How a history teacher ignited a comedy scene that has the capital in stitches
Jon Boulton lives a double life. By day, he works for an international school as a history teacher. But at night, the neckties and books give way to casual shirts and jeans – and wisecracks to trigger a ruckus.
Jon is a stand-up comedian and the co-founder of Yalla Laughs, a production that organises comedy shows in the city and neighbouring emirates.
“Once I step out of school after preparing my lessons for the next day, I drive to the gig and practice on the way,” smiles Jon.
“It’s a totally different environment but it’s also similar in a way because you’re standing in front of people and you do your best to get the audience’s attention, the same way you try to get kids to listen. So it’s a natural transition.”
Jon grew up in Manchester, England and has always been a fan of comedy. He recalls his father blurting out typical dad gags, which according to him, “weren’t always funny… But he loves to joke around”.
His favourite comedy acts as a young man included the obvious names: Monty Python, Frank Skinner and Jerry Seinfeld.
But while Jon would share his love of jokes with family and friends at social gatherings, taking it on stage was never part of the plan.
That all changed when his wife egged him on to sign up for a comedy class in London three years ago.
“At the end of the course you do a gig, and that went pretty well,” recalls Jon. “I really enjoyed it so I carried on, doing comedy gigs across London – from open mic nights and pubs.”
Even formal speeches at weddings – and oddly enough, funerals – were spliced with Jon’s funny jabs in an effort to lighten up the moment.
“I got good feedback and people said I should do more stand-up,” says Jon. “I really
love doing it!”
Prior to arriving in Abu Dhabi, Jon worked in the Philippines, the Czech Republic and Saudi Arabia.
“We lived in Riyadh for two years. Then my wife got a job here and we decided to have a change, move to a place with a much nicer climate. We’re really happy here and we enjoy the people and culture,” says Jon.
But it wasn’t long before Jon noticed that for a country known for its vibrant night scene, there was an obvious lack of a comedy circuit. While there are occasional events, mostly bannered by international comedians, the majority of events were staged in Dubai.
Jon and fellow capital-based funnymen soon got tired of the late night long travel from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, and vice versa.
This inspired Jon and close friend Erik Thornquist to establish a local comedy production centred in Abu Dhabi to give city-based comedians a platform to showcase their gags.
“It had to have that local concept. We came up with various names that would best represent it; we were close to naming it Hummus,” laughs Jon.
Yalla Laughs debuted early this year at Barosa pub in the Hotel Ramada Downtown. The overwhelming success led to more gigs and venues, sparking the growth of a fledgling comedy scene in Abu Dhabi. And in true Abu Dhabi fashion, the audience is a mixture of cultures.
“We try to make sure that the jokes make that connection with the audience, because we have Brits, Americans, Scandinavians, Indians, Filipinos, Emiratis, Egyptians – it’s really a mixture, so we always make sure that we have a diverse line-up of comedians.
“A lot of the humour is based from living in the UAE; living as an expat here we have a mixture of audience. We’ve come from a place where there’s no comedy at all to actually starting a comedy scene.”
The process of formulating jokes is no walk in the park. Jon finds inspiration for his comedy sketches from first-hand experiences.
“It comes from a lot of things: from my job teaching, some from news, like now we have Donald Trump so there’s material there, also other sorts of things from living in the UAE.
“Driving on Sheikh Zayed Road on a Thursday evening, there’s plenty of material there, and living in the UAE in general makes good comedy routine.
“I was worried doing comedy here compared to the UK, having lived in Saudi where there are restrictions. There are jokes that I can never tell here but I think one of the main differences is that people are friendlier in this country. Generally, I’ve never really had trouble with hecklers in the UAE whereas in the UK it can be a challenge. Venues here are also nice. I’ve been to smoky pubs and venues in the UK, and that was my scene before coming here.”
Preparation for a stage performance starts from practising in front of the mirror, to rehearsing lines in the car. Jon, who admits to guzzling a can of Red Bull before a performance to pacify his nerves, also tests new material on his wife.
“She can be a harsh critic,” he chuckles. “Sometimes I slip the joke in while teaching a lesson just to see, but if they’re appropriate, of course.”
Keen to spread the laughter, Jon will be launching a Yalla Laughs comedy course next year for aspiring comics to complement the weekly performance across Abu Dhabi. Jon is also gearing up to teach comedy as an afterschool extra curricular activity at the British International School.
As for the skills needed to be a good stand-up comic, he says, “Looking confident is half the skill. Because people watch comedians and they’re waiting for them to fail. But if you look comfortable then you’re half
He adds, “One of the reasons why I got into stand-up comedy is because I have a fear of public speaking – and what better way to get over that than to stand in front of people.
“It takes a lot of practice and you won’t really know until you’ve done, let’s say, 50 gigs. And the best way to learn is to fail. I’ve been on stage where things went horribly wrong. It’s been painful but I’ve come a long way.”