The past few months I’ve been listening to a lot of the podcase RHLSP (Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theater Podcast), where comedian Richard Herring interviews other (mainly British) comedians. Part of the appeal of that podcast is how terrible Richard Herring is at interviewing people. Another part of the appeal is that a lot of the episodes have video with them, not just audio, and can be watched on YouTube. A few of the interviews I’ve watched have been Stephen Fry, David Mitchell, David Baddiel, John Oliver, Alex Horne, Robert Webb. All men. All very successful in comedy. All graduates of Cambridge.
Looking at the list of Cambridge graduates you will also find Richard Ayoade, Jimmy Carr, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Peter Cook, Hugh Dennis, Simon Bird, Hugh Laurie, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Sandi Toksvig, Olivia Colman and Sacha Baron Cohen. It seems like if you want to get into TV comedy in England, the fastest way to do it is by attending Cambridge and joining Footlights. Privilege and money seem like a shortcut to success.
After hearing so many of these identical stories, I was looking for something different. Didn’t anyone struggle? Didn’t anyone have to really claw their way up based only on their talent and not their luck? Sure, these people don’t have perfect lives, but not everyone starts at the same place. The Cambridge people started ahead and it isn’t too surprising they stayed ahead and will finish ahead.
Gina Yashere started behind. Her parents were from Nigeria and there was no free ride. As soon as she started working, in her mid-teens, she had to start giving part of her income to her mother (her father was gone by then) to help with the household expenses. Her mother hustled to keep the family together and to provide the best she could for her kids. And part of that meant her kids were going to be professionals.
Gina Yashere was slated to be the doctor in the family, but dissecting a frog ended that dream. She had to pass the doctor job onto a younger brother and became an engineer instead. But her heart wasn’t in it. A fortunate turn of events with work, leading to a few months of no work but with pay, allowed Gina to explore her creative side and that’s all it took for her to not go back to being an engineer.
Her memoir, Cack-Handed: A Memoir, tells the story of her life and how difficult it was to break into comedy in the UK. The racism and exclusion she experienced there led her to move to the USA where she has become a success with the TV series she writes and stars in, Bob ♥ Abishola.
But that’s the happy ending, where she is now. The book is about how she got there. An abusive step-father, a half-hearted suicide attempt, fights at school, moving around a lot, and being the outsider.
The chapter headings are all based on Nigerian sayings, and they are a delight. Here are a few:
A snake can only give birth to long things.
Going to church doesn’t make you a holy person any more than going to a garage makes you a mechanic.
If you sleep with an itching anus, you will definitely wake up with your hand smelling.
However hard a lizard does a push-up, it will never have an alligator’s chest.
It was a refreshing change to hear the story of someone normal, without the access and connections of a white man from a good family, who was able to make their dreams come true. Gina shows the outcomes that are possible through hard work, talent, determination and never questioning your own worth.
If you don’t know who Gina Yashere is, there are lots of clips of her on YouTube and as of this writing, two of her stand-up specials are available to stream on Netflix.
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