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Halifax Comedy Festival: Standup comic El-Husseini mines own life for laughs

'I mean, to be Palestinian, born in Kuwait, coming to Canada and going to school surrounded by separatists ... And then when I fell in love with and married a Jewish woman, it's non-stop. I really don't do these things on purpose, it just so happens.'
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Palestinian-Canadian comedian Eman El-Husseini brings a witty blend of topical and personal material to this week's Halifax Comedy Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday at Casino Nova Scotia's Schooner Showroom.

As a standup comic, Eman El-Husseini has a prime background to draw upon for material.

When you're of Palestinian descent, raised in Quebec, and happily married to a Jewish wife, you're going to have something to talk about onstage.

"I think it sometimes looks like I did it on purpose," sighs the Montreal comedian, who performs this week at the Ha!ifax Comedy Festival. "I mean, to be Palestinian, born in Kuwait, coming to Canada and going to school surrounded by separatists. I mean literally, I remember when the referendum happened and the separatists lost, my teachers actually refused to teach the next day.

"They're like, 'Screw this!' And that's just the way they were, there's no way they would get away with that today, no way. And then when I fell in love with and married a Jewish woman, it's non-stop. I really don't do these things on purpose, it just so happens."

For El-Husseini, it all started happening a decade ago when she was working as a bartender in a Montreal comedy club, before getting up the nerve to go onstage herself. And when she did, she found she was up against an unfair share of sexism, racism, and assorted other isms on the way to getting established.

"My parents were devastated when I told them I wanted to pursue comedy, which is so understandable, because it's really not a stable career," she recalls. "It's constant rejection, generally the feedback is more negative than positive. I don't know if you saw Louis CK's opening monologue on SNL recently, but he started by saying he'd been doing comedy for 32 years, and people started clapping, and then he says that only four years of that were good.

"And it couldn't be more true, it's such a hard thing."

Since performing at Ha! Fest in 2012, and making a few subsequent visits to the Halifax branch of Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club, El-Husseini and her wife, comic and former UN war crimes lawyer Jess Salomon, have resettled in New York City, where she can safely speak her mind about her own immigrant experience, and find sympathetic crowds in the heart of the American Melting Pot.

"Luckily, New York is a very liberal place, and I'm surrounded by like-minded people, and I don't really have to deal with Trump supporters that much," she says. "A couple of times at comedy clubs there have been drunken Trump supporters in the audience, but for the most part I don't seem to feel it as much as you would in other parts of the U.S., I guess.

"And when I tour, I tend to go to other major cities, so I haven't had anything really bad happen yet."

After a trial period, El-Husseini says she's found her footing in the Tri-State Area, and has gotten past some of the limitations she faced at home in Canada as a comic with a unique voice, now in a bigger market, with more money and greater opportunities.

On its own, the city has around a dozen comedy clubs, many of them frequented by a variety of industry insiders, where one can perform and get wider attention, and El-Husseini has been making the rounds, from Caroline's Comedy Club on Broadway to the Upright Citizens Brigade.

"I feel very fortunate that I'm able to afford to live here, because the opportunities are plenty, for sure," says the comedian, who is still working her way up to a spot at Greenwich Village's famed Comedy Cellar.

"I haven't even approached them yet, because I feel like you really need to generate some buzz around your name first, and for comics to vouch for you, and I feel like that's started slowly after being here for a year and playing a lot of independent rooms.

"And there are so many independent venues that have standup, in every neighbourhood, coffee shops and bars, it's amazing how comedy-crazy this city is."

While Halifax gets a little comedy crazy this week, El-Husseini performs in the All-Star Show at Casino Nova Scotia's Schooner Showroom on Thursday, hosted by The Debaters' Steve Patterson, with John Wing, Erica Sigurdson and Jay Malone, to name a few. She also appears at the noon Laugh@Lunch session in the Halifax Central Library's Paul O'Regan Hall on Friday, with Charlie Demers and Sterling Scott, and the second Pub Comedy set at the Lower Deck on Saturday at 3 p.m. with Mike Delamont, Kyle Brownrigg, Derek Seguin, Carol Zoccoli and Darryl Orr.

That's three very different settings for a comic who prides herself on being versatile, while also being able to get a point across about acceptance and tolerance and remaining funny at the same tme.

"I feel like some people get really uncomfortable when I get on stage and talk about the things I talk about," she says. "I don't know if it's because they can't wrap their head around the fact that I'm Muslim and gay and liberal, and they just have this image in their head of what a Muslim woman is supposed to look like, and I don't fit that, at all.

"I feel like certain people are curious and want to hear more, and other people are just like, 'What the hell is going on?' Sometimes my sets get tense, even in New York clubs, just because I feel like a lot of the comedy clubs tend to get a lot of tourists from all over, unlike the more independent venues. You kind of get the feeling of what it would be like in other parts of America, but it's really important for me — especially after doing standup for 10 years — to really talk about things that affect me, and that's one of the ways to have a unique voice. The first five years of my career, I think I was just trying to get everyone to like me, and be a funny, lighter version of myself.

"Now, it's a bit more unapologetic, and in New York you have to stand out and have a unique perspective; you can't pander to the audience or aim to be mainstream."

Ha!ifax Comedy Festival

Wednesday, April 26

Opening Gala
Casino Nova Scotia, Schooner Showroom, 7:30 p.m.
Ryan Belleville (Host), Trent McClellan, Matt Falk, Nigel Grinstead, K. Trevor Wilson, Matt Wright, Landry, DJ Demers, Sterling Scott, Debra DiGiovanni

Thursday, April 27

All Star Show
Casino Nova Scotia, Schooner Showroom, 7:30 p.m.
Steve Patterson (Host), John Beuhler, Charlie Demers, Jay Malone, Eman El-husseini, Mike Delamont, JR DeGuzman, Erica Sigurdson, Rob Bebenek, Ted Morris, John Wing

NOT Made for TV – Thursday Early Show
Yuk Yuks Comedy Club, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, 7 p.m.
The Bring Back Swayzes, Landry, Matt Wright

NOT Made for TV – Thursday Late Show
Yuk Yuks Comedy Club, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, 9 p.m.
Andrew Vaughn, DJ Demers, Debra DiGiovanni

Friday, April 28

Laugh@Lunch
Paul O'Regan Hall, Halifax Central Library, noon
Charlie Demers, Sterling Scott, Eman El-husseini

Gala of Laughs
Spatz Theatre, Citadel High, 7:30 p.m.
Mark Critch (Host), Matt O'Brien, Kyle Brownrigg, Debra DiGiovanni, Trent McClellan, Matt Wright, Landry, John Wing, Steve Patterson, Godfrey

NOT Made for TV – Friday Early Show
Yuk Yuks Comedy Club, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, 7 p.m.
Travis Lindsay, Ryan Belleville, Carol Zoccoli

NOT Made for TV – Friday Late Show
Yuk Yuks Comedy Club, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, 9 p.m.
Stephen Kinch, Chantel Marostica, Darryl Orr, John Wing

Saturday, April 29

Pub Comedy (first show)
The Lower Deck, Historic Properties, 1 p.m.
Mike Delamont (Host), Chantel Marostica, Charles Haycock, Keith Pedro, John Beuhler, Matt O'Brien

Pub Comedy (second show)
The Lower Deck, Historic Properties, 3 p.m.
Mike Delamont (Host), Kyle Brownrigg, Eman El-husseini, Derek Seguin, Carol Zoccoli, Darryl Orr

Saturday, April 29

Gala of Laughs Finale
Spatz Theatre, Citadel High, 7:30 p.m.
Mark Critch (Host), Jay Malone, Erica Sigurdson, Darryl Orr, Derek Seguin, JR DeGuzman, Rob Bebenek, Charlie Demers, Ted Morris, Sterling Scott, Ryan Belleville

NOT Made for TV – Saturday Early Show
Yuk Yuk's Comedy Club, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, 7 p.m.
Catherine Robertson, John Beuhler, Matt O'Brien

NOT Made for TV – Saturday Late Show
Yuk Yuks Comedy Club, Westin Nova Scotian Hotel, 9 p.m.
Dan Hendricken, Kyle Brownrigg, Rob Bebenek, Keith Pedro

Tickets and schedule info: halifaxcomedyfest.ca



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Stephen Cooke

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Stephen Cooke is an award-winning arts journalist who's been covering the local, regional and national scene for over 25 years.
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