Jenan Younis is a London-based comedian of Middle Eastern heritage, whose comedy has been described as ‘a slap in the face… so don’t sit within arm’s reach’.
Boasting a very healthy list of accolades, including a nomination for the BBC New Comedy award, and being a finalist for the South East Comedian of the Year, she is certainly a comedian to keep your eye on. Over the past few years she has carved herself a place in the comedy scene, from devising events with the LSE Middle Eastern Society, to earning herself spots on Radio 4 and at London’s most prestigious comedy clubs – all whilst working in the NHS, and fundraising for a number of charities based both in the UK and in the Middle East.
Ahead of a charity event she has programmed at the Museum of Comedy celebrating the NHS at 70, supporting the mental health charity Young Minds, we invited Jenan to the Arab British Centre to find out more about her journey into comedy, and to find out what she thinks is so funny about being an Iraqi-Palestinian Brit.
When you first started performing it was in a very classical setting, namely the English National Opera. How did you get into comedy?
My first love was theatre, but as you get older and life takes you down a slightly different track, it’s much more difficult to balance the performing arts with everything else. So comedy… it was one of those areas where you’re independent, it’s just you, and you’re responsible for when you perform, what you perform, and how you perform it, so it gave me a bit of autonomy to start performing again.
To be able to work independently on your sets must be great. How would you describe your comedy process now, and did you have much training to get there?
I once did an intensive weekend workshop in comedy where you performed on the Monday over an Easter weekend. We played lots of improv games that you then built a set from.
But inspiration usually happens accidentally, when you’re taking the micky out of something, or on the tube – it’s all very unpredictable. And if you aren’t having fun then you aren’t doing it right. You’ve got to do all those other things to make it happen.
Your comedy draws heavily on your Middle Eastern heritage. What made you decide to focus on that?
‘When I first started comedy, I didn’t talk about [my heritage] at all. It was really weird, because my favourite comedian growing up was Omid Djallili who talks a lot about being Iranian and being Bahá’í, and I often thought that if I could be a comedian then that would be the style that I would use. I wanted to talk about identity, identity politics, who I am and my background, but when I first started comedy I was actually really shy and I found it difficult to break through and talk about it. I don’t know if it was because I was embarrassed, or because I didn’t see anyone of my background on stage, but I definitely think it’s about 80-90% of what I talk about now, so it’s snowballing, a domino effect… one domino down and I can’t stop talking about it because there’s always so much more to talk about!
Well as a female comedian of Arab heritage, you have plenty of identity to discuss! How do your audiences tend to react?
Well there’s actually more than that… I’m Palestinian on my father’s side, and Iraqi on my mother’s side, with Assyrian heritage. Middle Eastern people are like it’s great that you’re talking about that, and I’m slowly working it in one layer at a time – it’s complicated.
I thought that when I first started talking about my background that I was only going to appeal to people of a similar background. The first two LSE ME Society nights that we did were predominately people from the ME or of ME heritage and at first I thought ‘I’m only doing well because of that’ but since then I’ve been pushing myself a little bit outside that comfort zone, and people are surprisingly very positive about it. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from, there’s always something someone can relate to.
Upcoming you have the 70 Years of the NHS event which you’ve programmed, as well as other fundraising events for charities like the Shlama Foundation, based in Iraq. Would you say that this charitable and political work is at the core of your comedy?
I don’t do that much, but I do think that when you’ve grown up not doing anything then there comes a point when you want to contribute in some way. There are a lot of journalists and activists out there talking about similar issues to me, and they articulate it brilliantly, but people don’t always listen – sometimes you can educate somebody more in a comedy set than you can with all the literature that’s out there. The arts is one way of getting certain messages across.
You mentioned that you didn’t see much of yourself represented in comedy. Is that still the case, and how are you working to change that?
It’s definitely changing, but we are lagging behind where we should be. If you look at a lot of comedy lineups in London, they are still predominantly male; a lot of times I’ll be the only female comedian, or the only “ethnic” comedian. There’s definitely now a trend to try and correct it, but I feel its pitched slightly wrongly, because nowadays you’ll see all-female or all-ethnic lineups, and actually what we need is a bit of everything.
It’s about not just catering to one type of taste. Comedy is massively subjective, and everybody likes something different, so why not take that into account rather than saying ‘this is what the comedy trend is now, like it or lump it’.
I think my style of comedy is quite traditional; I like storytelling, I like animated narratives, voices, characters, and that’s probably not what’s considered “in vogue” currently. But you know the best feedback you can get is the audience laughing, and if they’re laughing then you’re doing something right.
So yeah, I would say that we’re definitely still lagging behind in terms of representation, but that’s why I’m here.
Interview by Becky Harrison.
You can buy tickets to see Jounan Younis star alongside Simon Brodkin, Aaron Simmonds, Davina Bentley and many more in A Laugh a Day Keeps the Doc Away – Celebrating the NHS at 70 Years of Age at the Museum of Comedy on 21 November, now. Discounts available for our readers by using the code ‘nhs70’ whilst booking.
Find out more about Jenan Younis and her upcoming shows on her Twitter (@jenan_younis) and instagram (jenan_comedy).