Middle Eastern stand-ups: ‘People assume we only do terrorist jokes’

Every comedian expects rejection when they’re starting out. But an email mix-up convinced Jenan Younis that her jokes weren’t the problem.

To research comedy nights on Facebook, Younis set up a new account, and to avoid colleagues finding it used an anglicised name: Janine Young. When she accidentally messaged a promoter as Janine, they immediately offered a paid gig: “It was someone that had never got back to me before.”

She began an experiment, emailing promoters under both names and tracking the responses for a year. “I got 80% responses from my fake name, versus 12% for my real name,” she says. The comedy CV and videos of her performing were the same: “It makes you wonder whether they even open the email. It’s almost like they just go, ‘I’ve already got an ethnic act.’”

This experiment pushed Younis – who’s Assyrian, Christian, and grew up in Surrey with her Iraqi mum and Palestinian dad – to set up Weapons of Mass Hilarity, her own comedy night, where everyone on the bill is from a Middle Eastern background. “It meant there was always a space for me to perform, but also for people who might’ve encountered similar issues.”

Being Assyrian, Younis is a “minority within a minority”. She noticed the lack of nuance within representations of the Middle East. “Stereotypes are that the whole Middle East is Arab and Muslim,” she explains. “One act who is brown or beige doesn’t represent every person of colour. I’ve been contacted last-minute by promoters who are like ‘My non-white act has dropped out, can you fill in?’” Younis, winner of the 2019 BBC New Voices award, also encountered assumptions that if you’re a Middle Eastern comedian “the only jokes you have are terrorist-related”.

Patrick Monahan, who’s been doing standup for 20 years, headlined Weapons of Mass Hilarity in July. Monahan was born in Iran to an Irish father and Iranian mother. During the 1979 revolution, his family came to the UK, settling near Middlesbrough. His first language is Farsi, then Arabic, with English third, and he’d never seen standup until he left home. But he kept this history separate from his comedy. “It’s taken me decades doing comedy to talk about certain things,” he says.

Many comedians who aren’t white, straight men are told to tread a fine line on stage: explain your identity, while avoiding too much material about it. “As an immigrant or someone who’s mixed heritage, you have to work 10 times harder,” Monahan says. While Peter Kay can joke about Rola Cola or garlic bread and assume his audience gets the reference, “you have to explain everything.”

Monahan recalls a producer telling him a radio idea that referenced his heritage “isn’t going to be relatable to our audience”. But denying Middle Eastern people opportunities on this basis creates a vicious cycle: “These things shouldn’t be threatening, if anything they’re interesting. Variety is the spice of life.”

When Younis first started doing standup nearly four years ago, she was inspired by “people like Gina Yashere and Omid Djalili, who talk about their backgrounds. Strangely, I wasn’t doing that.” She felt pressure to avoid making audiences “uncomfortable”. Many comedians “feel like we need to pander. It’s like: I need to get them on side, then I’ll talk about colonialism or the Iraq war. You push yourself to fit somebody else’s perceptions of what comedy should be.”

At Weapons of Mass Hilarity, she discussed her dad’s West Bank origins and Middle Eastern women’s body-hair worries. Meanwhile, Monahan discussed Iranian women’s love of Irish men, contrasted stereotypes of the Middle East and the UK’s north-east, and told jokes combining Farsi and Arabic. “It’s a nice feeling,” he says. “With a mainstream audience, for years I wouldn’t even mention that I wasn’t born in this country. Whereas with these gigs, you can ask if anyone speaks Farsi.”

At the July gig, half of the audience was from the Middle East. Monahan says some might not have watched standup before: he remembers having Bernard Manning jokes repeated to him at school. If that’s your experience, you might feel comedy clubs aren’t for you. But at Weapons of Mass Hilarity, you’ll never be the butt of the joke. “We’re going to joke about different cultures, but in a way that everyone can feel comfortable,” Monahan says. “You can joke about every race and religion, as long as you’ve got experience of that.”

Yet neither Monahan or Younis want to “preach to the converted”. Monahan says he’d like to see these acts performing to “audiences that don’t already agree with you. Use humour to say: we’re different but we’re all still human.”

Djalili and Shappi Khorsandi were once lone representatives of the Middle East in UK comedy. They inspired Monahan and Younis – and apparently lots of others, too. Younis says she has a growing number of acts to book for her night.

Younis is now working on her first hour, Jenanistan, exploring assimilation versus integration. She also has big plans for Weapons of Mass Hilarity, imagining a weekend festival. “When you start comedy, all you want to do is make an audience laugh,” she says. “That’s still our primary aim, but there’s a lot of power in comedy to propel change and bring people together. If you can all laugh under the same roof, that’s a great start.”

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