Interview: Janine Harouni

Interview: Janine Harouni

I think it's fair to say that Janine Harouni had a pretty good Edinburgh Fringe debut this August. The London-based New Yorker won the BBC Radio 4 Comedy Award, the Amused Moose Comedy Award and was shortlisted for Best Newcomer in the Dave Edinburgh Comedy Awards. I had an inkling Harouni's tales of growing up with a Trump-supporting dad and having a near-fatal car crash would do well when I interviewed her for the Evening Standard in June. You can read the original feature here. Given Harouni's subsequent success and the fact that we are going to be hearing a lot more of her I thought it might be interesting to publish the full interview below. And if you want to see Harouni live she is at the Soho Theatre from October 7 -12. Buy tickets here.

Picture: Mindy Tucker

 

Bruce Dessau:

I don't know much about you. A bit of background on you and also about the show please. The little bit I know about the show is the show is kind of autobiographical anyway, is it?

 

Janine Harouni:

Right, yeah, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

First of all, do you want to tell me about the show? Sell me the show.

 

Janine Harouni:

Sell you the show? Oh, god. I'm trying to sell myself the show still. The blurb is that my dad is a lifetime New Yorker, the son of Middle Eastern immigrants. His parents came from Lebanon. He's an avid Trump supporter; big time Trump supporter. He's also a really good person as well-

 

Bruce Dessau:

Is that possible?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, and that's the thing. I think most people, especially in the international community, think of Trump supporters with the dumb hick stereotype. When actually, most of them aren't like that. Where I'm from, everyone I know voted for Trump.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Oh, right. Because I was going to say New York. It's like London voted for May; I thought New York was quite Democrat. 

 

Janine Harouni:

Well, it is. It is. New York's five boroughs, and I come from the Republican stronghold, that's Staten Island. The majority of people voted for Trump; the majority of people are conservative. Especially where I'm from in the south part of it. All of my parents' friends voted for Trump, all of my neighbors. Every year that I went home, I would see ... I go home every six months, and I would see Trump signs cropping up on everybody's lawns. I thought something is going on here.

 

Bruce Dessau:

So it wasn't a big surprise to you.

 

Janine Harouni:

No, no. There was some time where my dad said that he might not vote in the election at all once Trump was announced as the candidate. Then after the election, the day after I called him and he said, "I voted for him." We didn't talk for months.

 

Janine Harouni:

But that's the thing that I'm trying to reconcile in the show, is that I don't think that every bad decision is made with bad intentions. My dad, he's not racist, he's not a bad person, he does incredible charity work all the time. We grew up with no money, and my parents were always donating to charity. So I think that that's what I want the show to explore.

 

Bruce Dessau:

I suppose, Trump is so divisive. He's always been a Republican-

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes.

 

Bruce Dessau:

But again, until Trump came along, had it ever been a major issue? That's the thing about-

 

Janine Harouni:

Oh, big time.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Because the politics had always been a-

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Oh my.

 

Janine Harouni:

Screaming our heads off at each other. I had to move out, because I was like, this is a disaster. I love him so much, but he's uber conservative I would say.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right. I thought you would've said, "It was fine until Trump came along"-

 

Janine Harouni:

No, no.

 

Bruce Dessau:

But that made it worse maybe?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Obviously because he won the election as well.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah. It was sort of like ... I think a lot of people, especially with Brexit, a lot of people have come and seen previews of the show and said, "My parents voted for Brexit." They've reached this point where they just don't talk about politics anymore. They have a really loving relationship, and then politics just aren't spoken about. That's how it was in our family, I'd say. Then when Trump happened, it was like the lid was ripped off.

 

Bruce Dessau:

You had to talk about it.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah. Exactly, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

But when Trump was elected, were you living in the UK then?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes, yeah. When I went to sleep, Hillary was up in the polls, and I was like, "That's it; she's done it." Then I woke up and turned on the news and I felt like I was living in an episode of Black Mirror.

 

Bruce Dessau:

It was always close though; she wasn't way ahead, was she? You felt, "It'll be okay. It'll be close, but it'll be okay."

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah. I suppose given the things that you've said about your father doing charity work and being a nice ... Why is he a Republican then in the first place?

 

Janine Harouni:

He's very religious; he's very Catholic. So even though we're Lebanese, we're Catholic. I think that probably has a lot to do with his views on things like abortion or gay marriage and things like that.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right. He's not so easy going on things like that.

 

Janine Harouni:

He's very accepting of people on an individual level. But as an idea, as something that's kind of distant from the personal, I think he's very-

 

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah, so that's what the show is about. Are you using any pictures and-

 

Janine Harouni:

I was going to in the beginning. I don't want to give too much away about the show, but there's lots of crazy things that he's done. He's adopted lots of children from all over the world. Some of them have lived with us. So I wanted to show pictures and stuff. But then in the end, I just think I want to just tell the story and have people create the images in their own mind.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah. Would you describe your family as rich, poor, working class, middle class? How would you-

 

Janine Harouni:

I would say they're ... Well, my dad is a high school teacher, and my mom is a grammar school ... What do you call it here? Grade school?

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah, something ... Teenagers.

 

Janine Harouni:

No, no. Five year olds to ten year olds.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Junior school.

 

Janine Harouni:

Right, yeah. She's a nurse. So yeah, and when we were growing up, my dad had to work nights so that my mom could watch us and they could switch. Then my mom went to nursing school when we were all kids.

 

Bruce Dessau:

So they're not blue collar. They're intelligent. As you said, it's more of a kind of religion thing.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, I guess so. I would say they're probably closer to blue collar than they are to middle class.

 

Bruce Dessau:

They're both from Lebanon? 

 

Janine Harouni:

No. My mom is Italian and Irish. Her parents were Italian and Irish. That's a very classic mix.

 

Bruce Dessau:

That's interesting. When I heard you had a Middle Eastern background ... You say in the show about being mistaken ... It's like what we think of as an Italian family, or you get mistaken, people think you're Italian. Yeah.

 

Janine Harouni:

Everyone thinks my dad's Italian, too. He looks exactly like Tony Soprano, talks just like him, and our last name ends in a vowel. I think a lot of people think maybe our name could be maybe Sicilian or something.

 

Bruce Dessau:

How did your father end up in America?

 

Janine Harouni:

He was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Oh, right, right. Right, so he was born there.

 

Janine Harouni:

He's American, yeah. In America, it's always very strange. We always say what our heritage is rather than where we were born.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah, I see. So you were born and you grew up in Staten Island?

 

Janine Harouni:

That's right, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

That's one of the boroughs, is it?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

There's a new series, What We Do in the Shadows.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes, which is set in Staten Island.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah. They say that. I know about Staten Island because the ferry. That's kind of what they said. They got off the boat and they stayed in the first place.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

But your father's family didn't arrive on the boat. In those days ... Ellis Island, wasn't it?

 

Janine Harouni:

Ellis Island. Yeah, yeah. I'm not sure, actually, how they came. They might've been ... I know my mother's mother came from Ireland on a boat.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right.

 

Bruce Dessau:

It's quite an interesting background you've got. That's how your family ended up in Brooklyn, in America. How do you end up in London?

 

Janine Harouni:

I moved over to go to drama school. I came over to find myself in Europe. I did a short course at an acting college, and I really liked it. It was LAMDA. I auditioned for a two year programme and got in, and just stayed. Yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Was your ambition at that stage to be an actor doing some straight acting? I know you've done a little straight acting.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah. My first ambition in life was to be a dancer. Then when I was 21, I was hit by a car. Then that sort of derailed. I was not really able to do much for two years. After that, I was like, "I have to get out. I have to see the world." Then I started travelling. Then I thought, "I won't be dancing anymore, so maybe I'll try ..." I'd done some acting in college, like community theatre kind of things. Yeah, so then-

 

Bruce Dessau:

How did you end up doing stand up then? I know you obviously-

 

Janine Harouni:

I think how a lot of actors end up doing stand up. Just months of unemployment. I was sitting selling brownies in an outdoor market, and it was just pouring rain, and all the brownies were soaked. The boss wasn't like, "We're canceling, we're coming home." I was just sitting there, and I was like, "I can't be spending my time doing this. I have to do something creative."

 

Janine Harouni:

Two friends of mine are in a musical duo called Stiff & Kitsch. They had just been Edinburgh, and I'd been up to help them direct a bit and stuff. I thought, "Man, if they're doing that, and they're having so much fun doing it, I have to try it." So, yeah. Literally from that stand, I just sent an email to the first open mic thing I could find. I was like, "Book me"-

 

Bruce Dessau:

So you did solo standup before you did the stuff with (sketch trio) Muriel?

 

Janine Harouni:

Well, Muriel existed purely as a digital sketch group. We were just doing online videos. Then in the interim between doing live and video, I started doing standup, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right. I see. But you didn't really ever do it in America then?

 

Janine Harouni:

No, I've never done it in America.

 

Bruce Dessau:

You've still never done it?

 

Janine Harouni:

I am terrified to do it in New York. Because I went and saw probably the level that I am now equivalent in New York, and it was like a room for 100 people. There were four people in it. They were all drunk. None of the acts could get any of their stuff out, and they ended up just ... Everyone was screaming at each other. It seems really combative. I thought, "Oh, man." I'm quite a vulnerable comedian, so I don't think I could get up there and be like-

 

Bruce Dessau:

Where was this, in New York?

 

Janine Harouni:

In New York, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah. But I get the impression that circuit and the seed is pretty similar. Partly because London clubs kind of sometimes base their styling on those New York comedy cellar or-

 

Janine Harouni:

I don't think they have the equivalent beginning that we have here, where you can do the open mic and it's really friendly and everybody knows that you're just starting out. You don't have to pay to do it; you just have to bring someone, and they don't have to pay either. Just to make sure that there's an audience there. Everyone's really nice and encouraging and polite. I'm not sure it's the same in New York. Yeah. Although I don't know, because I've never-

 

Bruce Dessau:

Have you got any plans yet to-

 

Janine Harouni:

I think if the show goes well, I'll probably try and take it over so that my parents can see it finally.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah. With Muriel, have you just done the one show in Edinburgh, or how many-

 

Janine Harouni:

We just did one, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

You did one?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah. We're writing for ... Do you know that sketch show for Comedy Central? It used to be called Laughing at Salad; I think they changed the name of it.

  

Janine Harouni:

It's like all-female sketches. All the writers, the performers, the directors; I think all the crew, as well. 

 

Bruce Dessau:

That's good. You're doing both, writing and performing?

 

Janine Harouni:

No, no. We're just writing for that.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right, I see.

 

Janine Harouni:

Then we're hopefully developing some stuff...

 

Bruce Dessau:

Is another member of Muriel in Stiff & Kitsch?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes. Yeah, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

It's so confusing. I was trying to get ... I knew you'd worked for Stiff & Kitsch, and then I thought, all right you're in Stiff & Kitsch. No, you directed them.

 

Janine Harouni:

Well, we all graduated drama school. Those five girls; we all graduated drama school at the same time. Yeah, I just love doing comedy and so sorted of formed ... I think Stiff & Kitsch formed at the same time as Muriel. But Stiff & Kitsch only did live, and Muriel only did video. Then we crossed over.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Are you able to combine them at the moment? Or at the moment is all your focus on your show?

 

Janine Harouni:

No. The focus is very spread at the minute. Meg from Muriel went away for three months, so during that time I was focused mostly on the show. Now that she's back, we're writing lots of stuff together and pitching and things like that. So yeah, not a lot of sleep is happening, but-

 

Bruce Dessau:

Trying to get everything done. Is there anything else you can tell me about ... I know it's hard with a show, because you don't want to give everything away.

 

Janine Harouni:

Right, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Is there a sad bit? Is there a sad bit at the ending, or are you friends with your dad now?

 

Janine Harouni:

I would say it's a very uplifting show. I think people who have come and seen it so far have said that it's made them feel good. That's what I'm hoping to achieve. Because we're living in incredibly divisive political times, I think. It's a show about what it means to love someone on the other side. I think that everyone has someone in their life that they can relate that to.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Actually, where does your mom fit it? Is she pretty much similar to your-

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes, yes. She voted for Trump as well. She's in there, too. She's a character.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right. It's good, otherwise it'd be very difficult if they didn't get on.

 

Janine Harouni:

I don't know how you could live with that man if-

 

Bruce Dessau:

Well, as you say, people just somehow find a way where you don't discuss it. You don't talk about it because it's such a-

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah. Well, I know people whose parents, one voted leave and one voted remain.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah, yeah. That's the thing about ... It's funny that they both happened within six months of each other. It does feel like there's something going on in the world that there's such similar divisive, dramatic, unexpected, not very nice turn of events. If Brexit hadn't happened, Trump might be hard for individuals to understand.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes, exactly.

 

Bruce Dessau:

But as you say, the way you describe it, all we need to do to get our heads around it is think ... It's like having parents who voted leave and we voted remain or something.

 

Janine Harouni:

The same with Ireland, with all the referendums that they've been having about gay marriage and abortion. I know a lot of people whose parents voted differently to them.

 

Bruce Dessau:

At least that was a good result.

 

Janine Harouni:

Right, exactly. But you can still live in a household where your parents are incredibly combative and disagree with you.

 

Bruce Dessau:

When you said that bit about your parents support Trump, but they're really nice, compassionate people who do work for charity, that's like the same thing with Brexit. So they probably pushed it over the line. They're probably the four percent that made Brexit win.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Brexit is such a weird thing, but you've got the left wing and the right wing. Both have reasons for wanting to leave Europe. So they were kind of, in the same way-

 

Janine Harouni:

But it seems to be more generational.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Yeah. There was a thing even in the paper today or yesterday about the older you are, statistically the more likely it is that you voted Brexit-

 

Janine Harouni:

Right. I think that depends more on where you live as well. I think if you live in a metropolitan city where you see people of different races and religions around you, sexual orientation, you can empathize with them. They're in front of you.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Well, that's what's hard about living in London, because we think surely everyone would vote remain. London is such a multicultural-

 

Janine Harouni:

But that's the thing about Staten Island. It's very Italian. It's mainly Italian, I'd say. It's lots of Irish. But especially where I live in the south shore, it's very white, it's very Catholic. I think I had one Jewish friend growing up. Everyone else was Catholic. Everyone else I knew went to my church. It's very difficult to understand that there are other people-

 

Bruce Dessau:

Sopranos wasn't set in Staten Island?

 

Janine Harouni:

It was set very near. It was actually set in Bloomfield, New Jersey, which is the town where one my best friends grew up, and he's quite a big character in the show because he's gay.

 

Bruce Dessau:

They're making a prequel of the Sopranos, aren't they?

 

Janine Harouni:

I know. I want to see it so badly.

 

Bruce Dessau:

You didn't go up for a part? You know much-

 

Janine Harouni:

No.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Isn't Gandolfini's son is playing young Tony Soprano?

 

Janine Harouni:

Get out of here; I didn't know that.

 

Bruce Dessau:

I don't know if it was a joke or whether I read that. But I thought ... Maybe because they said he looked so much like a young version ... Obviously he would. But yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Okay, let's talk more about you. Can you tell me a bit more? I did read a little bit about this car accident you had, which sounds quite traumatic. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

 

Janine Harouni:

It is a big part of the show, so I don't know how much I want to put out. But basically, I was 21. I was in a car that was pulled over on the shoulder; we got a flat tire. We pulled over to the side of the road. A woman who had been working late in the hospital - I think she worked in the pharmacy at the hospital; they work crazy long shifts - she fell asleep at the wheel. We were on a slight curve in the road. Instead of her being awake to make the turn, she sort of just kept going straight and slammed into the car at 70 miles an hour. I broke my pelvis, my femur, my legs. Lots of things. My wrists. Lots of things were terrible. But the worst of it was that I crushed my sciatic nerve and I paralyzed my leg for almost three years. So yeah, I was in the hospital for about two months trying to recover from that. It was the whole thing. I had to learn how to walk again. I think I had seven or eight surgeries. Things like that.

 

Bruce Dessau:

So you couldn't walk for quite a long time?

 

Janine Harouni:

I could stand for a long time even. I remember, there was a period of time where I thought, "If I can just stand for 30 seconds, I could get better." So, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Were other people injured in your car? Were you with other people?

 

Janine Harouni:

Just minor. The girl sitting right next to me, nothing happened to her. I got the most impact. Because in America, the driver's on that side of the road. So it was the driver seat, but the driver was out of the car looking at the flat tire. Thank god. Because if she was there, I was here, they said that we both would've died because there wouldn't have been enough room. Yeah, so basically, when the car hit us, it only hit this side, and it crushed this half of the car.

 

Janine Harouni:

This girl, it was her birthday actually. She was turned around talking on the phone with her boyfriend, saying like, "Could you come help us change this tyre?" I had my hand out the window, which is where I got that lovely scar from. I was like, "Tell him not to come. Someone will see there's just four girls on the road and they'll stop and they'll help us." As soon as I said that, we got hit by a car.

 

Bruce Dessau:

So you were in the passenger seat in the back-

 

Janine Harouni:

Back by the driver.

 

Bruce Dessau:

... behind the driver's seat.

 

Janine Harouni:

Yeah, yeah. Then I sort of came to. It was like I was sitting in the driver's seat because suddenly I was next to the girl in the front passenger seat. I just didn't know what happened.

 

Bruce Dessau:

How does that work with medical insurance in America? Is it-

 

Janine Harouni:

Disaster. It's a disaster. Living over here is ... Thank god that, I think it was my dad's insurance in the end, he had taken out some crazy insurance. He's a big worrier, so he'd taken out some crazy insurance policy to make sure that we would be covered even if we weren't in our own cars kind of thing.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Luckily-

 

Janine Harouni:

I think all in all, the surgeries were like, I think, over 100 grand for everything. Can you imagine someone who didn't have insurance trying to ... That's a mortgage.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Well, you'd lose everything. Yeah, it would cost everything. Apart from the scar, are you generally okay now? You had to give up your dancing career?

 

Janine Harouni:

Gave up my dancing career. Who knows how good I actually was, but yeah. I'm okay. I've got chronic pain, but I just think that now I've aged into everyone has chronic pain. Once you pass 30, that's it. Everybody-

 

Bruce Dessau:

How old are you now?

 

Janine Harouni:

Thirty one, so yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

I saw that it was partly that, that was why you came to England, that you were just getting over it and-

 

Janine Harouni:

Exactly. Yeah, yeah. I went to Central America for a little while, for my last semester of university to study Maya architecture and Garinagu culture. It was ridiculous. I just did something completely different.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Mexico?

 

Janine Harouni:

Yes. It was in Belize. But very similar, yeah. Similar culture.

 

Bruce Dessau:

How long have you lived in London? You live in London, yeah?

 

Janine Harouni:

I've lived here like seven years. Seven and a half years.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Right. Where abouts do you live?

 

Janine Harouni:

I live in Tottenham, Seven Sisters, yeah.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Do you know London well, or you've always been in that part of London?

 

Janine Harouni:

No, I used to live ... I went to drama school in West London at LAMDA, which is in Hammersmith. I lived a bit more west than that. I lived in South Ealing for a while. Then I lived east. It was too trendy for me. I think they all didn't fit in. Now I live in Seven Sisters.

 

Bruce Dessau:

You like Seven Sisters?

 

Janine Harouni:

I do like it, yeah. It can be a little bit dodgy, I'd say at times. There was someone running around stabbing people for a little while about a month ago. That was scary. I've got a brother who's big into prepping, likes Doomsday prepping.

 

Bruce Dessau:

Into what???

Interview continues here.

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