Janine Harouni: Rows with my Trump-supporting dad and other gags
Janine Harouni’s Fringe hit about her Republican father shows political opposites can get along, she explains
By Dominic Maxwell for The Times on August 12th, 2019
Janine Harouni: “People whose parents voted Brexit say they can relate to it”
Some Fringe debutants arrive full of promise, but look a bit rough around the edges. Janine Harouni, a New Yorker turned Londoner, arrives looking ready for her Neftlix special. Her show, Stand Up With Janine Harouni (Please Remain Seated), is a tale that so nimbly mixes laugh-out-loud lines, smart structure and tender personal revelation that its pretty much the platonic ideal of an autobiographical Edinburgh hour.
Plenty of young people find themselves having rows with their exasperatingly conservative parents. Many mums and dads find themselves rebutting irked accusations from grown-up children who seem to think that they are the first generation to realise that the world is unfair.
Janine Harouni, a 31-year-old actress and comedian from Staten Island in New York, has managed to turn her beefs with her Trump-supporting parents into a magnificent debut show that is one of the big discoveries of this years Edinburgh Fringe. Stand Up with Janine Harouni (Please Remain Seated) is funny, touching and impeccably told. Yes, she expresses her liberal dismay at her father in particular; the son of Lebanese immigrants, he dismisses her suggestion that he’s supporting a racist bigot. Yet, perhaps most importantly, as Harouni puts it, ‘it reminds people that there’s humanity on both sides of the aisle’. After this Edinburgh run it moves to London in October.
She wasn’t sure at first how interested British audiences were going to be in her relationship with her father, Joseph, a high-school teacher, and her strong-minded but less politically rambunctious Irish-Italian mother, Mary, a nurse. Both are ardent Catholics (as were Janine and her two older brothers during childhood) and lifelong Republicans. Yet when she tried out some material for a few nights in Edinburgh last year she found that her descriptions of her family’s political argy-bargies had found their moment.
‘People came up to me afterwards and said, I can relate to that so much because my parents voted Brexit, or they voted against gay marriage or abortion being legalised in Ireland’, Harouni says. ‘People say that when you talk about your own truth [others] can relate to it, and I thought, There is a connection here that is wider than just Trump and America’.
She worried that liberal comedy audiences might see her outspoken father as too much the villain. Instead, they found him endearing. ‘I thought, Thats interesting. Of course I love my dad because I know him as a three-dimensional person . . . so I thought there might be a show in that’.
And how. Harouni gives us an in on New Yorks most resolutely Republican area, a largely Italian-American, working-class district that believes in hard work over handouts. Joseph and Mary voted Trump, but so did 80 per cent of their neighbours. Harouni is a recovering Catholic who nonetheless acknowledges that her parents have done all sorts of good charitable work because of their religious beliefs. And though she wont give up her quest to get her father to moderate his views, she knows that he’s a Trump supporter despite the president’s outspoken excesses, rather than because of them.
‘Dad says, I don’t like the way that he talks, he doesn’t speak properly like a president should, but he is an outsider, he is not tied up in all this political nonsense, he is for the working man, he wants to make everyone rich’. People in the area see Democrats as snowflakes, too willing to give or receive a handout. ‘Thats the thing my dad is always criticising about liberals’.
Harouni and her brothers grew up conservative too. Then she went to study at university in Baltimore. She met people from different backgrounds and discovered boys. When she returned home, aged 21, spending her days studying acting and dance in New York, working towards a future in musical theatre, she was a full-on artistic liberal sort. Her father, meanwhile, was speaking out against gay marriage. They stopped talking to each other for a while.
Then, as she explains so vividly in the show, she had a terrible accident. She was on her way back from a friends 21st birthday party when their car was rear-ended by a driver who had fallen asleep. Her right leg was paralysed, and it stayed paralysed, first for two months in hospital then as she started two years of recovery at home. Her parents prayed for her and looked after her.
Medical science warned her that this might be her lot. For a while she despaired, asking: ‘Why has this happened to me?’ In the end, supported by her parents, she recovered, although she no longer had any future as a dancer. And in the process of fighting for her life and her mobility, a few disagreements about politics were put in their place. ‘What I say in the show is true, it really brought our family back together’, she says.
Which doesn’t mean that they went on to spend all their days hugging each other. On stage and in interview, Harouni is a sharp-witted, casually dressed, but composed presence. The only difference as we meet in person on a rainy day in Edinburgh is that, offstage, Harouni wouldn’t dream of studding her conversation with the sort of zingy one-liners that make her show as unstoppably entertaining as it is emotionally acute. Around the family dinner table, though, sparks will fly. ‘We’re New Yorkers’, she says. ‘We shout about passing the dishes down the table for dinner’, never mind political debate.
And Joseph loves a debate. ‘Because the other side is calling him a racist and Islamophobic, and he knows he’s not that, he does the research to justify his voting. And I think he enjoys a debate because he’s well prepared. And thats where the name-calling comes in, because emotion kicks in doesn’t it? You each go, How can you not see this? How can you not see that you’re wrong here?’ she says, laughing.
‘I think that admitting there is good and bad on both sides is what is going to build the bridge, between families at least. And that is what the show is about. It’s not about solving what is happening in the world at large. I am just hoping that people can take away from this that you can love someone on the other side’.
Her father writes off the political left as workshy and deluded. ‘Surely he can see’, she says, ‘that his daughter is hard-working and respectful’. She, in turn, admits that she has demonised the right by calling them racist, small-minded and materialist. ‘And then I see my dad, who is the most generous man that I know, he gives his time and money to charities, so I know that not everyone on the right is that way’, she says. ‘But it’s hard to remember that when we are living in such divisive times, I guess’.
The family has been less disputatious since Harouni moved to London seven years ago to study acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). She prospered pretty quickly. Just before the end of her course in 2015 she was cast as the female lead in a critically acclaimed West End production of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. ‘I thought, Thats it, I’ve nailed it, Im playing Julia, my career is done’.
She was in the cast for a year, then she was unemployed for a year. She was selling brownies in markets when she decided to do a stand-up comedy course. She had always wanted to do some stand-up, but had been too scared. She started talking about her life, about the differences between Britain and America, about her dad. In December she won a Laughing Horse new act of the year competition in London. Then Soho Theatre, where she had been doing the weekly stand-up classes on Saturday mornings, agreed to produce this show.
She’s not quite a Fringe first-timer she did a run in Edinburgh two years ago with the sketch trio Muriel, which she formed with her fellow Lamda graduates Sally O’Leary and Meg Salter. They still work together, but on video rather than stage their wonderful sketch ‘Men are Witches’, which is on the BBC iPlayer, has had almost five million views. Andrew Nolan, her boyfriend who is doing his own Fringe show, is a director and cameraman for their videos. ‘So we cant ever split up’, she says. They live together in Tottenham, north London.
Her parents will visit her there for the first time in October, when they will also see the show. She is looking forward to it. ‘I don’t think they’d understand what my career was if they came to the Fringe; they’d be like, Why are you performing in a bunker? They’d want to give me money’, she says.
And money, as for most Fringe performers, is not easy. She’s not selling brownies any more, but the bulk of her income comes from her work as a voiceover artist for video games. She has had other recent acting work, though, opposite Keira Knightley in Colette (which gives rise to an anecdote in the show) and as a funeral-parlour receptionist opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the Patrick Melrose TV series.
Like a lot of comics she has packed a lot of her life into her debut. Does she have a second show brewing? She laughs, saying that it’s a question she asks herself every day. Her brothers have been in touch to remind her that they don’t feature in this show much. Her older brother, Joe, was going to be a priest, but then became too liberal. Her other brother, Michael, is whats called a ‘doomsday prepper . . . it’s big in America’. He and some friends have an underground bunker in Las Vegas, full of food, guns and ammo, ready for ‘the end of days’. She has suggested to him that she would love to visit him some time and see what is going on in that community. ‘Hopefully there is more to come,’ she says.