Jenan Younis: ‘The show began as a way of exploring my realisation that I may be invisible’

Stand-up and Weapons of Mass Hilarity comedy night founder Jenan Younis tells us about her new show Jenanistan.

We’re adding some interviews to LMAOnaise!! Having chats with some of our fave people, sharing some little interviews and special features relating to upcoming shows.

Jenan Younis is our next victim, and someone that I’ve come to know through video clips and audiobites over the past year. Among her accolades, Jenan is a BBC New Voices Competition winner and Funny Women finalist, and she founded comedy night Weapons of Mass Hilarity, which champions comedians of Middle Eastern and South West Asian/ North African heritage. She is here to tell us about her upcoming show Jenanistan, which you’ll have a good few opportunities to catch over the next couple of months while she works-ins-progresses it.

Tell us about Jenanistan

It’s my first hour show that I started to write after I fell down an escalator at Warren Street Station during rush hour in the most spectacular Norman Wisdom-esque style just before lockdown 1.0 hit … and no one saw me! The show began as a way of exploring my suppressed realisation that I may be invisible but goes on to navigate those themes as a woman, a millennial, as an ethnic minority within a minority or just as someone who ends up walking into automatic doors because they just don’t *see* me…

The show has changed over the last year into a debate about assimilation versus integration; the public versus private facades we have — or I have rather. How much of me really is British? Or are all those attributes (my incessant apologising, my calm exterior, my obsession with fine print clauses) just carefully cultivated artifice? Stacey Dooley, the Backstreet Boys and Waitrose Avocado Humus all feature.

I’ll be work-in-progressing it at Clapham, Aberystwyth and the Women in Comedy Festival this year.

What has been the highlight of your comedy career so far?

Being on the same bill as Omid Djalili at the Bearcat Comedy Club — he’s one of my childhood comedy idols (I wanted to grow up to just like him but without the excess sweating); I loved seeing someone from the Middle East present the culture and nuances in such an accessible way to British audiences. He was the only figure from the Middle East that I saw on British television as a child, and it was truly inspiring watching someone talk about their background so openly. I previously tried to meet him backstage at the Edinburgh Festival a few years previous (Assembly Rooms #slacksecurity at the stagedoor), but got escorted out. It was phenomenal to see my name next to his in a context other than a restraining order.

How did you get into comedy in the first place?

I was persistently bullied into it! I’ve always loved performing/attention — I used to sing for the English National Opera at school and then got side tracked down an academic path and very much wanted to find a way back on stage. It was really persistent attempts by a former thespian pal that convinced me to give it a plunge. Although sometimes I do wonder whether my first actual gig was aged 5 performing an impression to my school mates of my enraged dad after I chucked up in the back seat of his beloved beemer after binging on prawn cocktail Pringles.

What's the strangest thing someone has said to you after/during a gig?

An audience member genuinely asked me after a gig “what was the trip like from Calais”?

Tell us about Weapons of Mass Hilarity, how it started and where it's going!

WMH is a comedy night I started after a little experiment I ran in my first year of comedy — I emailed promoters over the course of a year with my real name versus anglicised name, but with the exact same comedy cv. I got over 80% response/gig offers when I was “Janine” versus just 12% when I was “Jenan” (doesn’t take a statistician to work out that was prettyyyy significant…)

Rather than whinge about it, I chose to be proactive — WMHs champions emerging (and established) talent from comedians with Middle Eastern/SWANA heritage as well as fundraising for charities such as AMAR and Syrians Across Borders, MAP and Shlama Foundation.

It also provided a vent for my frustrations with a lot of the stereotypes and pigeonholing I was getting on the circuit (there was a stint where I seemed to only get booked for Muslim gigs — were they in for a little surprise when I got there!) and just within the creative industry as a whole in the sense that the dominating narrative about the Middle East is very much Arab/Muslim-centric; and when there’s only one narrative it then becomes the only narrative. My family are Assyrian and most people wouldn’t even have heard of us outside of a draughty British Museum gallery. I suppose it was also part of a personal mission I have in changing those preconceived ideas not just amongst mainstream audiences but our own diaspora communities. Comedy is a great medium for sowing those seeds — if you can all laugh under the same roof that’s a great starting point.

The night has evolved and whilst still predominantly SWANA focused: it is now a space where we do welcome comedians from all under-represented backgrounds to perform.

We have two more shows scheduled for 2021; October 30 & December 4 both at 2Northdown with 10% of ticket sales going to Afghan Aid. The next show will have Anoushka Rava, David Lewis, Laila Alj, Shazia Mirza and myself. We are planning a weekend festival for 2022 with work in progress shows, cabaret, musical and sketch as well as our usual compilation shows.

Catch Jenan Younis performing Jenanistan (WIP) on September 22 in Clapham, October 2 in Aberystwyth, and at the Women in Comedy Festival.
Weapons of Mass Hilarity will come to 2Northdown on
October 30 and December 4.


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