Gina Yashere is one of the funniest people to emerge from Britain’s comedy scene. And yet – like a growing number of Black British performers – she had to move to the States to make it big. We talked to Gina about coming out, the land of opportunity, and her new sit-com: Bob Hearts Abishola.
In her Stand Up special on Netflix, Gina joked about having to come out to her mother twice – first as a comedian, then as a lesbian. And it’s clear that life outside the closet suits her. “I’ve been out amongst my friends and family for quite a while – I came out to my mum a long time ago. But professionally I think it’s been fantastic for my stand up.
“Before, I was more careful of what I talked about and made a point of avoiding certain subjects, like relationships. It’s made me a much more open and freer stand-up comic on stage. It’s not necessarily me talking more about my sexuality, but it has opened me up more generally as a comic.”
Gina is now living with her girlfriend in Hollywood – a city that is perhaps home to the highest celesbian population in the world. When asked who’s her favorite couple, she laughs as though I’m the one who tells jokes for a living. “I don’t even know?! I’ve never even considered that, to be honest.”
A woman of many talents, Gina recently signed a book deal with Harper Collins and is currently writing her memoir. “It’s pretty much stories about my life; growing up in England, moving to America, and the struggles of stuff. Obviously I’m a comedian, so there’s got to be some funny stories in there! I forget that I’ve had a pretty interesting life, and not really considered it. But there’s definitely juicy stuff in there.”
Gina does indeed have an interesting life. It’s all go with her. As well as being the British Correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, she the co-creator of Bob Hearts Abishola. But this success didn’t happen overnight.
“It’s been a long, hard struggle. From the outside, it looks like I just came to America and it fell into my lap. But I spent a good seven, eight years – maybe more – just living from cheque to cheque and hustling. Getting on a plane and going wherever I could to make money. It’s not an easy road, but it’s been very rewarding. And I love a challenge.”
Gina isn’t the only example of Black British talent migrating to the States. From Idris Elba (Thor) to Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Black creatives are finding opportunities that were closed to them on their home turf.
“In England,” Gina reflects, “we don’t get appreciated until we leave and get accolades elsewhere. Then suddenly England realizes. But that’s going to continue being an issue until British television realizes the talent pool is a lot wider than the same white, male, middle-class geezer. It’s getting slightly better now. You’ve got more Black talent getting on television. But it’s not enough. And it’s not happening fast enough! I couldn’t wait. I would have been 75 before I got anything on British TV.”
Having been in the business since 1996, Gina has a few ideas about what needs to change if the British media is to stop hemorrhaging Black talent. “I think they need more people of color and more women in the higher echelons of the TV industry – as writers, producers, executives. And we haven’t got that. Television reflects the people who are booking and making decisions. So if you’ve only got old white men making decisions, they tend to book based on what they think is the norm.”
Gina’s own series, Bob Hearts Abishola, more than proves her words. What makes it stand out from other sitcoms is the attention paid to immigrant experiences. Her cast of characters steps beyond the boundaries of stereotype – and this, Gina believes, is still too rare.
“There are lots of shows that have immigrants in them, but they’re not written by people who come from that background. It’s very one-dimensional characters. Always the same tropes of immigrants being either poor or criminal or downtrodden or having to be rescued by well-meaning white people. When we did the show, I wanted to tell a real story. I wanted to tell the story of people who had come somewhere else to make a new life; how they had the same loves, hates, and stories as everybody else.
“We’re showing that immigrants are just regular people who happen to be from somewhere else. That’s what the show is about: acceptance, kindness, and love. People who are together, regardless of their backgrounds.”
Gina’s own experience as an immigrant in the States is a positive one. “The work I’m able to do here, these are opportunities that I’d never have got in England. To be able to executive produce, write, and act on my first show – a prime time television sitcom with the best sitcom writer in the business.” The other creative forces behind Bob Hearts Abishola are Chuck Lorre, of Big Bang Theory fame, and Eddie Gorodetsky – whose credits include The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Chances like this are rare for Black writers in Britain, as Gina is very much aware. With no British broadcaster offering her a special on television, she took the initiative and made her own. “One I shot in London at Hackney Empire. At the time nobody was offering me specials for television. I couldn’t get my DVD on TV, in England or America. So I just went ‘f*ck it!’ and hired my own TV crew, editor, and producer. I hired a theatre, sold tickets, and did it myself. I did that in London, and again a few years later when I was in America.”
The risk paid off. Netflix acquired her first two specials, and commissioned a third as part of their Stand-Ups series. Having a foot in the door, she thinks, made the process “a lot easier. Netflix said ‘do you want to do a special? We’ll pay you a big stack of money.’ And I just turned up and did a set. That was easier than shooting my own specials.
“I’ve been doing stand up for 25 years. I’m constantly writing, creating, performing – so doing a Netflix special at two weeks’ notice was a piece of cake. They were like ‘have you got material?’, and I said of course – I’m always ready. Afterward, I made sure I was involved in every aspect of editing. You’ve got to know your worth.”
Netflix has been an absolute gamechanger. The subscription service has, Gina believes, “turned the industry upside down in a good way. Before, we were all waiting for the networks and television people to notice our skills and hopefully give us opportunities. Now, Netflix has made it so that anyone who has got a good product can sell their work. I can make my own special and sell it to them. Whereas I could never have gone to any channel in England.
“I was way more well known in England than I ever was in America when I made those specials, and yet I couldn’t get them on television because they were only interested in the Michael McIntyres and weren’t interested in giving opportunities to Black comics. Netflix has created a lot more competition and channels that work for film-makers and entertainers to be seen all over the world simultaneously.”
Catch new episodes of Bob Hearts Abishola on CBS Mondays 8:30/7:30c’ and ‘Watch Gina live at Netflix Is A Joke Fest’s STAND OUT: An LGBTQ+ Celebration show on May 1st at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.’