It’s no secret that the U.K. has lost some of its most talented to seemingly greener pastures in Hollywood, especially black British performers, for whom there’s a scarcity of opportunity back home. The so-called black British invasion has been well-documented and scrutinized over the years, so much that veteran actor Lenny Henry warned British broadcasters in 2014, that Britain was “haemorrhaging” black talent to the States. Comedian, writer, and actress Gina Yashere is a case in point.
The 46-year-old, who was born in London to Nigerian parents, has officially put down roots in America, where she’s been since 2007, first in New York City, and currently in Los Angeles. And with hit freshman CBS series “Bob Hearts Abishola,” she’s occupying more primetime TV space than she ever could in the U.K., where she established herself as a successful stand up comic. But she was unsatisfied, and creating her own TV show — something that few black British comedians have accomplished — was the logical next step.
“I’ve had many more opportunities in America than I ever did in England,” said Yashere, whose resume boasts a number of comedy specials she’s sold in the States, including “Skinny B*tch,” which aired on Showtime in 2010; and “Ticking Boxes,” which she sold to Comcast’s now defunct OTT service, Seeso. And yet, none of her specials have aired on British television.
“It hit me that I likely wouldn’t get to the next level in England, and I asked myself, why am I still here? So I left,” she said.
To be sure, there’s a glass ceiling for black comics in America as well, but for Yashere, it comes with a lot more perks — like more money for example. And the likelihood of breaking through it, as others have done, is much higher. As a British comic in the U.S., there were barriers to entry. For example, Americans have different ideas of what is or isn’t funny. Also, she had to contend with a certain amount of ignorance.
“I’d get on a stage at some club, and they’d see a black woman, but once I started to speak, people didn’t know what to make of me,” Yashere said. “Back then, I don’t think most Americans knew that there were black people in England, because I don’t think most Americans have traveled outside of America. They’re realizing that now with all the British actors and musicians coming over and having really good careers. It wasn’t so back then.”
But she didn’t relent. In 2008, she became the first Briton to perform on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam,” where her legendary performance drew a standing ovation from what was a typically tough crowd.
“I went in there with lots of confidence and I killed it, they absolutely loved it,” she said.
After years of occasional performances on late night television, like “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and touring the stand-up circuit, she caught a break in 2017, when she became the British Correspondent for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
Two years later, Yashere could be on the verge of becoming a household name, thanks to the success of “Bob Hearts Abishola” which she co-created with Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Al Higgins,. Yashere is also a producer and writer for the show, and plays Folake Olowofoyeku’s character Abishola’s best friend, Kemi. It’s a groundbreaking series, notable for being the first American sitcom to feature a Nigerian family.
Airing on Monday nights, it tells the story of Bob (Billy Gardell), a sock salesman who lands in the hospital after a heart attack. He finds himself falling for his nurse Abishola (Olowofoyeku), a Nigerian immigrant.
When Yashere learned from her agent that Lorre wanted her to consult on the show, there was some initial ambivalence on her part. “I told my agent to turn it down, because it seemed like another situation where white people were coming in to take our culture, bastardize it, and then turn into something that I didn’t want my name attached,” she said. “But my best friend called me and screamed at me for two hours, telling me that I would be stupid for passing up an opportunity to work on a TV show, and shape the depiction of Nigerians as I wanted.”
Once onboard, It didn’t take long for Lorre and company to recognize how much more valuable she could be to the series.
“So I first came in working as a consultant, but then I started creating characters, and creating storylines and scenarios that they would never have been able to, as three white guys,” Yashere said. “And so they saw that I could be of even greater importance to the project, and that’s when I signed on as co-creator, writer and producer.”
The series premiered on September 23, 2019 to mixed reviews. It currently has a 54 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating, although viewership has been steady throughout the season, topping 7 million total viewers per episode, on a network that has consistently faced criticism over the near-absence of people of color in leading or prominent roles in its shows.
Yashere attributes the show’s crossover appeal to the universality of its themes.
“People see the poster with black faces on it, and they think it’s a ‘black show,’ and that it’s not for them, which isn’t true, because it’s a show about kindness and family and acceptance in this day when immigrants and people from other countries are being vilified by the American government,” she said. “That’s why this show struck a chord with audiences. It’s really funny, the characters are interesting and it’s got heart.”
“Bob Hearts Abishola” aired its 20th episode on April 13. Its immediate future is uncertain, because Warner Bros. Television suspended production on the series, following the impact of coronavirus pandemic which has hit the television industry hard.
Confined indoors like most of the country, Yashere stays busy, writing her memoir under a deal with Harper Collins. Additionally, she’s developing a TV pilot for a series based on her life as a the first female lift engineer in the U.K. She’s also active on social media, posting videos on her Instagram page, in a series called the “Corona Diaries,” which detail, with her trademark in-your-face comedy style, happenings within her home in North Hollywood, where she lives with her partner as the world contends with the pandemic.
And even though she’s come a long way since “Def Comedy Jam,” as more opportunities open up to her, she has little interest in making a leap to the big screen, which would seem like the next logical step.
“I don’t need to have Kevin Hart’s career, or to be that huge, where I’m sort all over the place,” she said. “As long as I have a sitcom paying me millions of dollars a year, and then I go sell out a few theaters when I feel like it, that is the dream right there. Making people laugh, because that’s my joy in life. That’s my gift. Anything else is icing on the cake.”
“Bob Hearts Abishola” airs at 8:30 p.m. ET on Mondays on CBS.