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Gina Yashere: The first lady of black British comedy speaks

COMEDY GOLD: Gina Yashere

Q: How did you originally get into comedy and go from a lift engineer to one of the most recognisable black British comedians?

GY: You just do it. I just took voluntary redundancy from my engineering job and people always told me I was funny so I thought I’d give it a go and see what happens. I did it for a few months during the summer and then planned to go back to engineering – but I never went back because it started to pick up and then I just carried on doing it and went from there.

Q: How did your family react to going into comedy?

GY: My mum was not impressed – I was an engineer. That was a good job, something she could boast to her friends about, so when I got into comedy she was like “what is this about?” but then I got on TV within six months and her whole attitude changed. I mean I’ve got a routine that I did Live at the Apollo that went viral and we were talking about that and my mum’s in the audience. So that’s well documented what her reaction was to me doing comedy.

Q: I read that you said being different allowed you to really experience success at a more rapid pace. As a gay, dark-skinned black woman, you really have a rare perspective that we don’t hear from in comedy – let alone British comedy. Do you feel a sense of responsibility or pride in representing that?

GY: For me, I’m an entertainer. I’m a comedian and my priority is to make you laugh, because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Everything else is a bonus – if you come out of my show educated then that’s great, but that’s not what I’m setting out to do. I am political, just by virtue of who I am, and I will use that obviously because I’m talking about myself and my perspective but I’m not coming out here going ‘tonight, I’m going to tell people about politics’ I’m not doing that – I’m not a lecturer, I’m not a speaker, I’m an entertainer.

I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve achieved and glad I’m putting my face out there as a black woman in this business and doing something but that’s not what I set out to do, I’m just doing what I love which is making people laugh.

Q: You’ve been welcomed in the US and seemed to have settled in nicely. How has your US experience been thus far, and do you think you would have a similar level of successful if you were still in the UK?

GY: There's no way I’d have the same level of success, it’s like you have to go to America to get respect back in England for doing what you do and that’s what I’ve done. I wouldn’t say its been easy, America is not easy it’s hard work; I’m coming not only as a black woman, but a foreign black woman. The concept of black British has only just dawning on Americans now so it's been an interesting journey.

Q: Do you think there will ever be a day where black British comics could be on the same playing field as black American comics – in terms of black British comedians gaining the same level of exposure and success?

GY: I think it will happen but not on television. Television is a dying art form anyway; it’s a dying medium. Most youngsters 24 and under get there TV consumption online. So I can't see it happening on TV because it’s too old guard, it’s still run by old white, middle class people – but it will happen via the medium of online content, where people are creating their own content and becoming stars on their on YouTube, Snap Chat etc. That’s where we'll gain more momentum.

Q: So you’ll be performing at the Underbelly show tomorrow. What can we expect from your show?

GY: At Underbelly, it's going to be unadulterated, unfiltered Gina Yashere for a full hour, coming with some new stories, some of the favourite stories that you like to hear again and I’m basically doing all my new bits that I’m planning to do at my next stand up special. So it’s a fresh new show.

Q: What advice would you give to other young black British comedians who want to follow in your footsteps?

GY: Stay true to yourself, talk about your own experience, don’t steal other people’s jokes – you’ve got to have your own character and material.

See Gina Yashere: Laugh Riot 2.0 (Send in the Clown) at Underbelly Festival from June 23-25

Read the full Gina Yashere feature in The Voice Newspaper, coming soon

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