First Gig Worst Gig

Jenan Younis

Jenan Younis

Now here's a new bank holiday activity. The first Weapons of Mass Hilarity festival happens at London's 2Northdown over the jubilee weekend, presenting shows by a range of acts with Middle Eastern roots: Maria Shehata, Patrick Monahan, Shirley & Shirley, Amir Khoshsokhan, Daphna Baram, Darius Davies and festival founder, Jenan Younis, among many others. It all began with Younis' secret identity.

"When I first dabbled in stand-up I had to bite the bullet, overcome my social media-phobia and join Facebook," she explains.

"In a bid to keep my comedy double life private from work colleagues, I created a pseudonym, 'Janine Young'. In response to a spot being advertised I messaged the promoter directly who got back to me instantly with a gig offer. This was someone who had never replied in the past when I'd emailed them as 'Jenan Younis.'

"With my geek hat on, I ran an experiment over the next few months contacting promoters requesting gigs using my real name versus the alias. The content of my comedy CV and clip (which cited my Middle Eastern heritage) were identical.

"Hundreds of emails later the stats spoke for themselves. 81% of promoters offered me a spot when I was 'Janine' with only 12% replying to 'Jenan'. Instead of whinging about the results I decided to create Weapons of Mass Hilarity instead."

Weapons of Mass Hilarity festival 2022

That showcase night began in 2018, and "it's incredibly eye-opening to learn that all the comedians that have performed with us have their own set of tales from the industry where they've been actively discouraged to disclose their ethnicity in some capacity.

"Since relaunching after the pandemic, I've noticed our audiences have become increasingly more varied, so - coupled with a growing list of emerging acts - it seemed like a festival was the next logical step.

"I'm also acutely aware of how frustrating festival experiences can be since the last lockdown with rising costs for venues, registrations fees and how for those of us without agent representation, production and PR companies, we're often making a loss. I've tried to do my best to make this festival work for our acts with zero costs for them, and more responsibility on our part to get butts on seats."

Let's weaponise those butts. Details below. But now: Edinburgh.

First gig?

I'm not exactly someone who is particularly conventional, and am a little embarrassed to admit my first gig was a 35-minute set at the Edinburgh Festival (*ugly cry face emoji*).

About four years ago I decided I wanted to give stand-up a go and was absolutely clueless as to where to begin. I spent a weekend in July writing a 'show', emailed about 50 venues in Edinburgh and one replied saying a theatre group had dropped out - three slots were available at their venue and as the theatre group had paid in full, I could have the space for free.

10 days later I was flyering down the Royal Mile and did my first gig in a 30-seater venue just under George IV bridge at 11pm to a full house. It really isn't as impressive as it sounds. All the audience had turned up to watch another show in the same venue which was sold out and the chap at the door sensing I was out of my depth sent them all my way.

I can't quite remember what I talked about; there were a lot of voices - I think a segment on reality TV with unflattering Kardashian skits, a story about my hypochondriac 1990s-Merc obsessed dad, and Trump was in there somewhere.

I don't even think I had any real punchlines, but that very generous, slightly inebriated audience laughed in all the right places and all the wrong places. It was a proper case of beginner's luck. Needless to say I was down to single figure audiences for the remaining two nights.

Jenan Younis

Favourite show, ever?

I'll have to answer this in a sentimental and poetic way #sorrynotsorry.

I watched live stand up for the first time 14 years ago at the legendary Bearcat Comedy Club in Twickenham which introduced me to Omid Djalili doing a range of Godzilla impersonations and belly-microphone hybrid dance numbers. Just before lockdown 1.0 I opened at that very club with Omid Djalili headlining.

Being an audience member in that room so many years previously I remember being utterly captivated by the whole medium of stand-up, and never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I'd be able to get up on a stage and tell jokes, let alone on a line up with Omid.

Worst gig?

I did a new material night in Marlow which turned out not be a new material gig but a variety scratch night instead. The fact that it was in Marlow should've been enough of a clue.

I was the only one doing stand-up sandwiched between a spoken word artist screaming "daddyyyy!!" continuously for seven minutes and an actor who performed an art-imitates-life monologue on her recovery from Ovarian cancer.

The audience were overly dressed, sat on the edges of their seats, sipping white wine spritzers poised with feedback cards and fountain pens. They were not in the mood to laugh (and even if they were, they looked like the types that would find it too vulgar to LOL) or tolerate a set on the trials and tribulations of body hair.

About four minutes in, enlightening them on having a "bush you could see on Google Earth..." my mic cut out and I'm pretty sure that it was no technical fault. I managed to work my way through the best part of a prawn cocktail flavoured family-sized tube of Pringles on the train home.

Jenan Younis

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

Omid Djalili certainly broke through a lot of barriers for Middle Eastern acts in the UK. I never realised the importance of representation till I saw him perform. I used to say that when I grow up I want to be exactly like him (minus the excess sweating on stage and facial hair).

He has been incredibly supportive of WMH, and whilst I've learnt an awful lot about performance and joke writing by watching his work over the years, more recently, his honesty and humility about the challenges in this industry have been refreshing to hear, as well as the need to carve out our own spaces rather than accept the status quo.

And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?

How I would love to answer this honestly! I will try and avoid too many specifics. I was once removed from a project because I was a 'trigger' to one of the regular team members. By 'trigger' it emerged that this particular person had been on a cruise ship and whilst stopping over in Morocco there was a bomb scare which was actually an abandoned child's stuffed toy giraffe.

Not sure there's room to list all the things wrong with that. I'm not Moroccan, was not on that cruise ship, nor do I bear any resemblance to a stuffed toy giraffe. Unless of course this was some twisted tactfulness to avoid telling me they'd changed their mind about liking my comedy! I'd much prefer that rather than a comparison to pseudo-terrorism.

Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?

I used to do a set about Stacey Dooley (I am the world's greatest Stacey Dooley impressionist - this is a fact) where I'd riff on excerpts of her book and documentaries. I genuinely thought what I was doing was cutting edge comedic social commentary but by this stage she had become the darling of the nation post Strictly win so I should've known it would never work.

The thing is, I enjoyed doing her accent on stage far too much and kept that bit in my act well past its sell-by date.

Jenan Younis

What's your favourite WMH moment, over the years?

It has to be the first ever WMH gig which I spent many a sleepless night convinced would be a flop! We crammed just under 100 people in a small space above the Savoy Tap pub in Covent Garden breaching every health and safety rule in existence; with people sat on the floor, perched at the bar and windowsills, turning away countless others who had queued for hours. The response was overwhelming and I'm still living off of that adrenaline rush even now.

Any reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions stick in the mind?

My favourites change on a weekly basis, but current top three audience reactions are:

1. "You're very brave to admit to a room full of strangers your family are from Baghdad" *followed by sympathy-inspired pat on the back and downturned smile*

2. American tourists: Just wanted to say you're very funny and we're not like other Americans we don't hate you because of Islam...
Me: I'm not Muslim. I just spent 15 minutes telling you stories about how people mistake me for being a Muslim when I'm not...
American tourists: ... we don't hate you because of Islam...

3. Post-gig DM: Loved your set on the West Bank. Where do you stand on comedy fans occupying your territory then?

How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?

At the risk of sounding bitter, pre pandemic I found myself with a commissioned BBC comedy show after winning their New Voices competition. I recorded one episode which was released which was starting to open doors for me which were all slammed shut in March 2020 and I was back working in the NHS.

In many ways I'm grateful as I wouldn't have been able to take a step back and recalibrate what I was doing - I don't think I was necessarily writing or performing authentically. There were also many mid-Zoom gig moments where I truly thought - 'that's it - it's the nail in the coffin for live stand-up, we're trapped in recurrent lockdown mode for eternity.'

So coming out the other end of that pessimism, I guess as long as there are live audiences to perform to, I am happy.

Share this page

Show the love

See also