Mo Gilligan: Black British and Funny
TV Rating: ****
Broadcast: 15th October 2020
Channel: Channel 4
Mo Gilligan goes on a journey through his comedy roots, shining a well-deserved light on the British Black comedy circuit of the past 30 years.
The Black British Stand-Up comedy circuit has been a thriving one for the last 30 years. However if you hadn’t in that time ventured out to many live gigs, relying on the numerous TV comedy shows for your entertainment and as a gauge to who’s hot and who’s not, you’d be forgiven for thinking Black British stand up comprises a handful of Comedians named Gina, Judi, Lenny, Richard and Stephen.
That’s far from the case and there are countless superb comedians doing their thing, or at least they were pre-Covid-19 times, on stages up and down the land, from Catford to Watford, from Southend to Bridgend. From small theatres like The Kiln in Kilburn, North London, to huge places such as the Hackney Empire in London’s East End, where some of the main interviews for this programme were filmed.
Presenter Mo Gilligan’s journey started at the prestigious Hackney Empire – London’s equivalent to the New York Apollo theatre, where he had assembled a range of talent spanning different generations – including Angie Le Mar, Dane Baptiste, Eddie Kadi, Eddie Nestor, Llewella Gideon, Michael Dapaah, Slim and Thanyia Moore. Whilst the insights they offered were fascinating, the set up didn’t work so well due to socially distancing in the stalls. The format made it a little awkward for the conversation to flow smoothly and clearly they needed a little warm up to get going. I thought Angie’s opening gag re “playing the Empire before it was built” was funny but it went over most of the assembled gathering’s heads until she ‘woman-splained’ it!
Dane Baptiste was on point with his observation on the difference between the career opportunities of Black versus white comedians, commenting that Black comedians only get one opportunity to make it, whereas white comedians will get many more chances to impress, especially when it comes to TV comedy. He said white comedians can go off and do whimsical, flight of fancy comedy that raises a smile, as opposed to comedy that lifts the roof off. He’s found that a Black audience demands comedy that does just that by generating belly laughter that reverberates around the venue. It means such an audience can seem far harder to please, but in Baptiste’s view, if you can succeed with such an audience, you have the potential and talent to do that anywhere.
Nonetheless talent and potential is not in itself enough to make it out of the regular comedy circuit and on to bigger things. Many have proved themselves and earned their stripes on this toughest of circuits but that hasn’t translated into a progression to TV comedy, panel shows and national tours, which for many would be a desired comedy career path.
Gina Yashere, dejected after not getting her dues in England and knowing she was worth more, upped sticks and left for Los Angeles in 2007 and has never looked back. Her shows appear on major US channels and Netflix, including the first Nigerian-American sitcom, ‘Bob Hearts Abishola,’ featuring an all Nigerian cast. Gina was forthright in naming TV commissioners as the gatekeepers blocking her career progress and saw there was more chance of her talent being recognised, appreciated and financially rewarded stateside.
Richard Blackwood was funny when remarking on how people now ask him if he knows Mo Gilligan, stating “I do, but they should be asking if Mo Gilligan knows me!” That baton may be being passed on to the younger generation but Richard’s not ready to let go of it just yet! Good. That’s exactly as it should be. You have to earn the right to carry the comedy baton forward.
Mother and Son
It was wonderful to see the most direct baton passing of all as Gilligan interviewed Angie Le Mar with her son Travis Jay. Gilligan paid Travis a great complement by saying not everyone knows they are related. Travis could easily have made that well known, but chose to develop his own career, build up his own brand and following by standing on his own two feet and not relying on his mother for a helping hand up the comedy ladder.
What was fascinating was seeing the different generations talking about how they’d influenced one another. There were helpful contributions from stalwarts of the Stand Up comedy scene who’ve helped bring so many through – such as John Simmit, Quincy and Rudi Lickwood to name but three.
One of the most poignant moments was seeing Gilligan interviewing Slim, explaining how he looked up to him growing up and coming up on the comedy circuit. Slim revealed that in these pandemic times he is making ends meet outside of the comedy world, as are so many comedians. It was sad to hear that from someone so highly loved and rated on the black comedy circuit and regularly voted the Best Black Comedian in polls and award ceremonies. That didn’t sit right at all. You won’t find any of the most popular white, mainstream TV stand up comedians having to make a living outside of comedy during this pandemic. It felt like a tremendous injustice.
There are younger comedians who’ve broken through onto TV in the last decade who are not a patch on the likes of Slim, Curtis Walker, Richard Blackwood and Rudi Lickwood for instance, when it comes to talent, stage craft and ability to perform on the big stage, yet these stalwarts don’t seem to get the opportunity of appearing on Live at The Apollo, Mock the Week, Countdown Meets 8 out of 10 Cats etc.. and countless other stand up comedy or comedy panel shows which have served as vehicles that propel comedians to ever more TV appearances and above all the national prominence and fame that goes with it and results in the ability to create a distinctive brand, tour nationwide and make serious money, for example, from DVD and book sales.
Why Aren’t Black British and Funny Comedians making it onto TV?
There have been some breakthroughs – American, Reginald D Hunter, compere Mo Gilligan of course (Momentum on Netflix plus various Channel 4 shows), Daliso Chaponda, Kojo Amin and Nabil Abdul Rashid for instance. The latter three did very well on the hugely popular Britain’s Got Talent making it through to Semi-Final and final stages in recent series. That just shows how well loved and understood Black comedy is. As an aside, I do think Nabil pushed the #BlackLivesMatter act a bit too far in his semi-final this year. Whilst it was amusing and absolutely perfect for a topical stand up gig, it was not for live TV when judges are at the serious, business end stage of the show and thinking about what the Queen would enjoy watching, which you have to remember is actually the ultimate goal of the show. That quite radical semi-final set probably cost Nabil what could have been a well earned place in the final.
I accept absolutely that TV Commissioners have been the ones holding back Black British Comedians, but it could be argued that there’s an element of some of the comedians being their own worst enemies that has to be considered.
I think there has been too much reliance on playing the big theatres on a bi-monthly basis with packed line ups featuring 6+ comedians in very long show’s going on till 11pm, nearly midnight. Whilst the shows are invariably highly entertaining they can feel like a marathon when a good quality 2 hours of entertainment would suffice. More comedians could and should have broken away from that to do one man/woman shows touring the country and moving away from the London centric comedy circuit. For example Richard Blackwood and Slim performed Bad Boys I and II in 2015 and 2018, selling out a couple of nights at the Hackney Empire. The second of these were when Blackwood was still in Eastenders. Once he’d left the show surely he should have capitalised on his new found fame and toured nationwide? Slim too surely should have gone on the road. No disrespect to others but those shows proved they didn’t need 5-6 supporting acts.
Maybe they had their reasons. Regarding making it on TV, Slim’s talked about it not being for a want of trying. When it comes to things like that questions have to be asked of his agent for it was their job to market and promote their acts in order to enable them to achieve their goals. His agent without a doubt did well by him for years but didn’t achieve that ultimate goal. Maybe it just wasn’t about them and the commissioners are blocking top talent for reasons known only to them. He’s changed agent now so time will tell if that makes a difference.
Richard Blackwood performed a sensational, critically acclaimed one man play ‘Typical’ at the Soho Theatre in 2019. That deserved the opportunity to tour nationwide but alas it didn’t. Maybe he had other commitments. Could the show’s producer not have worked around that or offered the role to another actor. As a one man show that should have been feasible and it would have been highly pertinent, particular in the context of this year’s #BlackLivesMatters campaign.
I have to say also there can be lack of professionalism on the stand up circuit which if translated to TV won’t be tolerated and so that may well be another reason behind the failure for so many to breakthrough e.g. the notorious Black People Time, soon come attitude won’t wash with TV. Readers will be familiar with this if they attend Black stand up comedy or theatre productions. So infrequently do they start on time that it’s almost a running joke. Audiences aware of this tend to arrive late for shows and shows wait for audiences before they start. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and it shouldn’t be that way. Un-professionalism extends into some other areas too.
The Language is doubtless off putting too many people who would otherwise attend shows. I know it’s not unique to the Black circuit, but considering at least 1 in 5 black people (20%) are church goers it’s unlikely that they are going to take kindly to shows featuring profanity and vulgarity. There has been an heavy reliance on this for years. Even in this programme there was occasional swearing. It seemed out of place and un-necessary. There was a similar programme looking at the history of Black comedy on another channel just 2 days before this one. Not one swear word was uttered but it was just as valid and entertaining a programme as this one. The difference was that went out at prime time 8pm, this went out at 10pm. Such shows are a show case for talent so why spoil it be swearing? Just because the later time slot allows for swearing doesn’t mean it had to be taken advantage of.
Lack of Stand up Comedy
There was a noticeable absence of stand up comedy clips, which seemed like something of an own goal from a collective looking to break into the mainstream. This programme could have been enhanced with more comedy clips for the benefit of those not so familiar with the comedian’s featured. The stated aim of the show was to shine a spotlight on comedians, so it was a glaring omission not to show them doing what they do best.
Times Are a Changing
ITV have been at the forefront of change – with shows like Britain’s Got Talent featuring Daliso Chaponda, Kojo Amin and Nabil Abdul Rashid. Jonathon Ross showcased a lot of new Black talent with the Jonathan Ross Comedy Club including Aurie Styla, Babatunde Aleshe, Michael Odewale and Sophie Duker.
All in all this was a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining programme featuring contributions from so many stars of the black comedy circuit rarely seen on TV. The talent is there and it’s not just a case of knocking at doors to get on television. The gatekeepers have to be willing to open the front door and let the talent through.
© Tiemo Talk of the Town
- Craig and Danny: Funny, Black and on TV – Tiemo review – 3rd November 2020
- Lenny Henry’s Race Through Comedy – Sky Gold (2019 ) – repeated 19-21st October 2020 and currently available to watch on Sky TV.
- What a Sorry Mess: ‘Sorry I Didn’t Know’ – Tiemo review – 9th November 2020
- McQueen Playing Silly Games with Lovers Rock, BBC1 Film – Tiemo review – 29th November 2020