Interview: Janine Harouni

The stand-up tells Eilidh Akilade about impending motherhood, her heritage and storytelling

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Janine Harouni
Photo by Matt Stronge
Published 09 Aug 2023

After a Best Newcomer nomination at the Fringe in 2019, there’s a fair bit of pressure for Janine Harouni and her sophomore show – not to mention that she’ll be heavily pregnant by the time it comes around. Tonight, she’s heading out to one of many work-in-progress gigs in the run up to the Fringe.

“I’m just trying to get all the gigs and previews that I can before the baby comes and I just lay in bed eating Nutella,” she says. "I think there's this image we all have in our heads perpetuated by social media – that pregancy is this magical and special time, when in reality pregancy is weird and scary and hard and gross – and very, very funny." She adds: "I want other people to know that it's OK to not know what you're doing in pregnancy, in parenthood and in life. We're all just doing our best. Life's hard, but laughter helps."

Man’oushe will explore Harouni’s Arabic roots alongside her pregnancy, unpacking heritage and its many ambiguities. “It’s about life and loss,” she says. “It kind of parallels my life and my grandmother's life. My grandmother was a classical Arabic singer and she toured the world.”

Amid this paralleling an unweaving also comes into play. Her grandmother’s sister recently did a DNA test, returning somewhat “funky” results. She’s keen to keep things fairly under wraps but, ultimately, we can expect something sharp yet tender, hilarious yet genuine.

Harouni’s debut in 2019 – Stand Up with Janine Harouni (Please Remain Seated) – explored her wrought relationship with her conservative parents, particularly her beloved father and his support for Trump. Much of Harouni’s comedy calls back to her Staten Island upbringing, a perfectly staccato New York accent making its way into each set.

Returning to the Fringe this summer, she has, as ever, got her family’s support: her father has seemingly taken her PR upon himself amid offers to co-write (despite Harouni’s objections to both). Her love for her family is clear throughout her comedy, but her narrative choices also speak to how – and how fast – we now tell stories. “If you can do really good observational comedy, I think that's incredible,” she says. “But I also feel like that is a dying art form because the minute you think of something about the world around us, there'll be 15 memes about it that have existed for a year already.”

Harouni is not interested in keeping up with the endless cycle of content; it’s refreshing to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, it’s OK for us all to slow down a little and laugh while doing so. “I think once you write something personal, it's a bit more timeless.” Remembrance and preservation of the familial has its value – however comedic the form it takes. “I also think I have a hilarious family and I'd like the world to experience them – because my therapist certainly does,” she says.

Photo by Matt Stronge

With Harouni, wit always comes with a certain warmth. “I don't like when comedy is mean,” she says, simply. “I like to make shows that make people feel good because it's a nice escape. And also I think it's easy to just shit on everything around you and be cynical. It's harder to find the good in everyone.” We don’t often align hope or kindness with virtuosity but Harouni’s ability to bring light to oftentimes distressing or unfortunate realities is testament to the fact that yes, indeed, hope centred art is both merit-worthy and necessary.

Connection is certainly key. One third of comedy trio Muriel, Harouni has worked closely with Sally O’Leary and Meg Salter. For her, they’re a joy to work with. “The things that are really frustrating about writing on your own are also the things that are a relief when you write with other people,” she says.

Also starring as the coolly sharp Thalia on ITV’s Buffering, Harouni’s career is proving to be anything but singular. Navigating both the solo and the collaborative is a balancing act but it’s one she’s enjoying figuring out. Her solo stand-up, however, is not entirely detached from collaboration. At one early work-in-progress gig for her debut show, an audience member generously offered his advice afterwards. “He then proceeded to list off the most sexually violent jokes I've ever heard in my life,” she says, something of a past-tense unease in her eyes. “And then the last joke he told me fit perfectly in the show.” For Harouni, the joke is certainly one of her favourites, cutting the tension at just the right time. And so, with Man’oushe, she’s similarly open to audience critique. “No matter how weird you are, I will accept your feedback because I think it's worth it,” she says.

Harouni, it seems, meets people where they’re at and goes from there. An actor by training – although she does insist “actor” ought to be in “air quotes” – Harouni stepped into stand-up only several years ago. “I was turning 30 and I’d always wanted to try stand up comedy, but I'd always been afraid of doing it. And for whatever reason, 30 was a sort of a now or never moment for me,” she says.

Now a parent-in-waiting, she’ll be finishing this year’s Fringe about 18 or 19 days before her due date. “I told my mom, who was a maternity nurse, and she was like, ‘That's brave, because all you kids came in three weeks early.’” Harouni’s advice: book Man’oushe for early August – any later, and it’s risky. With her debut in 2019, the pandemic saw Harouni’s tour cancelled. Next year, she’ll be touring Ma’noushe in Europe, India, and the USA - and all with a baby in tow. Bringing a child into the world, of course, brings a whole host of worries. “My husband's very funny and I'm a stand up comedian but I feel like whenever you meet the children of funny people and they’re the most boring and dry,” she says. “I'm just trying to tell myself that if my kid’s not funny, it's OK.”

What’s clear is that Man’oushe is going to be a memorable moment. “Who knows,” she says, "the baby might come early and then hopefully get a newcomer nom.”

Perhaps, it runs in the family.