Funny business of providing comedy for expats
“I’ve had so much plastic surgery over the past 20 years that in my next life I’m going to come back as a washing-up bowl,” Gail Clough laughs. And laughs. That’s what Clough likes to do. Laugh. A lot.
For the past 12 years with her business partner Duncan Jones and their company the Laughter Factory the dynamic duo have been touring UK comedy acts around the Gulf region for profit and punch lines.
“We started the company because we missed British comedy,” says Clough, a woman who came to Dubai via Manchester club nights, cruise ship entertainment and personal DJ sets for the Sultan of Brunei. “When we started booking acts we would fill one venue in Dubai. Now we have four in the city and eight others around the region.” Last year the Laughter Factory ran stand-up shows on alternate months, now it’s a regional circuit every four weeks.
So what’s the appeal of comedy for the expat? Homesickness, says Clough. “Humour is subjective to nationality and sometimes people want to reconnect with where they are from. It’s a kind of shared emotion.”
A few emails to Laughter Factory devotees underlines comedy’s place in the expatriate social fabric. “Dubai’s become more work hard than play hard these days, it’s hard to find a guaranteed good night out,” says Telegraph Expat Mentor Rob Nicholas. “The Laughter Factory delivers, it is always full of people just out for a good time.”
“Jokes are like strawberries they always taste better when they are home grown,” says publishing managing director Brian Ashby. Writer Dominic Ellis describes the stand-up shows as a cultural constant in a hugely transient city. “It’s the only event locally that features off-the-cuff improvisation and that’s particularly appealing given that so much in Dubai is stage-managed.”
The dramatic emergence of the Gulf region as an international hot spot has inevitably impacted on audiences with a younger mainly British ‘comedy-literate’ crowd replacing the archetypal long-serving middle-aged expat in cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
“People no longer come because there is nothing on telly, they come because they’ve seen shows in the UK,” says Clough. “They are more wired into comedy and the result is that we can bring over cleverer acts.” The comedians are also adopting a more global perspective as ever-increasing numbers of comedy clubs spring up all over the world. “They want to tour internationally and there are now more opportunities than ever.”
One of those opportunities is thousands of miles away from the bright lights and skyscrapers of the Gulf tucked away in a small theatre off a tree-lined boulevard in Belgium. British barrister and former Edinburgh Festival Perrier Award judge David Lemkin has been organising Stand Up Brussels comedy nights in Belgium since 2002. Like Clough he’s seen interest in comedy increase over the years and now organises stand up nights every six weeks.
“I think when you’re working with a lot of different nationalities you are probably very self-aware of humour, but when you come to the shows you can just sit back and relax,” he says. “It’s very liberating.”
Lemkin was inspired to set up Stand Up Brussels by the comedy clubs of Hong Kong, Singapore and Dublin as well as the huge potential of the English-speaking expatriate community of Europe’s capital. Still, he believes his audiences are difficult to define. “They are certainly sophisticated, international and enjoy intelligent acts,” he says. “But they are open to all sorts of comedy. It’s eclectic. I remember a juggler and a flamethrower went down particularly well, but Jimmy Carr struggled a bit. Why? Well, Brussels audiences are very sweet and he torn into someone in his usual style and the response was distinctively lukewarm.”
Packing those audiences is a mini Europe of nationalities. The theatre lobby welcome of people potentially speaking in 23 EU languages is as warm as Lemkin’s famous pre-show curry suppers. English is predominately the first language but it’s not unusual to hear smatterings of Maltese, Slovakian or Latvian.
So, how does Lemkin as a barrister reconcile the worlds of law and comedy? “I don’t really. They are very different,” he says. “The courts are full of etiquette, very controlled environments that are formal. The comedy world is informal, creative and it’s for big kids. A lot of late nights, it’s mad.”
As Lemkin puts down the phone, an email appears in my inbox from Clough. It’s her favourite joke. “I gave my boyfriend an empty box for Christmas. He asked, ‘What is this?’ I said it’s all the ******* space you keep asking me for.”