Gina Yashere Made Sure ‘Bob Hearts Abishola’ Wouldn’t Be a Joke
Gina Yashere is pretty sick of L.A.’s June gloom. “This is depressing,” she says with a laugh over Zoom from her home. “I didn’t leave London to come for this weather — it’s very annoying. And what is most irritating, London is lovely right now. I’m speaking to my mum, and she’s like, ‘Oh, it’s very beautiful and sunny here today.’ This is not right.”
Indeed, we’ve been beset by a string of cloudy, chilly days, which is common for Southern California in early summer, but not normally as bad as this. Add in all the rain during the winter and spring — rain we very much needed, granted — and L.A. has lately been doing a decent impression of London, where Yashere grew up with her four siblings and her mother, who emigrated from Nigeria.
But Yashere, a longtime L.A. resident, has a sense of humor about the bummer weather, just as she’s been able to find the funny in myriad disappointing aspects of life. Picked on in school, where she didn’t see many other Black faces, she used humor to defang tense situations. The misogyny and racism she faced at 19, when she worked as an engineer at Otis, got turned into fodder for stand-up routines. The difficulty of coming out to her mom became the foundation for great jokes she’d tell around the world. And the sense of dislocation she’s often felt wherever she’s lived has helped inform Bob Hearts Abishola, the CBS sitcom she co-created along with (among others) sitcom powerhouse Chuck Lorre.
The series, which stars Mike & Molly’s Billy Gardell as a blue-collar businessman who falls for the Nigerian nurse (Folake Olowofoyeku) he meets in the hospital after a heart attack, was renewed early this year for its fifth season. It’s one of the few traditional, multi-camera sitcoms left on network television, and normally Yashere, one of Bob Hearts Abishola’s showrunners, would be immersed in putting together the new season. But the writers’ strike has shut down production, and so she’s out on the picket lines, proudly so.
During our conversation, the 49-year-old comic, who’s also the author of the 2021 memoir Cack-Handed, makes it clear how important this ongoing strike is for the future of writers in the entertainment industry — even if that’s only one aspect of her career. Soon, she’ll be back on the road with her “Woman King of Comedy” tour, which allows her to pursue her greatest passion, stand-up comedy. Despite the success of Bob Hearts Abishola, where she also plays Abishola best bud Kemi, Yashere still notices that those who come out to see her live don’t necessarily know the sitcom.
“Only a small percentage right now are coming via Bob Hearts Abishola — I’m not quite sure why that is,” she tells me. “I don’t know whether it’s because CBS is traditionally an older audience who maybe don’t go out to live comedy as much — or the fact that people don’t know that the woman who plays Kemi and created the show is also a very established and well-known stand-up comic. (I’m) trying to get people to go, ‘Oh, that’s the same person.’ People who are coming to see me are people who are fans of my stand-up, which is great, because I’m always trying to get new material going. You’re not going to come and see the same show twice — I’m always writing.”
Until the strike, that is, when the Writers Guild of America instituted a “pencils down” policy in which its members (like Yashere) don’t do any writing until the studios offer a fair deal. How is Yashere handling this surprise downtime? It’s one of the things we talked about, as well as her preferred method of meditation, what Black Americans don’t realize about Black Britons like herself, how she stood up for herself when she first started working with Lorre and how she cleverly ensured that the Bob Hearts Abishola writers’ room would be more diverse.
You’re doing stand-up shows right now, but obviously you thought you’d be even busier at the moment.
Yeah, I thought I was going to be back working on Bob Hearts Abishola. I was scheduling the (live) shows just at the weekends and spreading them out (so) I won’t be way too exhausted writing the TV show and then hitting the road. But it now turns out, we’re on strike, and I’m just doing the tour — which was pretty good timing, actually.
How are you dealing with this unexpected vacation that the writers’ strike has given you?
It’s not great, because we’re fighting for fair pay. I’m able to put my all into that fight — I’m spending a lot of time on the picket lines marching with my fellow writers. But it’s giving me some extra vacation time, for sure, and I’m making the most of it — I’m enjoying it.
Last season of the show (was) 22 episodes, which is wonderful financially, but physically and mentally it’s very exhausting. I feel like I need a three-month hiatus at the end of every season, not just the six weeks that we are getting — it takes me so long to wind down after the season has finished that, by the time I start to go, “Oh, I’m starting to relax,” I’m back at work getting started on the new season. So, the strike has actually given me a nice, accidental extra bit of wind-down time. I’m on the picket lines with my fellow writers, and then I’m also working on projects that I’m going to be doing after Bob Hearts Abishola — like turning my memoir into a TV show. I can’t do that now because we’re not working (during the strike), but that was the plan. But I’m thinking (about) my own stuff in private at home once the studios come back with a fair deal and we can get back to work.
After being on the treadmill of doing Bob Hearts Abishola, what’s it like not to be allowed to write? I have to imagine ideas are still popping in your head.
Basically I’m giving my brain a little break. When we’re on with the show, we’re thinking all the time. I wake up in the morning thinking Bob Hearts Abishola — I’m working on it all day, and at night my brain is running, going, “Oh, we got to change this, got to do this…” It’s just nonstop for the nine months that we’re working on the show. So this is nice — it leaves me open to other ideas to flow in, whereas during the season, I don’t think of anything else but the show I’m working on.
There’s all this talk about how creativity often happens when we let our mind wander. You’re living that reality right now.
Some of my best ideas have come to me while I’ve been meditating. I do Transcendental Meditation. I just sit down for 20 minutes — I’m supposed to do it twice a day, I’m lucky if I get it once every single day. I find it hard to meditate a lot because my brain just is like this (shakes hands vigorously). But on the good days when I meditate and I let my brain just slow down, I’ve had some great ideas just pop — I go, “Oh!” in the middle of my meditation. “Don’t let me forget that idea! I’m going to try and carry on meditating, but let me hold onto that idea…” Sometimes if I’m stuck on a script, I will meditate and let my brain rest for a second. When that happens, it opens up pathways, and I come out of that meditation often with a renewed freshness and fresh eyes on the script.
But I don’t like the meditation where people are talking to you — I don’t like that at all. I don’t like them going, “Calm down” — I don’t want to hear voices. That’s what I like about Transcendental — I just sit in silence. Sometimes I do a mantra, sometimes I don’t. I just sit there and let my brain wander. That’s the good thing about it: It doesn't matter if your brain wanders, just let it wander, just let it go where it goes. And then sometimes when I just let it go where it goes, (my brain) goes, “Oh, you’re not trying to stop me. Okay, I’m going to calm down.” It does it naturally.
But I don’t want anybody talking to me. I don’t want anybody telling me to “Imagine trees” and walking through gardens — I don’t want any of that shit. I just let my brain go where it goes — once I do that, and I’m not trying to force myself into what meditation is “supposed” to be, I think my brain works better that way. My brain is as rebellious as I am: “I’m not doing it the way everybody says you’re supposed to do it! This is my way of meditating!” Sometimes I spend the whole meditation thinking about the last episode of Game of Thrones. (Laughs) But if that’s what it is, that's what it is — I still come out feeling a little bit refreshed.
You grew up in London, and you weren’t a big comedy person as a kid. Back then, did you even have a conception of what stand-up was?
No. There were dudes on TV doing stand-up, but in England in the 1970s and 1980s, it was mainly old white dudes in working-men’s clubs. They mainly were from the northern part of England, which is very different from London, and it was just guys telling jokes. I never saw anybody like myself doing it, so it didn’t even come into my imagination that someone like me could do that. When I’d watch people on TV, they were like aliens to me: “Oh, those are people on TV.” You never think that you can be that person. It’s like, “These are not real people.” So I never listened to stand-up or watched stand-up as a kid.
I was watching cartoons and TV shows that were geared toward kids. There was comedy on TV — there was a guy that I loved when I was a kid called Kenny Everett, and his stuff was sketches. His sketches were very irreverent and a bit nutty, and he also slipped some swear words into his sketches on primetime TV. Like, he had a character called Cupid Stunt, and it wasn’t till I was a grown woman of twentysomething before I realized, “Oh my god, if you swap the letters round, that was Stupid Cunt!” He’d do things like that, and the characters would do outrageous things. I really liked him, but he was just a dude on television — comedy wasn’t in my consciousness like that.
You’ve said in your stand-up that you watched American television as a kid. Were you watching sitcoms?
I loved Diff’rent Strokes as a kid, and I loved The Cosby Show — but I didn’t think those were sitcoms. I didn’t know what a sitcom was. I was like, “This is a fun TV show with kids having their best lives. Look where they live, look at the toys they have, look at the life there, look at their mum and dad — I want that mum and dad. I want that lifestyle.” I was enjoying the show for that. I laughed, obviously — I especially enjoyed Diff’rent Strokes. “Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”: I loved that. I never looked at the stereotypes of it and the white savior — I never looked at any of that. All I saw was these Black kids living their best life. But I never thought, “Oh, comedy, I want to do that.”
It wasn’t until I started doing comedy on TV that I thought, “I can be on TV, holy shit!” I got into comedy completely by accident. I’ve always been funny — I used funny to deflect from hard situations and get out of conflict, so that’s what I used my sense of humor for. But I didn’t think it was something that was going to become a career, let alone take me to America and be on television. But once I started doing it and saw the possibilities, then I was like, “Oh, well, then I’m going for that.”
You talk about your mom a lot in your stand-up. Is she a funny person?
Absolutely, she’s a very funny person. On Bob Hearts Abishola, both Kemi and Abishola are based on my mum. Abishola is based on the mother side of my mum — the mother that brought us up strict, harsh, just no-nonsense and no-fun. Kemi is based on what my mum was when I was listening through the door when she was hanging out with her friends.
But does she think of herself as a funny person?
I see her as a funny person — I don’t think she sees herself as a funny person. But she has laughs with people, and she has a good time. She’s very sociable, she has a bunch of friends. She’s always been the life and soul of the party — she’s always been that person — but I don't think she sees herself as a funny person. She sees herself as a debutante.
The Hammersmith Apollo set you did a while ago — the one that first brought you to the attention of Chuck Lorre — had that great moment where you show your mom in the audience and then she instinctively stands up regally to accept everyone’s cheers. That seems like someone who has impeccable comic timing.
She loves the spotlight. She loves being the center of attention. She was very proud in that moment. She loves adoration. For her, it wasn’t a comedic moment — it was like, “This is my moment, look at me.” It wasn’t like, “Oh, let me help my daughter out and give her a funny moment.” She was like, “Yeah, I’m the reason why she’s here — you all look at me.”
That’s what makes it even funnier, because I didn’t even know where she was sitting in the audience. I said to the camera crew, “I’m going to do a joke about my mum, so it’ll be good if you can just find her in the crowd and just get her facial expression.” That was all I said. I had no idea she was going to do that — it was just a beautiful surprise for me, hilarious to me, and it was perfect.
That’s why I was surprised that your mom wanted you and your siblings to be doctors and lawyers. She strikes me as a parent who would enjoy having her kids be in show business.
At the point (when I did that Apollo show), I’d been successful — I’d been doing comedy a long time — so she’d long come ‘round to the fact that her daughter is a comedian. I’d got her on TV before — every time we did a TV show in England where you could bring a parent, I took my mum. She’d been on television with me several times before then. But when I was starting as a comedian, she didn’t know what comedy was. She was a working immigrant mother — she watched The Cosby Show in the same way that I did, going, “Oh, these people on the other side of the world, this is a fun show.” As an immigrant parent, the jobs that she wanted us to do were the jobs that provided money, stability and cachet.
When you used comedy as a kid to diffuse difficult situations in school, was that a trial-and-error thing where you discovered, “Hey, I’m funny, and humor seems to work on people who are picking on me”?
I was an attention-seeking child anyway — there were five kids (in my family). I’ve always been an outgoing, extrovert kind of kid, so that just came naturally to me.
I came after twins, so apparently there was a lot more room in there when I was coming. (Laughs) When my mother was at the hospital, she was on the bed, and some student doctors came over: “This is a woman, seven-months pregnant,” and they were feeling my mum’s stomach and they couldn’t find me. Apparently I’d gone walkabout in my mother’s massive womb. And so my mother said, “From then, I knew when you came out that you were going to be crazy.” Even as a toddler, I was high-energy. Teachers wanted to put me in the plays, because they knew I had some sort of innate performance gene in me. But my mum was like, “What is this acting stuff? Look, she can act like a doctor when she becomes a doctor.”
A major moment in your career came when Chuck Lorre wanted to meet with you about an idea he had that eventually became Bob Hearts Abishola. Famously, you insisted they fly you first class from New York to Los Angeles. You weren’t just willing to do anything because he’s such a big-time TV producer. You were doing well in stand-up, but you weren’t well-known yet in terms of American television executives. Was there any part of you that worried your boldness would backfire?
I was at that point in my career where I had done many meetings with executives who’d gone, “Oh, we love you, blah, blah, blah,” and then nothing had come of it. Or they’d go, “We love what you do, but we’ll think about it” — and then a year later, I see the ideas that I gave in those meetings being used with someone else younger and hotter. I’d had my ideas stolen before — I’d been disappointed in this industry so many times before. So I was past caring, to be honest. I was like, “You know what? If they want to meet me so badly, then let’s see how much they want to meet me.”
Plus, I’d just come off months and months of touring — I was exhausted. I’d said to my missus, “I’m not going on another plane for at least three weeks.” It was the summertime in New York, and there were all these great concerts and things happening in New York, so I’d already called my agent and said, “Block off the calendar for the next three weeks. I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to be at home.”
So I was in that mindset when the call came. I was like, “Oh, god, I don’t want to get on a plane. I’ve had so many of these meetings, and they blow smoke up my arse, and then nothing ever happens. I really don’t want to waste my time flying all the way to L.A., for which I know is going to be bullshit.” So that’s why I made those demands — I was like, “Well, if they really want to see me, then they have to fly me first class. I’m not going over there (in) economy and struggling. I’m not doing it.”
Did that over-it-all mindset affect how you went into the room to meet with him? Did you carry yourself differently?
I was very relaxed about it. Yeah, there was a little bit of excitement — I didn’t know who Chuck Lorre was (when I initially got the call), and then I Googled him, and I was like, “Oh, okay, I know all of these shows, this could be big.” But I tempered (my excitement). I was at a point where my stand-up was doing well — I’d had a few specials, and my income was going up, and I was starting to build a little audience. So I was like, “Well, if this meeting goes well, great. And if it doesn’t, I’m doing well as a stand-up. I don’t need this. My career is going pretty well right now.” I was like, “Hey, how you doing, Chuck? Let’s see what you got.” That was how I went in.
I think he liked that, because I wasn’t (fawning), “Oh my god, Chuck Lorre! I’ve got to impress him!” I was very relaxed and cool. I showed no fear.
His idea for the show was pretty minimal at that early stage, right?
What was there was, “I want to do a show with Billy Gardell, but I don’t want to do another Mike & Molly.” Chuck was like, “I’ve just been on vacation all over Africa, and it came to me — I want the woman to be of African descent. And it seems Nigeria is the most renowned, or the country that comes up the most when we Google Africa, so we want her to be Nigerian.” That was it: Billy Gardell and a Nigerian woman. That was the depth of the pitch.
Everything that came after was me, once I’d decided I was going to do this show and stayed to write the pilot with him, going, “This is how a Nigerian family is set up. This is how it would be when you leave and go to another country. This is the family dynamics.” I basically pulled from my own life — and pulled from the pilot that I’d been trying to pitch a year before, which covered my Nigerian background, which nobody wanted. I was like, “Well, that project is going to die,” and then when I started working on Chuck’s thing, I was like, “I could pull a lot of the ideas from this pitch that I did that didn’t go anywhere, and put it into this. I’m taking a risk, because then they could steal it and run with it, and then I’m screwed. Do I want to trust these guys?” And then once I sat in a room with them, I was like, “What have I got to lose? I might as well just go for it, and hopefully this time I won’t get shafted.”
I basically took ideas from my show that I had been pitching, and put that in (Bob Hearts Abishola) — even some of the actors that I’d been thinking of to play the characters in my pitch. The woman who plays Auntie Olu, Shola Adewusi, in my previous idea, I’d had her in mind to play my mother. I suggested Shola Adewusi to play Auntie Olu, and then she auditioned for it, and she was great.
What about the idea that you had been pitching that wasn’t gaining any traction: What was that show?
It was going to be single-camera, basically following my journey from England to America. A lot of it focused on my family and upbringing. I’m still probably going to do that show now that I’ve got the success of Bob Hearts Abishola behind me, and I’ve written a memoir. People’s minds are now more open to immigrant characters and go, “Oh, they can work on primetime TV. People can fall in love with these foreign characters because they’re still people.”
I think I can sell that show now, whereas before I was an unknown entity, so nobody was going to take a bet on me. It took a rich, white, successful, respected TV creator to take a bet on me. Sometimes it irritates me: “I was pitching a show like this, and nobody wanted it. It took a white man to get this show with Nigerians made.” It’s very annoying. But then I go, “You know what? At least he picked me. At least he opened the doors and gave me artistic power to make the show that we’ve made.” So I’m definitely grateful to Chuck for that, but I’m not grateful to the industry for locking me out for so long, and not letting me make the show that I could’ve made.
I can imagine it might have been incredibly annoying to hear Lorre’s initial pitch: “Hey, I vacationed in Africa and realized I should do a show about an African character!”
Absolutely. In my head, I was furious through the whole meeting. I was like (feigning interest), “Oh, you went to Africa? Now you suddenly…” But then I was like, “At least he’s making an effort to redress the balance” — that was in my head, too.
I was annoyed that they didn’t even know who I was, really — they just typed, “Nigerian female comedian” into Google, and that’s how they found me and flew me across the country. When we were writing the pilot, they were talking about how much they liked The Daily Show, and I was like, “You do realize I was a British correspondent on The Daily Show.” They had no idea. They’d literally just brought me across the country based on one Google search — they’d done no further research.
I actually turned (Bob Hearts Abishola) down after that first meeting. I called my agent and I was like, “No, this don’t sound right. I feel like it’s going to be exploitative — I feel like I’m going to be in another position where my ideas get taken and then I’m locked out of the process, and it just feels weird.” But then, luckily, my best friend and my brother in London called me up and screamed at me for two hours. That’s what made me turn around and go, “All right, I’ll give them another chance.” And then I went back in for another meeting, I was like, “You know what? Chuck is a no-nonsense, no-bullshit person. I think this is going to work.”
So I began to open up and trust, and then I put everything into writing this pilot — and hope that it comes to something.
In its first season, the show got pretty mixed reviews, with most critics saying, “Who does Chuck Lorre think he is making a sitcom about a character like this?” How did it feel reading those reviews when you were working on the show, too?
It wasn’t negative reviews of the show — it was people prejudging (the idea), and I could understand that. If I was an outsider and hadn’t watched (but) heard that this show was being made by this guy who’d never made such shows before, I’d be like, “Wait.” But once people realized that it wasn’t just Chuck doing it — that there was actually a Black Nigerian woman who was one of the co-creators — they relaxed a little bit. They were like, “All right, well, let’s see.” They realized, “No, this is going to be authentic. This isn’t going to be a normal Hollywood, stereotyped version of what Nigerians are.” When they saw the cultural aspect properly represented, they calmed down.
I was aware that these negative reviews were going to happen, because Chuck had never done (a show like this) before. People had an idea of the kind of sitcoms that Chuck does, and they were like, “Who does he think he is thinking he can come out of his box and do this?” But I was like, “Yeah, but wait till they see the product.” That was my thing: “Wait till they see the product, then they’re going to know that I’ve had mucho input into this. I’m not just a figurehead — I’m actually making sure that it’s done properly.”
I’m guessing in some rooms that hire a person of color, that person can be stuck being the designated “Hey, let us know if we do anything wrong with the Black character” writer. That seems pretty insulting, and I’m wondering if you all had some growing pains when you started working together.
I had to make it clear from the beginning: “I’m not just here to write for the Nigerian characters. I’m a comedian and I do comedy all over the world to all types of people. I've traveled the globe doing comedy in Singapore, Dubai, Hong Kong, Brunei, Australia. You’ve brought me in for that Nigerian sensibility, which is great, but I can write for any of these characters.” I was pitching jokes for all the characters, not just the Africans.
As far as getting more people of color and diversity into the writers’ room, I definitely wanted to do that, but I didn’t want to do that in a way that terrified them. I didn't want to go, “Chuck, you haven’t got many Black writers! I’m going to bring Black people in!” So I did it in a backdoor route. I was headlining Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, which was sold out for the weekend, so I called a few of my friends who were comedians who I knew were also writers, and I was like, “Come and open for me at this show.” I didn’t tell them what it was about — I said, “Just come and do a set.”
They opened for me, and I invited Chuck and (co-creators) Al (Higgins) and Eddie (Gorodetsky) to come to the shows, and Al and Eddie came. After the shows, they were like, “Oh, we like that person, Gloria (Bigelow), she was really funny.” And I was like, “Well, she writes,” and then I put them in a meeting together, and Gloria has been a writer on our show. She’d struggled to get into the industry — it was hard to get into the industry as a Black woman — so I got in and I was like, “Well, I’m in, I don’t want to be the only one in the room. I need to mix the room up so that everybody’s sensibilities are covered. I don’t want to be the one person who has to think of everything for all (the Nigerian characters).” So that’s how I got people into the room, and then it became organic.
You positioned it so that you could play Kemi, although Lorre assumed you’d want to be Abishola because it was the bigger role. Now that Bob Hearts Abishola has been on for a few seasons, do you still like writing and performing on the show?
I love both. Kemi comes easy to me. I find the writing twice as hard as the acting — the acting is almost a vacation for me. When I’m acting on the show, then I can concentrate on the character and just being funny — I don’t have to think about plot. When I’m acting on the show, it’s almost like a day off — it’s still physically and mentally exhausting, but it’s not as mentally exhausting as writing the show.
But I love the artistic expression I get writing the show. Also, as a showrunner, I’m able to go, “No, we’re not doing that, let’s do this” — I love that. I didn’t know I’d love that, because I had no interest in writing on shows until I got (this) show. I’d written on stuff before, but it was not my passion. I didn’t want to write — I just wanted to be a comedian on the road selling out theaters. I wanted to play the best friend in a sitcom, which would then sell theaters for me as a stand-up comic. I was a stand-up comic first and foremost — everything I did was to feed the stand-up comedy. But I’ve come to love creating these characters — now I want to tell more stories, and I want to help other people who have struggled to get into the industry tell their stories.
What’s the appeal of doing the best friend role?
I’ve come up in this Hollywood industry — I know what I look like, I know how old I am. I know that I’m not considered a lead, and that is fine by me. I’m a comedian, so I didn’t want the responsibility to carry the show. I wanted to be the funny person who comes in, steals the scene, bounces. I’m a comedian who acts — I’m not an actor. Black women tend to be relegated to the sassy-best-friend role — if I was an actor and that’s all I did, then that would be frustrating for me. But I don’t see myself as a true actor. I’m always looking for the funny, and the funny best friend in any sitcom is always the best role.
One of the most quietly radical aspects of your show is that it’s called Bob Hearts Abishola. Did CBS ever give you any resistance about the title, which features, for many Americans, a very foreign-sounding name?
I never heard a thing. I think they trusted Chuck implicitly. I don’t know whether he did get feedback and he was like, “I don’t give a damn. This is what the show is going to be — take it or leave it.” But I picked a name that was easy to pronounce if you just read the letters. Yoruba names are very easy if you just read the letters — it’s very phonetic, it’s not hard.
I watch a lot of NFL games on CBS, and it always blew me away when the broadcasters did a promo for your show. You could hear them sorta struggle with the title — it forced them and the audience to think about a culture that they normally don’t.
Once the first few episodes were out, I’m working on the Warner Bros. lot, and there’s lots of shows being made on the Warner Bros. lot — it’s just always activity — and I remember being outside once, and a white guy walked past and he said, “E kaaro.” That’s “good morning” in Yoruba, which was used a lot (on the show). So now white people in America are using Yoruba words, and it’s just a beautiful thing.
In April, there was a story that Bob Hearts Abishola will be reducing most of the cast to “recurring” roles. As a showrunner, how difficult was that?
It’s tough, because we’re trying to make these budgets work, and we’ve all taken a hit — I’m an actor on the show, so I’m taking a hit. I’m also a showrunner — all the writers have taken a hit. Everybody has taken a hit financially. So, yeah, juggling budgets is always hard, especially when now there’s less money and the studios are squeezing everything out of it that they can. But writing-wise, it might help a little bit, because some episodes we’ve written a (supporting) character just to come in and say one line, just to get everybody in the episode. That is harder sometimes: We’re writing an episode, and we go down the road and go, “This is a great story,” and then we’ll go, “Oh, Douglas isn’t in it — we need to squeeze him into a scene.”
Stuff like that has happened. So now we’ll be able to follow a story with the core characters that are in that story, and not worry about, “Oh, we got to get that character in to do one line, because otherwise they’re not in the episode.”
Obviously, we’re going to have to do less sets, which is always a little bit more difficult. We shoot it almost like a single-camera — we built some amazing sets. The Lagos Airport, we built that on the Burbank lot — and the Nigerian market — which you don’t do in multi-cam. We went out and built sets and went on locations. That’s going to be harder because we can’t use our imagination: “Let’s go back to Nigeria!” We can’t do as much of that anymore because of the budgetary limitations.
You’re going to not be seeing everybody in every episode anymore — that’s the main difference — but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to see (those) characters anymore. We’re still going to see the characters — it’s just that their stories are going to be more concentrated, much more enriched. If the story is based around Dottie, then you’re going to see Dottie.
It definitely feels like a dispiriting vision of the future in terms of how studios will cut corners to save money on scripted television shows.
That’s what we’re striking for. Back in the day, getting a role in a sitcom that runs several seasons is life-changing — and so it should be, because these studios are making billions of dollars. Now they just want to turn us all into jobbing writers and jobbing actors. They still make all the billions, but just because you’re on a show that runs for mucho seasons, you might still have to drive an Uber in-between. That’s just not sustainable, and we’re not going to stand for that.
In interviews and your memoir, you’ve talked so much about the racism, sexism and homophobia you’ve experienced, especially in your younger years. You’ve mentioned that being a “woman in comedy” is nothing compared to some of the jobs you had prior to being a stand-up. Is there any part of you that thinks, “You know, I didn’t need those terrible experiences to make me the person I am”?
Yeah, I didn’t need those at all — I’m not grateful for those experiences. I mean, I’ve turned them into great stand-up routines, so that’s one good thing that’s come out of it. But, no, I didn’t need to be spat on and called names and have pictures of monkeys hung up above my clothes to make me tougher. None of us need racism to help us succeed — we shouldn’t. I don’t look back fondly on those experiences at all.
You have a funny stand-up bit in which you discuss your preference for American racism over British racism. But I wondered about being Black and British and meeting Black Americans. I wouldn’t presume to think that Blackness is exactly the same for people who were raised in different countries, and I wondered if there was any adjustment for you when you moved to the States.
I’d grown up on American culture, so I knew everything about American culture when I came here. There was no shock when I got to America — it was coming from the other direction, because Americans had not been educated on the fact that Black people outside of America had also suffered horrific abuse under the guise of white supremacy. So, coming to America and meeting Black Americans, a lot of them didn’t know we existed — they didn’t know that there’s a huge community of Black people in Europe. They just thought that Black people were either in America, Africa or the Caribbean — they didn’t know that we’re in England, we’re in France, we’re in Belgium, we’re in Portugal, we’re everywhere. It was a case of educating a lot of Black people when I came to America: “We also suffered slavery. The Black people that you know from the Caribbean are also descendants of people who were enslaved.”
The American education system was very lacking — and so was the British, they made a point of not teaching us that stuff. When I was growing up, Caribbean kids who were Jamaican of origin and Bajan had no idea that their ancestors had been from Africa. So, yes, we have actually had similar experiences to African-American people, but also different in that the Europeans offshored their slavery. They didn’t have it in plantations in England — their plantations were in the Caribbean — so they kept it away from British society. That’s why the British can be (aghast), “What do you mean? We’re much less racist than those terrible Americans with their plantations.” But it’s like, “No, they were just as brutal, if not more so — they just did it in secret.”
You’ve lived in America for many years. Is there anything about you that’s very American?
I’ve hung onto my Britishness! Obviously, I slip and use words like “trash” instead of “the bin” because I’ve been here so long. But I get pulled up very quickly by my British fans. On Instagram, I’ll type something — my keyboard is set to the American spelling of things — and I’ll put “color” and it’ll spell it the American way without the “u,” and my Brits are like, “Oh, so you’re an American now?!” Now I have to make a point of switching and respelling American words just to prove that my Britishness is still intact.
I’ve been here 16 years, and it’s only now I’ve started lessons to learn how to do an American accent. I feel I’m missing out on a lot of acting opportunities because I can’t do the American accent. But originally I was like, “No, I am me! Ricky Gervais doesn’t have to do an American accent! Russell Brand never had to do an American accent! Why do I have to do one?” I was very resistant to it for a very long time. But now I’m like, “I’m turning down really good auditions — I need to get my shit together.”
But I’ve kept my Britishness. I came to America in my mid-30s — I was already a grown-arse woman when I got here, so there’s no way I’m going to switch and suddenly sound like a Valley girl.
I’m not going to make you do your American accent, but how’s it going so far?
It’s going. (Laughs) It’s getting better. I tend to go very nasal. I’m trying — the “R,” “waterrr,” that stuff kills me, but I’m getting better. I had to learn to go, “Oh, can I have a glass of waterrr?" Ugh.
So you haven’t done a reverse-Madonna and started talking American because you’ve lived here a while?
Yeah, just ridiculous. (My Britishness) is what makes me stand out. Why would I want to blend in with everybody else? The whole point of being a comedian is trying to carve your own niche, and this is my niche. This is who I am.