Meet Jenan Younis: the woman evolving comedy

The evolution of comedy for ethnic minorities in the UK is changing. Comedians who once felt oppression in their career paths due to their cultural background are starting to find their space in the industry. UK-based Middle Eastern and North African comedic geniuses now have a very funny fairy godmother to thank. All hail – the one and only Jenan Younis. The London-born Assyrian writer, stand-up comedian and NHS surgeon realised the gap in the market and inherent racism within the comedy scene in the UK. She decided to do something about it. The lack of space open to comedians from all regions did not stop Younis from creating a comedy night tailored to give a platform for unheard voices that deserve to be listened to and represented in the industry. 

“Pick a random comedy night in the UK, and the chances are the line-up will be pale, male and stale,” she says.  

Fear not, for Jenan Younis has diversified the industry, filling your calendars with many potential comedy nights that don’t all feel and look the same. The inclusivity of all ‘Weapons of Mass Hilarity’ shows don’t close other regions off. In fact, Younis tells us that she has noticed in most shows that at least half of the audience are British/white. When Younis launched the show in 2018, she saw the work that was needed to help marginalised voices in the comedic world and by establishing the UK’s first Middle Eastern and North African comedy festival – she is doing just that. 

“When I first dabbled in stand-up, I created a Facebook account with the pseudonym ‘Janine Young’ in a bid to protect my comedy double life from prying work colleagues. Early on, I messaged a promoter directly for a spot advertised; they got back to me straight away with a gig offer. Strangely, this was an individual who had never previously replied when I had emailed them as ‘Jenan Younis’.”

This evidence of racism within the comedy sphere led to Younis conducting experiments to see if the anglicised name was helping her get spots on shows. “Over the following year, I contacted promoters requesting gigs using my real name versus pseudonym.” She tells us, “Bear in mind, the content of the emails that comprised my comedy CV and a clip performing (which cited my Middle Eastern heritage) were identical.”

Disappointing but not surprising were the findings Younis had concluded through her experiments. “81% of the promoters I contacted offered me a spot when I was ‘Janine’, whilst just 12% replied to ‘Jenan’. She says, “This result was replicated, even upon entering an established comedy competition. Only Janine’s application made it through to the qualifying heats. Relaying this experience on the circuit I was frequently told to “just stick with Janine as your stage name!”

Younis is not yet satisfied with where the comedy industry is from an inclusive point of view, bringing attention to the implications of what is stopping growth today, specifically within the current media climate. 

“On the occasions where I have been selected for opportunities based on my ethnic background. It’s often to fulfil a particular agenda that producers have in mind, who frequently fail to do their research and are inevitably met with disappointment when I rock up, unable to tick whatever box they need. An example of this includes being a guest on a podcast hosted by an individual known for championing marginalised voices. Their first question asked me to comment on the Calais Jungle from the perspective of a Syrian refugee. Tricky given that I’m not Syrian, nor a refugee.”

Younis sees the part comedy can play in being able to tell your own story and speak for yourself, a luxury that Middle Eastern and North African individuals struggle to achieve. “I find it frustrating that on the rare occasion, our stories do get a platform, there’s a good chance they’ll be told by someone else outside of our communities, without our lived experiences. It often feels that any beige or brown voice on our behalf seems to be adequate.” 

Political and social movements can be executed through comedy which is why having diverse representation is pivotal. However, Younis still feels that some people, particularly those who dominate the media, view ethnic minorities all the same.

“What springs to mind is the Comedy Central politics special with an episode on Israel-Palestine that made no effort to hire any Palestinian comedians and instead seemed to think it was acceptable having a comedian of Pakistani heritage do the job. Or the BBC podcast that touches upon historical comedy that thought it appropriate that an episode on Assyrian history would be best represented by a Kurdish comedian. It’s insulting, it’s sloppy, and it’s reductive. All either of those production teams needed to do was visit google to stand a better chance of getting it right,” says Younis. 

‘Weapons of Mass Hilarity’ is a comedy night open to anyone and everyone. If you are in need of a chuckle, it is a night that you will remember and one you will want to repeat.

Upcoming shows: 

Weapons of Mass Hilarity Saturday January 21st featuring Jenan Younis, Elie Maalouf, Amir Saleem, Farah Sharp, Kentish Town

WMH solo show: Jenan Younis: A Conflict of Disinterest: Angel Comedy Club, Jan 22nd

Vaults Festival, Vauxhall, February 12th & 26th

Leicester Comedy Festival, February 15th

Weapons of Mass Hilarity Wednesday March 1st, 8pm, Soho Theatre, Leicester Square, featuring Jenan Younis, Hajar J Woodland, Laith Elzubaidi

 

 

 

 

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