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The Business Of Funny: How Dubomedy Co-Founder Mina Liccione Redefined Comedy In The GCC As Dubomedy approaches its 16th anniversary, co-founder Mina Liccione explains how her entrepreneurial venture has unabashedly redefined comedy in the GCC.

By Devina Divecha

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Dubomedy co-founder Mina Liccione is a performance artist, tap dancer and comedian.

In 2007, Mina Liccione -an Italian American performance artist, tap dancer and comedian- received a call from her agent offering her a gig in the UAE. At a time when information about the country and the surrounding region was limited in the USA, Liccione was a little uncertain. But after throwing away any misgivings to the wind, she landed in Dubai. And this marked the start of a journey that would change her life -and the landscape of comedy in the GCC- forever.

"I thought, 'Let's just take a leap of faith; let's just go,'" Liccione recalls. "It was supposed to be 10 days, performing as part of a festival, and then it turned into a month-and-a-half. Everyone I met kept saying they love comedy, but there was no local comedy scene. I too was one of the comics that had been flown in. People told me I should come back, and start a [comedy] school. I had to finish up my Master's as well as a couple of contracts, but I said I'll come back in a year, and I'd give it a year- as we all say."

Fast forward to 2008, and Liccione, with her background in performing arts and education, saw the opportunity to fill the void that was apparent in the local comedy scene. While speaking to people interested in what she was hoping to achieve, multiple contacts kept telling her, "Have you met Ali? You need to meet Ali." They were all referring to Emirati comedian and television presenter, Ali Al Sayed. "It was like an arranged friendship," Liccione laughs. "He was just leaving his corporate job, because he wanted to start a comedy company, and start building the comedy scene. We had the same vision. His dream was to be able to export talent, especially as a local. We partnered almost instantly."

Soon after, Liccione and Al Sayed -who, by the way, went on to get married to each other in 2011- launched Dubomedy as a platform for aspiring comedians and performers. From the start, it was always envisioned as more than just a comedy club- the two entrepreneurs running it saw it as a platform for nurturing talent, offering workshops and classes in improv, sketch comedy, stand-up, and even tap dancing.

Dubomedy, which was co-founded by Mina Liccione and Ali Al Sayed in 2008, is set to open a permanent venue in 2024. Source: Dubomedy

Reminiscing about when they first started teaching Dubomedy's signature "Comedy 101" course, Liccione says, "In 2008, when we first started doing classes, there would be a circle of 20 people, who had never met a local, ever- they had so many questions for Ali. Plus, because I was an Italian American woman with a local man, a lot of women felt more comfortable taking the workshop, and a lot of Arabs -especially if English was their second language- felt very comfortable having Ali there."

But starting this venture was definitely not smooth sailing. After all, in 2008, venues were mostly booking karaoke spots and cover bands for their live entertainment- comics were not necessarily on their list. "The hardest part was definitely the very beginning," Liccione admits. "This is 2008, and the only comedy shows happening are the big names being flown in- and even that wasn't that many."

That said, having started Dubomedy, Liccione and Al Sayed were looking for a platform to showcase their students. "We were ready to do a regular weekly [show]," Liccione recalls. "We had the talent; now they needed a platform to get better. We talked to multiple venues, and back then it was a bit stricter, so they said, 'No, it's going to be too dirty.' And we told them we'll keep it on the cleaner side. And then they said, 'But then it won't be funny.' So, there was this juxtaposition, and this constant push back."

But this didn't deter the two entrepreneurs- and soon enough, their efforts bore fruit. "It took months, but we finally met a guy named Jose, who worked at an F&B venue called Warehouse at the Le Méridien Dubai Hotel and Conference Centre, who said he had a free slot on Mondays," Liccione says. And this, as it turned out, was all that the Dubomedy co-founders needed- Liccione proudly declares that she and Al Sayed started the first weekly comedy show in Dubai that featured both locally-based and regional comedians. "And after that, the phone would not stop ringing," Liccione adds. "All of a sudden, everyone wanted comedy."

The duo still co-teach the signature class, nearly 16 years later. Significantly, Al Sayed also teaches classes in Arabic. "That's very important, he's very passion- ate, because so many kids in our generation don't want to speak Arabic," Liccione adds. "And it's so important that we do that."

That said, Dubomedy has also evolved, with its offerings catered to the changing needs of the market. For instance, in addition to classes and workshops that welcome everyone from beginners to professionals, Dubomedy now also produces events and festivals, offers corporate training and team-building workshops, and is also behind several community projects like Clowns Who Care and Autism Smiles. "The Clowns Who Care program is where we do a lot of arts camps, shows and workshops at refugee camps and centers for children with determination," Liccione explains. "That is definitely our heart."

Meanwhile, Autism Smiles came about after Liccione and Al Sayed were asked to be comedy coaches for a film called As One: The Autism Project, produced by Abu Dhabi-based Image Nation, which released in 2014. The documentary focused on the children, parents, and teachers involved in a theatrical and musical program in the UAE designed specifically for children on the spectrum. After an emotional experience being part of the film, Liccione and Al Sayed decided to start Autism Smiles, where they would teach children with determination performing arts and comedy.

Dubomedy is behind several community projects like Clowns Who Care, through which they host arts camps, shows and workshops at refugee camps and centers for children with determination. Source: Dubomedy

Liccione has also made it a personal priority to create a safe space for women in the comedy arena. This is why, in 2009, Dubomedy started Funny Girls, the region's first all-female standup troupe, which is still going strong today. "We started this specifically, because I had a lot of local women saying they would like to try comedy, but they were terrified, and they couldn't go to these places [like bars]," she explains. "And I said, 'Okay, let's make this happen.' I had a group of women from different parts of the world, and we started doing shows at the Ladies Club, specifically for Breast Cancer Awareness Month." Continuing to talk about the importance of inclusivity in comedy, Liccione adds, "I want my mother-in-law to be able to come to a show, I want women in hijab to sit in the front row, and feel comfortable. We really wanted to build this this environment of inclusivity in the comedy world, because many of these women are not going to go to bars."

Looking at how Dubomedy has grown since its humble origins, Liccione proudly says the company has achieved a lot of its goals around building a homegrown comedy scene. "Our whole mission and vision were completely opposite [to other companies], which was to make this our home," she says. "This is our comedy, and we're going to build it here. We are not going to import. We wanted to export, and that has 100% happened. We were struggling to get one venue to take a chance on us, struggling to get permits because they were terrified we were going to say something and get everyone in trouble. But you cannot fake track record. Once we had a very solid reputation and community, it kept going, and now, we have had so many graduates gone on to do incredible things."

Here, Liccione ticks off Dubomedy alumni like Fatima Al Taei, who plays Amal on Iftah Ya Simsim, the Arabic version of the American children's educational show Sesame Street, and who is also a lead on the Netflix show Justice: Qalb Al Adala, as well as Ammar Dabaa, who has famously started an Arabic comedy scene in Amsterdam. "We have made an impact on people's lives." Liccione declares. "We are not just trying to make people laugh. A year or two down the road, we get letters [from alumni] saying, 'Thank you so much. You changed my life.' For us, that is one of the most beautiful things you can ask for, and many of our alumni have gone on to create their own nights producing their own shows, doing podcasts, and some are writing short films."

Mina Liccione with her students at Dubomedy. Source: Dubomedy

So, what is next for Dubomedy? "The next step is a comedy industry, and anyone will tell you, there wouldn't be a local comedy scene without Dubomedy, 100%," Liccione replies. "We're the OG pioneers. That's what they call us." And it's this foundation that Dubomedy plans to use as a springboard to further grow the industry- and part of that is remaining independent so that they can chart their own journey. "Comedy is tricky," Liccione explains. "There's truth in jest, so we have a responsibility, as comedians, to speak the truth, and expose the truth in unique ways. Both Ali and I, since day one, want to make people laugh, of course, but we also want to make them think, and maybe change a negative perspective along the way. From day one, Ali and I had ethics and integrity about what we do, and if you bring in corporate sponsors, that's going to change, unfortunately. So, we didn't. We have lots of brands and clients that hire us, and we have sponsors for bigger events and festivals, of course, but, internally, it's us. It's a mom-and-pop shop, if you will."

But that's not to say that this mom-and-pop shop isn't going to get bigger- and that will start with the launch of a permanent venue. "We usually partner with different venues, and right now, we're at Paramount Hotel Midtown; they have a beautiful facility and gorgeous studios," Liccione says. "Our students love having class there, and the weekly show is there. But we have always wanted a home, and I can't reveal more details, but a permanent venue is coming this year."

More festivals, TV and film projects are also on Dubomedy's list for 2024 as well, and Liccione and Al Sayed are looking forward to what the years to come will bring for the comedy scene in the GCC. "Comedy has been our culture for a long time," Liccione adds. "For Ali and I, comedy is a way of life."

Related: From Corporate To Creative: Amrita Sethi's Path To Success In Dubai's Digital Art Scene

Devina Divecha

Writer, editor, emcee, and media consultant

Devina Divecha is an independent writer, editor, emcee and media consultant, specialising in the hospitality and F&B industry. With more than 10 years of experience under her belt, her work has appeared in a number of publications including Skift, SUPPER, HOTELSmag, Destinations of the World News, Spinneys Magazine, Entrepreneur Middle East, and more. She holds a BSc in Business from the London School of Economics and an MA in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield.

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