Wednesday 5th June 2019
A decade ago it looked as if she might never walk again. The New Yorker was heading home with friends after celebrating a 21st birthday in Manhattan when the car they were travelling in suffered a punctured tyre. After pulling onto the hard shoulder the driver got out to look and moments later another car rear-ended their vehicle.
“It slammed into us at seventy miles an hour,” she recalls, listing her injuries. “I broke my pelvis, my femur, my legs, my wrists. Lots of things were terrible. But the worst of it was that I crushed my sciatic nerve and paralysed my leg for almost three years. I was in the hospital for about two months trying to recover. I had to learn how to walk again.”
Harouni, now 31, shows me a small “lovely” scar on her wrist where it scraped along the car window, which, along with chronic pain, is a reminder of this life-changing event. She had hoped to be a dancer but that career path closed. She was prepared to settle for being able to walk unaided. “There was a period of time where I thought, ‘If I can just stand for 30 seconds, I could get better’.”
The corps de ballet’s loss was comedy’s gain. As she gradually recovered she decided to go travelling. “I was like, ‘I have to get out. I have to see the world.’” She ended up in London studying drama at Lamda for two years. Afterwards, when acting work was thin on the ground, she turned to comedy. “I was selling brownies in an outdoor market in the pouring rain, and all the brownies were soaked. I was like, ‘I can’t be spending my time doing this. I have to do something creative.’”
Looking back she thinks a career making audiences laugh was her destiny. “I was a very serious child. If I ever went outside the lines in a colouring book I’d crumple the drawing up and throw it away. I really was a perfectionist from a young age. I think ballet really fitted into that because it has to be so perfect. But then puberty happened and I just felt so awkward. I’m Lebanese, so I got very hairy very quickly. I think as a result I just started cracking jokes.”
First of all she formed a sketch trio, Muriel, with college friends Meg Salter and Sally O’Leary. They have had acclaim with viral clips and won the Sketch Off! competition at the Leicester Square Theatre in 2017. Now she is concurrently solo. It is a bold step which is already paying off. Harouni is a natural comic with a gift for smart, snappy gags and is being talked about as one of the must-see newcomers at this year’s Fringe, which launches its official programme today.
Her show finds humour in the contrast between American and English men and includes a particularly memorable gag about circumcision. It also goes into a lot more wince-making detail about her accident.
Another major theme is her relationship with her Trump-voting father. Harouni is from Staten Island and her parents would worry about her heading into Manhattan. “They were like, ‘Someone’s going to stab you in the back with a needle full of you don’t know what.’ That was their big fear.”
She grew up in the southernmost part in a town called Tottenville — “the very ass end of New York”. Coincidentally she now lives in Tottenham, though says that the places are very different: “Tottenville is more like Essex: tanning beds, fake nails, extensions, that kind of thing.” While to English ears she clearly retains her American accent, when she goes home they think she speaks like Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones or even posher: “They’re like, ‘You’re the Queen.’”
“My dad is a lifetime New Yorker, the son of Middle Eastern immigrants. His parents came from Lebanon. He’s an avid Trump supporter. But he’s also a really good person as well.” Harouni sets out to reconcile these contradictions onstage.
“I think people in the international community think of Trump supporters as a dumb hick stereotype. My father is a teacher.” Her mother, who is Italian/Irish, is a nurse and also voted Republican. “Where I’m from, everyone I know voted for Trump. All of my parents’ friends, all of my neighbours. I saw Trump signs popping up on lawns and I thought, ‘Something is going on here.’”
After the 2016 election Harouni did not talk to her father for months. When she did there was a lot of screaming, but then she started to think more about his political choices. “I don’t think that every bad decision is made with bad intentions. My dad is not racist, he does incredible charity work. He’s very religious. I think that probably has a lot to do with his views on things like abortion and gay marriage. So that’s what I want the show to explore.”
An inevitable comparison is with Brexit, which has also split families: “If Brexit hadn’t happened, Trump might be hard for people here to understand.” Harouni hopes that she ultimately has a positive message for UK audiences. “I hope it’s a very uplifting show. It’s a show about what it means to love someone on the other side. The main thing is that I want it to help unite families.”
Harouni and her father are now on speaking terms again and she is hoping to perform in New York so that he can see the show. So has she persuaded him to vote Democrat in the next election? Harouni smiles stoically at the suggestion. “I don’t think the show will unite us that much!”
The Edinburgh Fringe programme is launched today. Janine Harouni is at The Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh (0131 226 0000, edfringe.com), Jul 31-Aug 25. She will be previewing her show in London in June and July (janineharouni.com/live)