Jocelyn Jee Esien: Non blonde goes solo

She is the first black woman to have her own television comedy sketch show - ever. Now her new series is topping the ratings and being compared to 'Little Britain'. Kate Copstick meets an unlikely comedienne
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It is getting increasingly difficult to create a televisual "first". As the years go on, rules relax and, in its ceaseless quest for novelty, television leaves no stone with the remotest comic potential unturned. But, astoundingly, Jocelyn Jee Esien has just become the first black woman to have her own sketch show on television, here in the UK or even in the US. "No one can think of anyone else," she shrugs, wide-eyed. "Oprah never had her own sketch show ... neither did Whoopi."

It took her six years, from her first comedy gig, to her role in television's first black female sketch-show in 2003 - 3 Non Blondes. Now her new series on BBC3, Little Miss Jocelyn, is getting rave reviews.

Jocelyn Jee Esien never wanted to be a comic. She wanted to be an actress. She went to Guildhall School of Drama and was, for several years, a very successful actress. Although not in comedy roles.

"I always seemed to play straight, crying women. I've cried everywhere. I even cried on The Bill. My agent would phone up and tell me they wanted me for the part of a woman who had two abortions, was constantly abused by her husband and cried all the time and I'd think, 'but why can't they see I'm hilarious?'"

Eventually someone did. In 1997 Esien was working at Theatre Royal Stratford East when director Femi Elufowoju Jnr asked her to appear in a showcase of new stand-up comedy talent. She took a little time to be persuaded. "Just do what you do in rehearsals when you should be working," said Elufowoju. And finally, having tried to pull out on the day of the show itself, Esien was persuaded to the stage. Where she remained for 47 minutes.

"I just loved it," she says, eyes gleaming. "I just kept chatting! I didn't really know about timed 'sets' and it was going so well. Eventually I said, 'Well I suppose I should go now' and the audience all went 'aahh', so I offered to stay, but they dragged me off from backstage. I've always been Little Miss Stage Piggy!" She came back the next night with her set honed down to 20 minutes, collected £400 for the two gigs and never looked back. She loves the lone performing life. "It is the best feeling in the world," she says.

In 2003 producer Gary Reich of Brown Eyed Boy - the man who gave the world not only Da Ali G Show, but also Trigger Happy TV - created 3 Non Blondes, bringing them together like a spicier Spice Girls. There were several more Non Blondes to begin with but Esien, Tameka Empson and Ninia Benjamin were the ones that hit the streets.

The show was meant to be a mix of hidden camera and sketches. But in live try-outs they found that audiences "absolutely hated the sketches but really perked up for the hidden camera stuff".

Within 13 months they had recorded two series of 3 Non Blondes and two specials. It got harder and harder as they became increasingly well known and people began not only to recognise them in the street but also to play along with the stunts. "Which is just so embarrassing!" says Esien.

Although she noticed that the three were being recognised wherever they went, so were many other people. "It got to the stage that if there was any black woman anywhere acting a bit strange in public, they thought it was us!"

After her success in the show the BBC offered her her own vehicle. Carte blanche. Esien and Reich went through format hell trying to settle on what she should do. "We thought we'd do a hidden camera sitcom ... a hidden camera drama ... a hidden camera talk show with sketches ..." Several scripts and a couple of pilots later, Esien realised she just wanted to do a sketch show. Pure and simple. OK, perhaps not that much of either, but a classic, character-based sketch show.

"The characters all came from Jocelyn," says Reich. "She has all these voices in her head."

But although the entire cast were lining up in Esien's head to be committed to paper, the BBC insisted that they use a team of writers, a new crack team recruited from the best of comedy television.

"We auditioned so many!" says the lady at the top of the table. "At one time we had 12 writers around the table for a meeting. But it was so difficult to explain to them how the characters should be. I mean it was clear to me! I had them all in my head, but it was hard to explain to someone else." One by one the writers left the table. "It was like 'then there were nine ... then there were eight. I didn't mean to get rid of them." Esien throws back her head and laughs, then arches her brows conspiratorially. "But deep down I knew I wanted to write it myself."

And so she did.

The characters were all meticulously road-tested and developed in front of audiences. "We did all those artsy, drama school things like hot-seating to develop the characters," says Esien. "Then I would write half an hour's worth of sketches. We'd try them out in front of an audience and then I would go away and rewrite according to the responses we got."

Eventually there were three live shows in front of audiences with the broadest demographic Esien could find. The last show was a full hour of sketches and characters.

"It was the best way to do it," she says. "We knew immediately if a character was working." Esien was well aware of working "on the edge". Her characters are extremes, occasionally grotesques. But they are all based on life - from Fiona who is desperate that no one in her office should know she is black to the fabulous multiskilling of the Nigerian minicab driver.

"I made the characters bigger to try to show people that it is OK to laugh," she explains. "I mean they do exist - as types - like the Nigerian minicab driver. These people were what I talked about in my stage act and I thought, if it is OK to laugh at them on stage then why not on TV? You know you can feel yourself self-censoring for TV and I think that is not always a good thing."

But she was very conscious of the importance of her landmark in British television and of "not letting the community down". So who was her target audience? "I wanted everybody," she replies.

The show has been called "the black Little Britain". "It's a great honour," says Esien, "but I can't see it."

She doesn't worry that, as the show is (in her own description) "very London", viewers in areas that one might describe as having failed to embrace multiculturalism might fail to see the humour and go straight for the caricature. She doesn't really believe that they will.

On its first airing the show was generally well received and topped the ratings for digital channels. Esien is happy.

"Now I can get back to live gigging," she says.

BIOGRAPHY: Stand up and be funny

Jocelyn Jee Esien - known to her fans as Jocelyn Jee - was born in Hackney, east London, in 1979. Her family's background is Nigerian. She still lives in London and is engaged to be married.

1994: Moved to study drama after giving up her law studies. Graduated from Guildhall School.

1997: Did her first comedy gig; first runner-up in the Hackney New Act of the Year in 1998.

1999: Won the Comedy Store Hooch Award and the following year was declared Best Newcomer at the Black Comedy Awards.

2003: Starred in the first series of 3 Non Blondes.

2006: Stars in her own BBC3 series Little Miss Jocelyn.