs on May 13 at Warehouse Four, Al Quoz. Tickets start at Dh115.