Abu Dhabi: After making regular trips to Dubai to perform their stand-up comedy routines, two residents in Abu Dhabi decided to start their own comedy club in the capital and, in turn, provide a platform for stand-up comedians in Abu Dhabi to show audiences their comedic talents.
Opened in 2015 by two friends — Jonathon D. Boulton from Britain and Erik Thronquist from the US, both of whom teachers — Yalla Laughs Comedy is Abu Dhabi’s only comedy club, with its weekly events organised at different hotel venues around the city. The comedy club is also licensed by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
“The club was founded in 2015 because we both enjoyed doing comedy as a hobby and we saw that there was no actual comedy club in Abu Dhabi, and so we decided to open one ourselves,” said Boulton.
“It was hard at first because a lot of people thought it wouldn’t be possible; they thought Abu Dhabi was too strict and that also there was no stand-up comedy scene in Abu Dhabi. It was even difficult getting venues to host us — they were worried someone would say something wrong and they could end up getting in trouble,” he added, explaining the initial challenges the club faced.
Boulton said the club eventually found one hotel that agreed to host their show.
“We managed to find one hotel that agreed to host our events, and from there we just kicked on to where we are now. We have grown a lot over the last three years whereas at the start it was difficult to find one venue for our events. We now have people calling us to come and do our shows at their hotels.”
And just like Abu Dhabi itself, the comedy club has come to represent the city’s vibrant multicultural scene both in terms of its audience make-up and performers.
“It’s really great we have people from all over coming to our shows, it’s a very diverse make-up of people — we have Emiratis, other Arab nationalities along with Indians, Europeans and Africans and many other different nationalities who attend our shows,” said Thronquist.
“The comedians who also perform come from a wide array of nationalities, I myself am American, Boulton is British, and we also have Emirati stand-ups. I think that’s what makes the experience much more enjoyable for the audience because you have all of these different comedic styles that you get to see in one night,” he said.
With comedy also comes rules according to both men, who say that cultural norms and sensitivities must be respected at all times.
“We are very careful with what we do and we set out clear boundaries and red lines that we don’t cross, there are some things we just don’t talk about,” Boulton explained.
“In general, we haven’t really had a problem. The best comedians are the ones who can do jokes about topics everyone can relate to, like driving, for example, or current events like the World Cup. If someone was going to talk about something controversial that would make the audience uncomfortable and they’re not going to come back,” he said.
Thronquist said the club hasn’t found it difficult to balance its comedy with following local rules.
“At the end of the day, we can do this by the grace of this country, we have the licence from the DCT Abu Dhabi and we follow the rules.
“If there’s ever a problem, they will let us know about it and we will just sort it out.
“They’re fair in what they ask, and at the same time none of the requests they make stops our comedians from being funny or stops the show from being good and preventing the audience from having a nice time. So the rules aren’t really a problem and I don’t think it’s too strict,” he adds.
Projecting Emirati perspective
One of the regular performers at Yalla Laughs is Emirati comedian Marwan Al Hashemi.
A dentist by day, Al Hashemi says he started doing stand-up comedy three years ago.
“One of my friends who is a stand-up comedian told me that I should also try it because of the way I talked about things while in the office, he said I had a funny style and that I could be good at stand-up as well.
“The first time I went on stage, I was very nervous, it was just for a few minutes but it felt so long for me at the time,” he added.
Al Hashemi said he enjoys showing audiences a different side to Emiratis — one they’re not usually familiar with.
“It is a surprise for them when they see an Emirati doing stand-up comedy. I believe it’s also a good way for them to learn about Emiratis, I’m giving them an understanding about the same daily things we all go through but from an Emirati perspective, and through the art of comedy.
“The topics I talk about are broad but they’re all about things we can relate to, like our daily routines and work life. I just talk about these things from the Emirati point of view and the audience enjoys it,” he added.
Colin Armstrong, a Scottish resident who works in the media and also performs for the club, said he is always careful about the type of content he talks about.
“In comedy, people from all backgrounds have a good sense of humour as long as you come at it in the right way. People are open to laughing. Of course, there are topics you just shouldn’t talk about. Comedians aren’t reckless, we put a tremendous amount of care and thought into every single word we say.
“It’s important to be aware of your audience, you can push the boundaries a little bit but it’s all about reading the audience. If your act is just about being offensive, you won’t last long and your audience won’t enjoy it. We’re all guests in this country so you need to have self-awareness to know your limits and operate within that,” he added.
Armstrong said that having a diverse audience was not an issue as most people usually found the same topics to be funny.
“The thing about comedy is that it’s beyond a language and social construct, it’s something that brings us all together. Comedy is a really powerful force in uniting people.
“If the audience saw the same act by five different comedians, they wouldn’t enjoy it. So it’s important for each of us to have our own unique style, we talk about the same overlapping themes and experiences because we all live in Abu Dhabi, but it’s important to do that with your own style that stands apart from the act that came before you,” he added.