‘What’s wrong with your fucking phone?’ TSOTA meets comedian Gina Yashere
[All images credited to David Burgoyne]
Gina Yashere is a stand-up comedian from Brixton, London, who has been performing since 1996. She tours almost non-stop around the world, and is a regular guest on Mock the Week and Live at the Apollo. She is currently performing the UK leg of her show, Laugh Riot.
It’s safe to say I was quite nervous about interviewing Gina Yashere. Known for her frank observations, delivered with startling bluntness, I wondered if she’d pick up the unfortunate circumstances in which I was calling her. Running around the Barbican Centre trying to find a quiet spot, finding an apt place to make a call seemed to be impossible; do I sit in the busy café, with the echoes of heightened discussions from the matinee making their way down the phone? She’s not going to like that. Outside seemed a good option, but it’s full of fountains, and during a test run it definitely sounded like I was on the toilet. Not ideal. I settled on the floor, took a deep breath, and picked up the phone. Perfect, except it wasn’t working. In my hour of need, technology had failed me, and I hung up on her 5 or 6 times. “It’s OK”, I thought, “she’ll be perfectly alright. Maybe she hasn’t even noticed.” A momentary fleeting thought interrupted by a recognisably booming voice: “what’s wrong with your fucking phone? It’s fucking shit. You need to sort it out.” There she was.
Possibly most familiar on this side of the pond for her appearances on Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo, or, depending on your age, The Lenny Henry Show, Gina Yashere is something of a rarity. Her brand of observational comedy is scathing, lacking in politeness or polish but never rude for the sake of offense. She moved to the states several years ago, and I wondered whether some of the observations of the girl from Brixton were lost in translation, or if she were ever scared of a culture clash. “Not at all. American comedy is everywhere – we’re always watching it. When I went out there it was just like being part of something in a different way – it wasn’t new, because we’re all so used to it. We’re all influenced by it.”
Yashere has fully integrated into the US comedy scene, appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as well as performing her own headline tours. So what is the dream? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, two big US heavyweight comedians, have left their posts on their eponymous programmes. Would she ever consider filling a similar gap? “Never. No way. Waaaay too political. I’d never, ever want to do stuff like that. Not interested in politics one bit. Now, if Ellen [DeGeneres] left her job, that’s more like it. That’s what I’d want – just having fun with the show, having a party with the guests. That’s what it’s about – fun. Just having fun.”
Before imagining Yashere in a conformist, safe routine, heaping praise on her contemporaries, entering the stage accompanied by a dodgy Cyndi Lauper track and smiles – stop. Imagine the exact opposite of that, and you’re much closer. A few years ago, Yashere told a cutting anecdote –littered with an almost trademark use of profanities- about Air Cubana, which she would probably tell you is the World’s Worst Airline. As someone who had a particularly traumatic time on an internal flight in Cuba, it rang true and was deeply funny. I wondered where she considered the line to be between observation and offence; Air Cubana is one thing, but would she make a jibe about those flying with Malaysia Airlines? Where’s the line, and when do you cross it? “Of course I’d make a joke about stuff like that. I did – I was IN Malaysia just after that and made a joke about it, and it was funny. No problem. The line is always “is it funny?” but some people get it completely wrong. If you make people laugh, you’re doing it right.”
And doing it wrong? What might that look like? The brand of comedy Yashere brings – a comedian with almost 20 years experience under her belt – is notably different from a lot of the newer acts. Has comedy changed? The comments made by Shadow Culture Secretary, Chris Bryant, about the domination of the arts by ‘posh’ artists like James Blunt and Eddie Redmayne seemed to ring true in the acting world – was it applicable to comedy, too? “Absolutely. I don’t need to name names – just listen to comedy. Watch some comedy and you’ll see. Comedy isn’t like what it used to be. It’s always some skinny good-looking guy. That’s not what comedy is; comedy is for the freaks, for the ugly people, the weirdos… it’s for the people who don’t fit in. Me. Not the good-looking ones.”
It can’t be all bad. What about all the new female comedians? Surely that’s a good thing? “Yeah. But I just hope there’s room for all the different comedy they’re bringing.” But then, Yashere doesn’t see it as a breakthrough. “I worked as a lift technician – everyone apart from me was a bloke. Being a comedian isn’t scary, or a man’s world. If you think that, you need to work as a lift technician.” So what of her idols? What can people expect to see from a Yashere set? “I don’t have any comedy heroes. I had no idea about what comedy was until I started doing it – people just kept telling me I was funny. Now, I don’t want to be like this person or that person, or for someone to watch me and say “oh yeah she reminds me of that person”, and if someone says the same thing about me, then it’s because they’re copying me.” I think she’s one of few people around today for whom that definitely rings true.