With global media hailing this as the golden age of comedy, is it any wonder that Oman is fast finding its weekend groove in the comic acts of stand up comedians ruling the entertainment roost?
In this story, Oman’s well known comedian Abbas Al Lawati, takes stock of his laughter business to share his passion for the craft and his belief in his talent to make comedy a full time career
From a structured life in the world of finance to an uncharted foray in the business of laughter, Abbas Al Lawati’s stake in the latter is by dint of sheer determination. A banker and auditor by profession, he made an unprecedented career move when he quit his lucrative job, three years ago, to take up comedy as a full time career.
Having broken the norms and having raised the eyebrows of many naysayers, he decided to stop moonlighting and concentrate solely on comedy. It was ironical, in some ways, as people do not associate humour with finance. “It is pretty opposite of what I did,” quips Abbas, who has been doing comedy for close to 10 years now.
The comic bug first bit him when he started travelling to Dubai to compete in the comedy fests. “One was the Dubai Comedy Festival where there were over 40 comedians who came in from all over the Gulf – I was the runner up,” he recalls, hastening to add that the one who won the top slot deserved it completely. “We comedians do not feel jealous of each other,” he adds as an aside.
Following that, he partook in the ‘Beat the Gong’ contest, which is described as the most brutal comedy nights of Dubai. This was during his banking stint and that meant giving up weekends and sleep to manage the strict schedules. He won the contest – decided by audience clap-out – twice and that, alongside a complement he received from a producer of ‘Axis of Evil’ about his performance at the Dubai Comedy Festival, in a way, sealed his fate for a future in comedy. He was gaining recognition back home too, more so in the corporate sector, having opened for Maz Jobrani twice.
But Abbas’ full time entry was not a random move. “When I quit my job, I had my savings – it was all planned. I didn’t do this blindly. Before I quit my job, for about 3 years or more, I was constantly thinking of doing comedy full time,” he says, adding that he did have to make several adjustments. He knew he’d have to tone down his lifestyle and, as he puts it, “survive on shawarmas and stop eating pastas… But I was ready to make those compromises. It’s the price you have to pay for your passion, and I was ready to pay.”
His commitment to his craft soon materialised in a comic brand called Humor Infection, which is operational on all social media platforms, including YouTube. It was the niggling desire to take his art to another level that saw him putting together videos to reach out to the corporate sector and clients who want to check out the fare.
Since the conceptualisation of the brand, he is on a talent hunt, 24/7, to pick the best Oman has to offer and groom them to stand up and play comedy. “The principle behind Humor Infection is ‘keep it original; do not steal jokes’. That’s the golden rule of comedy. There is only so much you can do after stealing someone’s joke or style. I tell my comedians to watch other comedians, learn from the best, but don’t copy the best. There’s a difference – a thin line between learning and copying. In comedy you cannot survive if you are not original,” he notes.
But comedy is not easy. It is so much more than reeling out jokes. It is about body language, punctuation, the tone and that attitude. There is a lot of work that goes behind writing a 15-minute routine. “When I just started comedy, to polish a 15-minute routine, were I would be confident that everyone is going to laugh at every joke, would take me at least 4 months… Comedy is a very potent form of poetry, so every word that goes in has to be calculated. You need to understand what people want to hear, and also don’t want to hear. They usually want you to rush to the punch line. They are selfish folks who just want to laugh,” he muses.
Seasoning the Audience
With instant feedback, unlike other forms of entertainment, it is the audience that plays a big role in making or marring a show. It is not always easy. “I tell my comics that there is a very thin line between trying too hard and not giving a damn about your audience. You are bound to have one member in the audience who is not there to laugh – some people are just so sad in life – nothing can make them laugh,” opines Abbas.
Fortunately, heckling is not a common trend in Oman. The audience is very supportive and receptive, he notes, but believes that they need to be seasoned, just like comedians. “They need to learn how to behave in a comedy show,” he adds, pointing out that people who sit down for the show after partying hard, tend to talk loudly when the comedian is performing. To ease such situations, the team has found ways to quietly approach the ones who are disturbing and ask them to tone it down.
Humor Infection comprises of a diverse mix of talented comedians. Currently, there are 11 comedians, including Abbas, in addition to a graphic designer and a DJ (Teddy). The shows are mainly in English, but plans are on to introduce Arabic as well as Hinglish – a blend of Hindi and English – shows and incorporate ‘roasts’, one of which was successfully presented, recently.
For Abbas, personally, it is English that works. He calls his style ‘observational humour’ and explains it thus: “You see me throw a boomerang, but don’t see it come back and hit you in the back of the head. Now, that is the punch line that I am going to crack…”
Of course, there is a lot of practice that is called for to keep those pre-show jitters at bay. Abbas rehearses in front of the mirror and even studies his hand gestures to perfect the routine. And that is because practice makes his performance look relaxed and spontaneous and helps blur the line between his onstage and offstage personality. “The biggest complement a comic can get, which I got too, is Abbas, what you are on stage you are off stage too… As a comic, it is very important that you are transparent with the audience. Do not hesitate to embarrass yourself. They are spending their money, giving you their time; leaving their families and sitting over there watching you just talk. You have to make sure it works, and how do you make it work…you open yourself like a book. There are some comics who hesitate to be stupid on the stage and may attribute an embarrassing situation to a friend or relative. Why do that? Put it on yourself. The more truth you have in your joke the more validation you have. Audience relate to such incidents,” he explains.
The market is very competitive and every comic has spoken about everything there is to say. And that calls for writing down ideas and fine-tuning them to ensure at least some will click. That also means understanding the sensitivities of the audience and refraining from jokes that might not go down well. Jokes on politics and religion are avoided, and so are jokes that are said to draw cheap laughs. “As a comic there are these ethics you have to follow. Comics are ethical people, we present comedies based on reality,” points out Abbas.
The jokes are also dependent on the platform, as cuss words, which are common in pubs and clubs, are not encouraged at corporate events. “We have to toe the line, as ultimately we are entertainers. If you believe that without cuss words you can’t make anyone laugh, then you are not an entertainer,” he stresses.
With Oman’s comic scene growing from clubs and pubs to the corporate sector, things are looking bright and happening for the growing tribe of comedians in the country. Companies today are opting to hire comedians to come and cheer up the staff at their annual meetings or dos. This has provided the perfect boost for comedians seeking to make a career out of their skill. According to Abbas, to survive as a comic you need such corporate shows.
The growing popularity of comedians in Oman has made the venues, pubs and restaurants, sought after weekend destinations. The restaurants charge a nominal cover fee, which are redeemable on food and drinks, making it convenient for everyone. “People are coming out to support and are ready to spend,” states Abbas, who headlines Humor Infection shows.
As he explains, “Stand up comedy is growing. Earlier, when I used to say I do stand-up comedy, people would be like, is it drama…? But now, when I say I am doing stand-up, they are like, really. They are awed. People today are aware of the format called stand up comedy.”
PN- If you think you are funny, drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for an audition.