At the start of my comedy journey I created a new Facebook account with the name 'Janine Young', to ensure work colleagues didn’t stumble across it. I accidentally contacted a promoter for a spot; they rapidly got back to me with a gig offer. This was someone that had never replied previously when I emailed them as 'Jenan Younis'.
With my geek-hat on I decided to run an experiment. I contacted promoters over the course of a year with my real name versus anglicised name but with the same comedy CV. 81% of promoters got back to me as 'Janine. Only 12% replied to 'Jenan'.
Rather than whinge about it I thought I'd be pro-active and so Weapons of Mass Hilarity was born!
The night aims to showcase comedians who have Middle Eastern/North African heritage. As far as I'm aware it's the only one in existence. Whilst that remains the main focus, we do have a guest spot for a comedian from any sort of marginalised group too.
That wasn't the only reason for WMH. It also served as a vent for my frustrations of being pigeon-holed on the circuit. There was a six month stint where I seemed to exclusively only get contacted by Muslim gig promoters — #plottwist... not everyone Middle Eastern is Muslim!
The dominating narrative of the region is very much Arab/Muslim-centric; when there's one narrative it then becomes the only narrative. My family are Assyrian via Baghdad and the West Bank, and most people wouldn't have heard of us outside of a British Museum gallery room.
As one person once asked: "A-ssyrian? Is that like being A-sexual then?". A little bit of WMH is my own personal mission to recalibrate the perceptions of the Middle East, not just of the average Tom, Dick and Harry, (or Susan, Jane and Karen) but within our own communities too.
If you can laugh under the same roof that's a great starting point.
One of my worries was whether we would end up preaching to the converted, but we've managed to have consistently varied audiences. I would say only about half the crowd are Middle Eastern/people of colour.
I love receiving messages from audience members who thank us for creating a night where they see comedians talk about issues that reflect them, many discovering live comedy through WMH for the first time. Bringing in fresh talent is also a huge part of WMH. I remember how tricky it was transitioning from the open mic world to professional gigs and ours is a supportive platform for emerging performers.
Every act that's ever performed with us has experienced someone in the industry advise them to "avoid mentioning their Middle Eastern background"; there's then an added freedom with the night; less pandering to the masses and more of an unashamed ownership to talk about whatever we like — whether it's quipping in Farsi, the queue in Cafe Nero or having a bush that you can see on Google Earth.
I'm working on a UK tour for WMH as well as a weekend comedy festival for Spring 2022.
The next Weapons of Mass Hilarity is on Saturday 30 October at 2Northdown, King's Cross. 10% of proceeds being are donated to Afghan Aid.
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