Weapons of Mass Hilarity: Tickling all the right boxes, for once
While we’re regularly told necessity is the mother of invention, we seldom hear such invention is because of institutional prejudice, or laughable instances of bigotry. Luckily for Jenan Younis and her comedy night, Weapons of Mass Hilarity, laughs turned out to be her bread and butter.
It is somewhat fitting then that, for the surgeon-turned-comic, the journey to start Weapons of Mass Hilarity arose from a playful experiment. You can take the girl out of the scientific method, but can you take the scientific method out of the girl?
"What had initially started as a cheeky experiment has quickly become an oasis of creativity, away from the prising eyes of UK comedy’s gatekeepers. At last, there’s no need to pay lip-service, no need to confine in a pre-prescribed blueprint for success"
Lazy expressions aside, Jenan quickly became less than amused at her lack of bookings after winning the prestigious BBC New Voices award in 2019. What could the reason possibly be?
Using this as an opportunity to test her assumptions about the UK’s comedy industry, Jenan decided to apply for gigs and bookings by submitting two applications: one with her name – with its dastardly connotations – and a more palatable anglicised one. The same CV, the same act. Having scoured the field, the results were telling.
“I received 80 percent more offers for my anglicised name than my real one," Jenan tells The New Arab. "It seemed my act – strewn with cultural references to my Assyrian heritage – wasn’t the issue. All that mattered was who was telling the jokes, not why. The political features of my act didn’t seem to matter, whether it was someone of that ethnicity or not.”
For many, such findings aren’t overly surprising. In a report published by the Muslim Council of Britain as recently as March 2021, they found that individuals with “Muslim-sounding names were three times less likely to receive job offers” than those that don’t. Jenan, who isn’t Muslim, is yet another by-product of a society that continues to view those from the Middle East and beyond with suspicion. Such institutional discrimination has knock-on effects for “ethnic” professionals in all fields, with the status-quo largely untouched. The creative industry is no exception.
“If you go to a comedy night in the UK right now, the vast majority of acts will invariably be white men. We haven’t nearly begun to address the gender imbalance nor the diversity of line-ups that we’re often told is a priority. The line-ups are the same, the acts are the same, each designed to pander to a certain demographic which dominate the audience. In any instance, they’re catering to the majority,” Jenan continues when asked about the UK comedy circuit’s make-up.
And so spawned the need for a comedy night to accommodate those left behind by the UK’s comedy industry’s subconscious bias, one which, as Jenan explained, varies from subtle micro-aggressions to the outright absurd.
In reference to the latter, Jenan explained that, on one occasion, rumours went around a prominent panel-show's production team that she was Syrian (she is Assyrian). Predictably, they jumped on the opportunity to kill two proverbial birds with one comedian, with the panel show ending up like an interrogation instead of a routine.
Weapons of Mass Hilarity's local, quality-laden shows continue to be the prime space for talent emanating from the British Arab and Middle Eastern comedic community, with its aim to shatter stereotypes and promote a multi-ethnic and multi-religious coexistence already some way to be being achieved"
“They were asking me about whether it was safe for me to perform, whether I had comments on the migrant crisis, and whether I often travel back to Syria, to which point it became ridiculous. Let's just say I don't often get booked again. Nonetheless, it revealed to me that the industry is predicated upon a ‘one-size-fits-all' approach, which itself is seriously problematic.”
Luckily, for Jenan and those performing in the latest edition of Weapons of Mass Hilarity, they aren’t straightjacketed in such fashion. Taking place on January 30 at 2 Northdown in London’s Kings Cross, the acts on show are a refreshing departure from the stale curation of most comedy nights in the capital, with no tokenism or quota-filling in sight.
“We have an excellent line-up this month, the multi-award-winning duo Shirley and Shirley are without the best Palestinian-Surinamese sketch act on the circuit,” Jenan joked.
“We’re also joined by Anglo-Iranian Darius Davies who is fresh off a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Festival last year. If you like Omid Djalili, you’ll definitely like Darius. Also joining us on the night is online comic Sophie Galustian whose Instagram reels have made her a prominent comic voice amongst the British-Armenian community and have since led to Sophie being commissioned by the BBC for a PeckEds comedy series.
"Last but not least, we’ve got Laila Alj. Perhaps better known as an actor, Laila is forging a formidable mark in the comedy circuit, with her act a must-see on the night. The night will be MC’d by the unmistakable David Lewis – head honcho of the institution Big Nose Comedy."
Weapons of Mass Hilarity's local, quality-laden shows therefore continue its trajectory as the space for comedic talent emanating from the British Arab and Middle Eastern community, with its aim to shatter stereotypes and promote a multi-ethnic and multi-religious coexistence already some way to being achieved. With nine sell-out shows in its back locker, it seems that the only way is up.
“When we started, the crowds were largely comprised of people from our communities, there were only a couple of white faces in the crowd. Of course, this has its benefit as comedians were able to test out more nuanced and culturally-specific material. Nonetheless, due to the night’s success, we’re now in a position where we’ve got a completely mixed line-up, with the night now testament to London's willingness to discover new things and push their comedic boundaries,” Jenan told The New Arab.
With a three-day festival already planned for the June bank-holiday, what had initially started as a cheeky experiment has quickly become an oasis of creativity away from the prising eyes UK comedy’s gatekeepers.
At last, there’s no need to pay lip service and no need to confine in a pre-prescribed blueprint for success, with Jenan and Weapons of Mass Hilarity largely to thank.
Benjamin Ashraf is a visiting research fellow at the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies. He is also part of The New Arab's Editorial Team.
Follow him on Instagram: @_ashrafzeneca