During an acting for film class at drama school I saw myself back on camera for the first time and was horrified.
I called my mum. “The other girls are blonde and beautiful with button noses and big lips. I feel so ugly!” To which my mum replied in her no-nonsense New York accent: “Janine, you have an amazing… sense of humour.” And that day, a comic was born.
I always knew I wanted to be a comedian, but I was too scared. There’s an element of comedy that feels like stepping off a building and hoping you can fly. That terrified me.
So I thought I’ll become a stage actor instead. That’s a safe career, right? I got lucky. I booked a job playing Julia in a West End production of ‘1984’. I was very lucky, and very bored.
When you’re an actor, you're essentially a meat puppet. I stood where they told me to stand, said what they told me to say, and wore what they told me to wear (which for that show wasn’t a lot).
So everyday, before the show, I’d meet my two best girlfriends to write sketches. We’d plan out where to film them and how to source an array of ridiculous costumes, wigs and moustaches. And then every night I’d stand on stage and perform very serious theatre, in a very serious British accent, in my very serious bra and underwear.
After a few hundred performances, my luck as an actor ran out. And when I found myself fun-employed for the better part of a year, I finally got the push I needed to sign up for an open-mic comedy night – and I haven’t looked back.
1. Seeing Tina Fey
The first time I saw Tina Fey on TV she was hosting Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update. She looked just like me: small, brunette, slightly bookish. I thought she was so funny. I remember watching her and thinking, I want to do that.
I even remember the joke she told that made me want to be a comedian. It was something like: “At the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, Heidi Klum modelled an $11m diamond bra and matching diamond thong. Look, the only way I’m sticking diamonds up my ass is if the Nazis are coming.” Perfect.
2. Seeing Mike Birbiglia
I was never a big fan of stand-up comedy. It seemed like it was just an outlet for cynical, aggressive comics to make fun of everything and everyone around them. But when I got sent free tickets to a comedy night, I went.
One after another, angry New York comics came on stage. They all seemed to be hiding behind their jokes. But the last comic to come on was Mike Birbiglia; I’d never seen him before.
His jokes were kind and clever and charmingly self-deprecating. And he didn’t seem to be hiding anything. He used his jokes to reveal the most vulnerable parts about himself. How he felt awkward and lonely and that he didn’t quite fit in – all while being so so funny. It was cathartic. And I think that’s really helped shape my comedic sensibility.
In 2016, I formed a sketch group with two of my best buds (Sally O’Leary and Meg Salter) called Muriel. We started releasing sketches online and it was lucky that my boyfriend at the time, Andrew Nolan, was a super talented director with a bunch of great gear. (It was obvious that for our career progression I could never break up with him, so I bit the bullet and married him in 2021).
We released a few viral sketches like Witch Hunt, Women’s Day and Asking For It (which received more than 120 million views). I think those early successes gave me the confidence (or hubris) to think I could make a career out of comedy.
4. Winning the BBC New Comedy Award
I started my career doing open mics. Open mics are like gyms where new comics go to figure out how to do comedy. They don’t pay and fair enough because if you ever get the chance to go to an open mic - don’t. They are very, very bad.
Comedy is one of the few things that you need an audience to practise in front of. You only get better by being bad, in front of a lot of people, for a long time.
After two years of open mics, I had a pretty solid ten minutes of material, but I couldn’t get booked to perform at any real comedy clubs. So, in 2019, I entered the BBC New Comedy Awards. It’s a national competition where stand-ups get paid to perform in real clubs. It sounded great just to get to do that.
I never expected I would win. But when I did, I was finally able to get booked into paid clubs. That was a huge step for me.
5. Posting videos to instagram
Like lots of creative people, I have a voice in my head that’s constantly telling me I’m a fraud or I’m not good enough. So it took me years before I finally worked up the courage to post clips of my stand-up on social media.
I had posted sketches before but that’s different. That was me playing a character and was written as a trio. If your stand-up doesn’t go down well, that’s all on you.
I was terrified of the comments I might get. And even though I do get the occasional “women aren’t funny” comment, posting my clips online has helped me grow a big enough following to take my show on tour to four different countries this year. So for anyone worried about putting themselves out there – just go for it.
I’m currently touring the UK with my Edinburgh Comedy Award nominated show Man’oushe. Tickets are available from my website at janineharouni.com