These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes

Purva Grover /Dubai
purva@khaleejtimes.com Filed on September 16, 2021

(Shihab)

They’re comfortable with jokes on Filipino stereotypes, rather particularly keen to bring them on stage. Led by the UAE’s first Filipina comedian, Imah Dumagay, together with Joshua-John Villarico Dias and Sharon Sison, the trio only wants you to have a good laugh

On a Thursday evening, as we walk into The Theatre, Mall of The Emirates, Dubai, we’re greeted by Pinoys. We learn that Imah: A Dose of Laughter is an all-Pinoy show — from the ushers to photographers to the crew and the artists, the comedy night has the Filipino ubiquitous fun and warm stamp on it right from the word, start. Leading the show is UAE’s first Filipina comedian, Imah Dumagay, and opening her act are two fellow comics, Joshua-John Villarico Dias and Sharon Sison. What’s on the table…er... stage? Jokes about Sharon’s husband’s passport, which set the tone for the evening. She’s raw and sets the mood. Joshua takes over and we’re neck-deep into how he confuses HR on whether he should be offered a low Filipino salary or a low Indian salary. He keeps the crowd happy but when Imah takes over the evening, it turns a shade phenomenal. She walks us down girls visiting restaurants only to take selfies, makes us visit the bed-sharing space in Satwa, and well after the curtain call asks the management if she’s expected to clean the stage before she leaves. We speak with the three artists on their journey. Did we mention the entire show is a complete English set?

THE QUEEN OF SARCASM: IMAH DUMAGAY

She is many things, an actor, comedian, MC, producer and a stand-up comedian, and please note, UAE’s first Filipina comedian. Imah Dumagay has been a staple in the UAE comedy scene since 2018 and will leave you in splits as she fires one-liners one after the other in English. Her commitment towards making jokes centred on her unglamorous Filipina life (no, we’re not all waitresses and cleaners, but I am available on Saturday!) is as serious as it is towards encouraging others from her community to take to the stage!

From her past life, she has nine years of experience as an executive assistant, with four years of the same in the bank debt and recovery department. Now, Imah, 38, with over 200 gigs to her credit is a full-time entertainer. In August 2020, she performed in Dubai Opera where she hosted for Dubai’s King and Queen of Comedy, Ali Al Sayed and Mina Liccione. She’s also a co-founder of Comedy Kix, a comedy club that runs weekly comedy shows in Dubai.

These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes (https://images.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT30203916.JPG)

There are enough opportunities for female comics...

Now that events are picking up, up to 25 shows are happening in a month. Stage opportunities are not our problem, it’s the lack of female talents. I believe there are loads of funny women here, it’s just a matter of finding and pushing them.

My favourite stand-up comedian is...

Jo Koy and Iliza Shlesinger

And this is my favourite joke...

It’s my Tinder joke: My husband went missing for one month, then I found him on Tinder. I swiped left, he is not my type.

I wish the comic world would...

‘Sensitive’ people to just stop watching stand-up shows. Or if they insist, then at least come with an open mind, listen to the joke and try to understand the intention of the comedian. A majority of the comedians do not mean to insult you, but to talk about issues that are difficult to talk about in a normal setting.

These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes (https://images.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT30204916.JPG)

It’s okay to make a joke about the pandemic because...

For me, comedians should be able to joke about anything. According to me, an important role of comedy as a performing art is to make it easier for people to accept the pressing issues of life. But what is not okay, is to mock the sick and those who died from it — that’s not joking, that’s just disrespect.

One advice to those from my country and others who wish to pursue comedy as a career

Just as in any other work, in stand-up comedy, you have to work hard and be smart. Always be yourself; it’s okay to be inspired by your role model but never copy anyone’s work. If you imitate, you’ll have a shortlived career. This is an individual business, so work on your perspective and personal brand. We already have Dave Chappelle, what we don’t have is YOU.

The future of comedy is...

There are so many new talents coming out, and so many people are now opting to watch comedy shows rather than the usual live entertainment, I believe comedy will soon become a profession that is luxurious enough for comedians to make a living from.

DELIVERING SUBTLE BLOWS: JOSHUA-JOHN VILLARICO DIAS

Joshua-John Villarico Dias, 30, started pursuing stand-up in mid-2018, and he shares that it has been a wild journey ever since. He is currently in between jobs and is focusing on co-hosting his podcast, Half a Nice Day, with his girlfriend Janine Khouri. Born in Dubai to mixed-race parents — his dad is Indian and his mum is from the Philippines — some would say he’s a real local. However, he goes around saying he’s Pindian! He graduated from Dubomedy Comedy School, has done over 50 shows so far and is looking to make it in the comedy scene alongside the local talent in the UAE. He tries to connect with his audience by opening himself up to them and giving them a glimpse of millennial life in Dubai, usually by addressing his life experiences and reacting in a way that no sane person should.

These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes (https://images.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT30205916.JPG)

A Filipino comic, it is a real thing...

It most definitely is! In a city where Filipinos thrive in nearly every domain, from nursing to accountancy to bartending, it should come as no surprise that we have entered the world of comedy too. My very Filipino mother raised me and my siblings to live lightheartedly and joyfully, so I guess you could say that I wouldn’t even be a comic if not for my Filipino side, plus my very Indian father who does not stop with the dad jokes.

In the world of ‘isms’ — feminism, racism, colourism — one can...

One has to read the room, be tactful and, most of all, know where to draw the line. The best way to do this is to not live under a rock — be informed and talk to people to gather multiple perspectives on different topics. But having said this, at the end of the day, no matter how careful you are, there will always be someone who will be offended by a joke. It’s just something you have to live with as a comedian.

And when a joke doesn’t work…

I acknowledge my failure and turn the joke around on myself. It usually works well; the audience members like it when you make yourself vulnerable and remind them that you’re human too.

It’s okay to make a joke about the pandemic...

Of course! This pandemic may not be World War III, but it’s caused all of us to suffer. One day we’re all going to remember this as a catastrophe that we overcame. If we can’t see the humour in how ridiculous things have turned out, and only focus on the negatives, then we are just setting ourselves up for a miserable life. When it comes down to it, comedy is just tragedy plus time!

These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes (https://images.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT30212916.JPG)

My favourite stand-up comedian is...

A very tough question to answer, but one comedian I look up to is Hasan Minhaj. I relate to him on a very personal level as a third culture kid, meaning that, my dad is Indian, and mom is from the Philippines, and I was born and raised in a Christian household in a Muslim country. It makes me question my identity sometimes. Indian-Filipino kid, I exist somewhere in this hyphen. His style of shedding light on really pressing and topical issues with a twist of comedy and satire is unique.

POWERHOUSE OF GIGGLES: SHARON SISON

Sweet and charming, with a bit of a kick — that’s Sharon Sison’s brand of comedy. She shares how her day job is that of a lifestyle operations manager, translation a housewife. Sharon, 42, started pursuing stand-up in the Philippines way back in the early 2000s and performed almost every night for different local bars and other venues all over the country. “I moved to Dubai for greener pastures and took a break from comedy for about seven years (2011 -2018) and then I met Imah, who convinced me to take the comedy classes from Dubomedy. I figured, why not? I have done it before, why not do it again? So, here I am,” she says. She is not afraid to talk and laugh about her ethnicity, the stereotypes that she faced and even her relationships. She loves talking about her husband (especially his passport)! Her motto is: If I can’t laugh about it... I need more coffee.

These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes (https://images.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT30207916.JPG)

A Filipina comic is...

We used to be just figments of everyone’s imagination but we have come to life like Pinocchio!

There are enough opportunities for female comics in the UAE...

We have open mic nights almost all days of the week and these are open to everyone, but still, there are not many female artists around. I don’t know if it’s because the women are shy or need more time to come out of their shells. But at the moment, the comedy community is dominated by men. We are working to even out those numbers!

You sell a joke by...

It has to be funny to me. If I can laugh about it, then the laughter would pass on to the audience. They will feel the authenticity of the joke if I feel it.

In the world of ‘isms’ — feminism, racism, colourism — one can...

I have always believed that there is “always” a better way of saying things and words are very powerful, even as a joke. I often ask people around me for advice before I take a joke on stage. I also put myself in my audiences’ shoes, and ask myself, “How would I feel if I was the one watching and someone else cracked that joke?”. If a part of me feels it is offensive, no matter how small that part is, then I don’t go ahead with the joke. However, as much as you want to be politically correct, there will be times when you will offend someone. It’s good to remember that you cannot please everybody, no matter how brilliant a comedian you are.

And when a joke doesn’t work…

Ideally, I’d like to bury that joke in a box labelled “jokes that will never see the light of day ever again”! Normally, I just laugh about it.

It’s okay to make a joke about the pandemic...

The pandemic knocked the wind out of everybody’s sail, and we all found our coping mechanism to handle it. Laughter is a great aid to uplift one’s mood, it releases all those happy endorphins that boost morale, energy and health. It is a bit easier to face a problem with a light heart and a positive attitude.

These UAE-based Filipino comics are busting cultural stereotypes (https://images.khaleejtimes.com/assets/jpg/KT30208916.JPG)

My favourite stand-up comedian is

Oh my god, so many! Robin Williams, Wanda Sykes, Ali Wong, Katherine Ryan, Jo Koy, Yumi Nagashima, Joe Lycett, Dulce Sloan… the list goes on.

The one thing I wish to change in the comic world...

More of an improvement, not a change. I think we need to improve the incentives for people who want to get into comedy. We need to compensate the comics for their talent because exposure does not pay the bills. And also, open up more venues for hosting comedy nights.

purva@khaleejtimes.com

author

Purva Grover

Purva Grover is a journalist, poetess, playwright, and stage director. She made her debut as an author, with The Trees Told Me So, a collection of short stories. She is the editor of Young Times, a magazine that empowers the youth in the UAE. She conducts fortnightly writing workshops, author interaction events, open mic sessions, etc. for the writing fraternity in UAE. Her stage productions have been recognised for their boldness, honesty, and unique voice. She is backed with a post-graduate degree in mass communication and literature. Born & brought up in colourful-chaotic India, she writes in English and currently resides in Dubai, UAE. You can stalk her on Instagram @purvagr and say hello to her at purvagrover.com