This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
East London-born comedian Gina Yashere undoubtedly has a talent for making people laugh. Recognisable from her appearances on those staples of British TV comedy, Live at the Apollo and Mock the Week, her comedic style is as far from the politically-motivated vituperations of a Stewart Lee as it is from the seemingly off-the-cuff ramblings of a Dylan Moran. She instead inhabits a middle-ground, combining well-rehearsed anecdotes with more controversial material, effectively utilising her personable charm and quick-wit to win the audience over.
In Yashere’s latest UK tour, Laugh Riot, much of her material is based upon personal experiences, and not always particularly light-hearted ones. The audience can sympathise, if not empathise, with the degree of prejudice and everyday bigotry she must have encountered as a black lesbian. A routine in the first half of her show revolves around her apparent inability to walk through airport customs un-harassed. Another centres on her recurrent difficulties in hailing a taxi. Genuinely important problems and ones faced by many people on a daily basis, but ones Yashere, to her credit, somehow finds the funny in. Hers is a resigned, yet far from retired form of indignation, characterised by rational argumentation that only occasionally borders on the facetious. When she relates how she furiously chased after one unfortunate cab-driver, one can’t just believe her – one can vividly imagine her enraged pursuit.
Yet there are undoubtedly times when her no-holds-barred commentary on racial issues strays so far off the beaten track as to compromise her humour. Jokes that play upon other racial stereotypes (Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, Australian, and more) unsettle as well as amuse. One wonders whether the discomfort would have a chuckle to hide behind were this material coming from the mouth of a white, male comedian instead. By talking about these stereotypes, and not always in a mocking oh-isn’t-it-ridiculous way, is she not perpetuating them?
The child of Nigerian parents, Yashere was brought up in Bethnal Green, and this background colours her comedy enormously. She is able to have her cake and eat it (although presumably only if it were some healthy vegan cake-alternative, as she makes quite clear), simultaneously playing upon her Nigerian heritage and her East London upbringing. Not only that, but her successful-ish career has led to global tours, which furnish her with a diverse wealth of material to draw upon. Yet her strongest material is that which plays upon the audience’s nostalgia; references to TV shows and films of the 70s and 80s, to childhood toys, and even to the society’s less hyperactive attitude towards paedophilia all receive hearty chuckles of recognition from the older audience members.
Her on-stage persona is an engaging blend of world-wearied 40-year-old and youthful race-warrior with an axe to grind. Yet do not expect high-brow political satire – Yashere seems most comfortable with her routines about food, sex, and various bodily functions. There is no doubt that for Yashere, comedy always comes first; she seems to genuinely relish her moment in the spotlight, gleefully launching into audience participation and displaying laudable sharpness in her retorts.
Is it acceptable for a black person to make jokes about race? Is it okay for a woman to make jokes about sexism? Is it fine for a lesbian to make jokes about homophobia? Ultimately, does a comedian have any other responsibilities, aside from that of making an audience laugh? Yashere’s show unintentionally provokes such philosophising, and although it does not detract from the quality of her comedy – the Oxford Playhouse was rocking with laughter from start to finish – it adds a small caveat of unease that cannot fail to tarnish an otherwise entertaining performance.