Gina Yashere’s career in comedy spans over 20 years back to when the former lift engineer broke through as a finalist at the notoriously grueling Hackney Empire New Act of The Year competition. From there Gina quickly established herself as a top draw on the live stand-up circuit, while also becoming a regular feature on our screens with appearances on the likes of The Lenny Henry Show, Mock the Week, and Live at the Apollo. In 2007, Gina fulfilled a lifelong dream in moving to the USA, where she’s featured on Last Comic Standing, The Jay Leno Show, and as a regular correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, all of which has lead US audiences take to her as one of their own.
The Gina Yashere Interview
In a no-holds-barred chat with NextUp, Gina let fly at the inequality in the industry on both sides of the Atlantic, gave us her take on recent political events, and brought us up to date with her plans for a busy summer ahead.
Hope you’re well Gina, have you been back in the UK long?
Gina Yashere: I’ve been back a couple of days, so I’m still jet-lagging a bit, but not too bad.
This is quite a mad time to be coming back, eh?
Yeah, I’m watching some mad stuff going on right now with this big fire in Kensington [our interview took place the morning after the tragic events at Grenfall Tower], and then there are crazy people running around with knives and cars and things. Look, I was brought up in the 70s, so I remember the IRA, I remember when terrorism was done by white people, so it’s not so worrying to me.
How do you feel about the UK election result?
Aw man, we almost did it! I’m really happy at the hung parliament, but I wish he’d [Jeremy Corbyn] just won a few more seats and he could have knocked that woman [Theresa May] out of power. It was a fantastic result considering the whole vibe when the whole thing kicked off 6 weeks ago, you know? Theresa May completely humiliated herself – mugged herself off – publically and worldwide. So yeah, I’m looking forward to the next election, hopefully, sooner rather than later.
Are you finding that maybe politics is creeping into your material a bit more?
A little bit, but only from the perspective of an outsider looking in on the changes that are happening. I think all that’s happened is Trump has brought out these feelings, that people have always felt deep down, more out into the open. It’s not like we didn’t know that all that racism and xenophobia was there bubbling under the surface. Under Obama, people would go ‘Ah, look, everything’s wonderful, there’s no problem. We’ve got a black president! Racism is over.’ And it’s like ‘No, if you look at what was said to President Obama, you can see that racism never went away.’ So, it’s not like it’s going to change my act significantly because this is stuff that was there all along.
As a Brit, I used to laugh at America, coming from a place that’s a little bit more sensible politically, but now with Brexit, we’ve proved ourselves to be no better. People aren’t wise to the game that the right-wing press is a propaganda machine, otherwise, Theresa May wouldn’t have got as many votes as she did, that was a campaign based on fear and xenophobia too.
Was it always part of your plan to move to the US?
Yeah, ever since I was six, I wanted to move to the states. Even outside of the context of a comedy career. When I was an engineer, I wanted to get transferred to a post in the USA. Even before that, I used to say to my Mum ‘Why did you have to come to Bethnal Green rather than Miami? What were you thinking?’ I moved out in 2007 for [US TV talent contest] Last Comic Standing, and just sort of never came home. I do come home all the time to do shows and see my family – I’m never going to forget where I’m from. London is still where my base is, and where the basis of my personality is.
How do you think your career might have been different if you’d started in the states?
It’s a difficult one to answer, because on the one hand; I might have had more opportunity to progress to the level of someone like Chris Rock and that sort of standard; but then, who knows – obviously my outlook would be different, maybe my style would have been different. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t be unique as I am – being a black, British woman giving her perspective. Even though I think there’s a glass ceiling for black comedians on both sides of the Atlantic, I think the one on the American side is a lot higher. Chris Rock has even discussed this, how – even though he’s one of the best comedians, one of the most popular black comedians in the world – he lives next to just an average Jewish dentist. He’s not the best dentist in the world, but he can afford to live on the same street as Chris Rock, and if you look at somebody like Jerry Seinfeld, and compare him to Chris Rock, you know. Chris Rock’s wealth and success pales in comparison to Seinfeld’s, and it’s obvious why.
It seems only certain acts are able to break through to what you might call the ‘white-controlled mainstream’, right?
Yeah, I think it’s getting better, I think there’s starting to be more opportunities for black comedians to get on TV and stuff, but for my generation, the only route to success in the UK seemed to be to do well somewhere else first, and they go ‘Oh, you’re big in America! Maybe we should book you!’ Take the story of Idris Elba – he was struggling in the UK, getting nowhere, but then he went to the states, became a big star, and now suddenly UK TV execs are falling over themselves to offer him shows. Why wasn’t he noticed 15 years ago? Why does he need to go to America to earn recognition in his own country? That’s what we have to deal with as black artists. It’s irritating.
So how did the ceiling in the UK manifest itself for you?
One example would be the fact that I used to tour with Michael McIntyre. He used to open shows where I was the headliner. I remember when he was broke, when I used to cover have to cover his taxi fare. I think he’s super hilarious mind you. I don’t like all the vitriol he gets, you know? Yes, his comedy is inconsequential, but so what – it makes people laugh. I don’t like the snobbishness of some comedians. We’re all entertainers at the end of the day, let’s not get it twisted. But yeah, I remember these guys opening for me, and then seeing the level that they ascend to, and I ended up thinking ‘Why don’t I get those same opportunities?’ It’s not that I’m saying ‘I’m funnier than Mcintyre, why aren’t I up there?’ I just want to know why I don’t get the same level of opportunity that they do, and that just doesn’t happen for black comics. The people who run TV stations are white, middle-class, and they tend to book the same type of people. I’ve had meetings with TV execs where they’ve said “well, we’ve got Richard Blackwood, or Stephen K Amos”, and I’m like – ‘What the f*ck has that got to do with me?’ They’ll say stupid sh*t like that, like as if they’ve met their quota now. According to this quota, you can have 7 million white middle-class comics, but if they do one show with Stephen K Amos and it doesn’t work, they give up. I’m not saying that that doesn’t happen in the states, but there’s a lot more opportunity, a lot more channels.
How did you find Edinburgh?
The last time I played Edinburgh was 2003. I hate Edinburgh Festival. For me, there’s a pressure to perform ‘one man shows’ that fit into what critics consider ‘proper’ performance art. When I used to play, the audiences themselves used to love my shows, because I was just doing what I do, being me, giving a stand-up performance over an extended hour. But I’d get criticisms from these awful middle-class critics, saying ‘She just doing jokes, it’s just stand-up!’, and it’s like ‘Yeah, that’s what I am – I’m a stand-up, I’m not going to write a one-woman play.’ I just didn’t understand it, I thought I was going up there just to perform to a different kind of audience, and I was getting all that crap. I just want to do what I do, which is go on stage for an hour and do my jokes. ‘You should be speaking to the African experience’, and all that, it’s just not my thing. I’m not doing it. I don’t care for it. The whole festival’s disappeared up its own arse.
Are there other festivals that you enjoy more?
Yeah, I love Montreal, I play there pretty much every year. They’re just about comedy, and I can just go there and do my thing. I love the Sydney Festival, same thing – I always have a great time there. I don’t do Melbourne, because for some reason the woman who runs it hates my guts, but, in general, I love a festival show, but wherever I go, I just want to do what I do. I’m an entertainer.
Tell us about your upcoming shows.
I’m hosting [top US comic] Sommore’s show at the O2 on Friday [16th June], but I’m mainly back for my yearly stint at The Underbelly Festival, which I love. I love seeing that weird, upside-down cow tent go up on the Southbank, and it’s a really special vibe, with all the variety of acts they put on, from comics, to bands, and performance artists. I can’t wait.
Where to see Gina
You can catch Gina perform her show Laugh Riot 2.0 during her run at the Underbelly Festival, Southbank on 23rd, 24th, and 25th June – details here. You don’t have to wait that long to get your fix, however, as Gina’s show Laughing to America is available to stream right now on NextUp, right here.
by Stu Boyland
Photos by David Burgonyne