‘Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud’ James Brown famously sang, and something of that spirit also fires Gina Yashere who will bring her high-energy brand of comic brilliance to Galway for the Vodafone Comedy Carnival.
Yashere grew up in Bethnal Green, in the east end of London, the child of Nigerian parents. Prior to being a comedian she worked as a lift engineer and began performing stand-up in 1996. She was soon appearing on high profile TV shows like Live at the Apollo, Mock the Week, and The Lenny Henry Show, earning rave reviews for her routines.
Having already left the security of her steady job as an engineer for the perilous world of comedy, Gina upped sticks again, this time from the UK, to relocate to the United States in 2008. Once again, her bold move was a resounding success; she became the first British comedian to appear on Def Comedy Jam and quickly went on to do primetime TV slots with Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. She has filmed three comedy specials in the US and more recently has been a regular guest on Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. She also tours the world regularly performing her stand-up material.
Onstage Gina exudes confidence and charisma, and the audacity of her life choices in pursuing her comedy career confirms that her self-belief is no mere act. So where did she get that confidence from? “I’m an Aries so by nature I’m very confident about what I do,” she tells me, over an afternoon interview. “I also came from strong Nigerian stock and my mother instilled confidence and a strong work ethic in me. Mum was super protective and super ambitious for her kids, all of that.”
I ask were there any comics she admired as a child who inspired her to take up performing? “As a kid I used to love Kenny Everett but I was never interested in doing comedy when I was young, it wasn’t even on my radar as a job I could do,” Gina replies. “When I was a kid my plan was to be a doctor or an engineer because my mum told me that was my plan,” she adds with a laugh. “I fell into comedy completely by accident after I had already spent five years working as an engineer.
'I travel all over America doing shows so I can see the effect of Trump and there are certain places that I, as a black female lesbian comedian, would not set foot in'
"I always had a gift for making people laugh but it was just something I did in the classroom or with my friends. I didn’t think I could actually do that for a living because when I watched TV it was all white guys doing comedy on television so I just assumed it was a white guy job and I never really thought about me doing it at all. Then I was in between jobs as an engineer and I decided to try acting stuff and comedy. I thought I’d just give it a go and that was my start.”
Having noticed as a child “it was all white guys” doing comedy on TV in England, Gina found much the same thing when she became a successful comic performer in her own right. Her frustration at the lack of opportunities offered her by UK television execs was part of the reason for her relocation to the US. “I’ve been in America now for 10 years; for the first few years I was in LA and I’ve been in New York for the last four years,” she relates. “I’ve been a long time building up to where I am now and I am getting a lot more prestigious shows than I was getting in England. I’ve had three stand-up comedy specials on American television whereas I never got one in England, ever.”
I ask her what she loves most and hates most about living in New York and what she misses most about London. “What I love most about New York is that it is like a bigger, crazier, London. It’s like London but with a much more positive and go-getting mentality, everybody is hustling and trying to do their own thing. People do not look down on ambition or on people who are go-getters. In England there is always this attitude that you can’t be too openly ambitious; if you get any success you have to pretend it happened by accident. What I hate about New York is that it is a disgustingly dirty city; rats and cockroaches run the place, it’s gross. What I miss about London is good chocolate; American chocolate is disgusting!”
'One of the things I’ll talk about in Galway is the first time my Jewish American girlfriend met my Nigerian mother'
In one of her appearances on The Daily Show, Gina memorably described Donald Trump as ‘a cockwomble’. How does she find being a black woman in Trump’s America? “In New York I am kind of living in an oasis amid the craziness; New Yorkers don’t like Trump,” she observes. “It’s not impacted my life as badly as it could have done if I was living somewhere like Florida or anywhere in the south. I do travel all over America doing shows so I can see the effect of Trump, and there are certain places that I, as a black female lesbian comedian, would not set foot in. But it was like that before Trump; all he has done is make people more outwardly spoken about their true feelings. It’s not like racism wasn’t there. That’s the thing with Trump; Trump hasn’t affected black people that much because we knew it was there all the time - it’s white people that are so shocked by racism. Black people are like ‘Yeah we knew that shit was happening all the time, we’ve been telling you and you weren’t listening. Now you see it, you can’t deny its existence.’”
Gina’s stage routines delve gleefully into all the things that have been happening in her life and spin them into comic gold. So what kind of experiences will she be talking about in Galway? “One of the things I’ll talk about is the first time my Jewish American girlfriend met my Nigerian mother,” she reveals. “My mum is quite religious and obviously, as a devout Christian, is a bit homophobic so I have a great story about when she first met my girlfriend; it’s beautiful and hilarious at the same time. There’s lots of things that have been happening in my life and they will all be in the show at some point.”
Gina tells many brilliant, side-splittingly, funny tales about her mother. How does her mum feel about being talked about onstage so often by her daughter? “She loves it!” Gina declares with an emphatic laugh. No doubt Galway will love it too when Gina gets to strut her stuff at the Vodafone Comedy Carnival.
Gina Yashere plays the Roisín Dubh on Wednesday October 24 at 8pm (with Glenn Wool, Barry Castagnola, Papa CJ, and Andrew Maxwell ), tickets are €23; the Black Box Theatre on Thursday 25 at 8pm (with Reginald D Hunter, Andrew Maxwell, Tom Rhodes, and Al Murray ), tickets are €28; and at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, Eyre Square on Friday 26 at 9.30pm (with Reginald D Hunter, Terry Alderton, Kevin McGahern, and Johnny Candon ), tickets are €25. Tickets are available via www.vodafonecomedycarnival.ie