Lenny Henry: It's no laughing matter

Lenny Henry's mad as hell. Why will no one give other ethnic-minority comedians a break? It's not funny, he tells Christina Patterson and James Rampton
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"Comedy," Gina Yashere says, "is about recognition. If the character's funny, it doesn't matter if it's Welsh or if it's Nigerian: if it's funny, it will get the laugh." Tipped as "Britain's funniest black female comic", she has plenty of opportunities to test out her theory. She still does stand-up four nights a week, but has recently been reaching a massive audience on The Lenny Henry Show on BBC1 on Friday nights. There's talk of her having a show of her own.

Yashere's characters, like many of Henry's, are relative newcomers to the British cultural landscape: a pushy Nigerian mum, determined to see her daughter become a doctor; and a "ragga girl" who hangs around street corners in her (borrowed from the shop) designer clothes. "A couple of years ago, white guys never came up to us ghetto girls," she says, "but J-Lo's made it all possible."

What J-Lo is to "ghetto girls", Lenny Henry is to black British comics. After nearly 30 years on telly, he has clearly won the right to spot new talent and drag it into the prime-time Friday night slot. It's not just Yashere who has been hurled into the limelight. The all-woman comedy trio whose BBC3 show 3 Non-Blondes won torrents of praise offer a range of supporting roles: a community-radio DJ, operating from her council flat kitchen; an African midwife, whose "welcome to the world" baby song is more exhausting to new parents than the birth; and the Nail Bar Girls, instantly recognisable to any Londoner who doesn't live in Hampstead or Knightsbridge. Like Yashere, the Non-Blondes - Ninia Benjamin, Tameka Empson and Jocelyn Esien - bring a ballsy, in-your-face edge and energy to their creations. For them, too, there are whispers of a terrestrial show.

"I first saw Gina on a thing called Kevin and Perry's Girlfriends," Henry says. "She was talking about her Nigerian parents being mad, and she was very natural and very naturally funny." He invited her to the first writers' meeting for his show. "I wanted to do this ragga girl on the street, with the miniskirt and high boots, who's always going on Trisha and saying, 'Do you know what I mean?' And I thought: well, I'm doing enough women in the show, maybe somebody else should do that. Gina came back with this character who was, like, 'I don't think so,' and it was a real encapsulation of street lingua franca and attitude and sass."

Henry point outs that his guest performers have little in common besides their colour and youth. "Gina is a writer, actor and comedian; Jocelyn is a ditzy but very smart comedian; and Ninia is a balls-out, in-your-face, loud, weird comedy actress who can nail a laugh like anybody. If broadcasting were more adventurous as far as ethnic minorities are concerned," he says with a sigh, "they wouldn't be lumbered with what they think of as the politically aggressive, 'beat you over the head with a baseball bat' people wanting to talk about issues all the time."

Therein, of course, lies an enormous can of multicoloured worms. No one asks Eddie Izzard what he's doing to promote young white comics. "I don't want a mentoring role," says the man who was recently voted No 18 in a poll to find the leading black Britons. "What I want is a show where people get the chance to do their thing without feeling they've got to carry the weight of the black and Indian and disabled consciousness on their shoulders. People," he adds firmly, "need to cast diversely and cast their nets wider, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera - then there'll be a change."

Elements of the industry, however, may be stuck in a tokenistic rut. "When they think, 'Let's have a black actor in to make up the numbers,' they can't help but power-dive into a lake of clichés whose ripples splash everyone," Henry says, the frustration clear in his voice. "They say, 'He's black, so he's not a good father, and he has a domineering, church-going mother who keeps saying "hallelujah".' Don't write stories about our blackness. Just write a believable character and we'll do it." Henry, it must be said, has led the way, taking such racially non-specific roles as the cook in Chef! and the inspirational headmaster in Hope and Glory.

And he ha done his bit to bring on new black talent. In 1991, his production company, Crucial, made The Real McCoy, a BBC2 sketch show that broke such talents as Junior Simpson, Felix Dexter, Eddie Nestor, Robbie Gee and Curtis Walker. The series also featured Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal and Kulvinder Ghir, who went on to create BBC2's hugely successful British-Asian sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.

But none of the black comedians from The Real McCoy managed to push on and headline in their own series - a fact that still irks Henry. "I'm a black guy, and I get to be on telly. But that's unusual, so you get noticed. Felix Dexter is funny, Junior Simpson is funny - why haven't these guys got TV series? There's something wrong. Good people aren't getting a chance.

"Society as a whole is more tolerant, but some black people don't think that. I'm sorry, but they want more bigger change now, please - and I can't help but agree with them. I don't walk around outside Television Centre with a placard, but the entertainment industry really needs to change. Don't hold your breath, though."

For his part, Simpson acknowledges that things are certainly better. "When I was growing up," he recalls, "every time there was a black man on television, everybody would shout upstairs, 'Quick, everybody, there's a black man on TV!' We'd run downstairs just in time to see the black man getting arrested."

But despite starring roles in series such as The Real McCoy, After Dark with Junior Simpson, The Stand-Up Show, The A Force and Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment, Simpson still rues the current lack of television openings for black comedians. Nor does he want to be viewed as playing to just one audience. "Doing black gigs is great fun - I can talk about food and characters in our community. But it's like preaching to the converted. If I have something to say about prejudice, what's the point of reminding my people about it? Let me wake white people up to it. Maybe we can meet in the middle. Then we can all burst into 'We Are the World' and hug," he adds wryly.

Not surprisingly, Yashere agrees. "The thing is, we are seen as role models, which kind of irritates me. I'm my own person. I'm not a role model. I'm a comedian, I'm an entertainer, I'm not here to tell people how to live." But she may well be saddled with the unwanted title of role model "because there are so few black icons out there and so few black people that make it through on to the mainstream".

She, too, believes that too many black comics are trapped in a circle of self-consciousness that results in endless take-offs of Jamaican drug-dealers or African mini-cab drivers - the "same stereotypical stuff". "When you're starting out, you don't know any better," she says, "so you copy what's been done before. But then you find your own voice. I found my voice immediately and stuck with it. I just evolved and moved on from that stuff."

Yashere was, in fact, working as a lift engineer when she discovered her penchant for comedy. She was "always the clown in class" and "always getting into trouble", but it never occurred to her that it was something you could make into a job. Then, aged 22, she wrote a sketch for a youth club and "the seed was sown". Eight years on, she's sharing a show with "one of her two big heroes". The other, she says with a smile, was Kenny Everett.

There's little doubt that British comedy has changed quite dramatically in the intervening years. "My mum used to laugh at Jim Davidson," says Yashere in disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells tones. "I never did. When Lenny first came to prominence, he was doing stuff like The Black and White Minstrels." Indeed. If we're still talking black ghettos of a kind, at least we're not talking blacked-up ghettos. It's a part of his CV that remains sensitive for Henry and one that provokes a lengthy explanation on his website. You can sum it up as: "I was young", and, "The culture was different" - both of which are clearly true.

Henry's series, which ended last week, was the usual mix of stand-up and sketches, with a new range of characters. In addition to impersonations of 50 Cent, Gabrielle and Beyoncé, Henry took the roles of Lister, an elderly West Indian shopkeeper; Ronson, a prisoner-poet who has discovered creative writing; and Tiny, a church-going Jamaican lady who spends most of the service talking about sex. They're all excellent ideas * * for characters, additions to the cast of recognisable contemporary types who dance across our screens.

But that's not all. Underlining how far he has come, much of Henry's work now exhibits a new-found maturity. He has left the youthful "wild and crazy guy" persona behind and is not afraid now to tackle such comedy taboos as ageing and death. He says: "You remember, 'I've got a kid, I've got to be responsible for her sake.' But it takes a while. I was at the Fame Academy final last year, and someone commented on how serious I looked. Well, I'm a serious bloke. I'm not funny all the time, or anywhere near all the time. I think there is something wrong if you have to be funny all the time. It gets in the way.

"People might have thought the [BBC1] show was going to be loud with lots of shouting and knob gags and 'Katanga, my friend,' but it was not as in the face as that. I've moved on. I've realised that being on stage can be about more than just cracking gags." To underline the point, in the show he played Daniel, a young soldier serving in Iraq and sending back often very moving letters.

Henry says: "Daniel talks about how the people who order wars should be made to fight them. He's saying it's people like him who get shot and take shrapnel. A researcher went to Iraq and collected great stories about the minutiae of daily life for soldiers out there and what they talk about when they're off duty.

"I want to give a voice to the sort of people you wouldn't normally hear on telly, like Lister and Daniel. Usually, topical comedy is performed by geezers from Oxbridge raising an eyebrow or delivering a wry aside. But giving Lister a voice is like having one of my uncles on telly pontificating - 'Osama bin Laden, where is he? Driving a cab in Ealing!'"

Henry is big and bouncy and affable, an actor, writer and comic with boundless energy and a huge heart. He has clearly earned his place on prime time and is generous enough to share it. He believes talent should be rewarded. "We're just asking for a fair shake. I'm not even asking for a quota. People should absolutely earn their position, but if they've earned it and done months and months on the club circuit and people know you're funny, you should be able to break through. And there don't seem to be many shows where you can do that."

He is right, of course, but he shouldn't be too downhearted. At least his protégés got their big break on The Lenny Henry Show, a big, out-there BBC1 comedy with not a hint of "ghettos" or "quotas" about it. It grabbed a 20 per cent audience share and five million viewers. That's five million people who might otherwise never have experienced the joys of the African midwife and the Nail Bar Girls.

So is the future for black television comedy bleak? As Yashere's "ragga girl" might put it: I don't think so.

In America, The Humour Is Tinged With The Pain Of History...

There has never been any lack of comedy from black Americans, but it has always been tinged with pain. It has been that way since the revolutionary days of Richard Pryor, who first broke with the nicely-nicely approach and told it how it was, throwing race, politics and the language of the street right back in the face of the White Man who paid him to appear on television and expected him to behave.

And it's still the same way now, even if the battle lines are drawn a little differently. The division is no longer between black performers who keep their darkest thoughts to themselves, and those who can't. Pryor unleashed a genie that can't so easily be put back into its bottle, and successive comedians, from Eddie Murphy down to the current generation ­ the Wayans family, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer and hip-hop transplants such as Snoop Dogg ­ have proved that garrulousness and confessional street talk are here to stay.

Rather, the division is between those who pander to the stereotypes of African-American culture as embraced by gangsta rap and MTV, and those who refuse to be co-opted by the tastes of the mass market (read: suburban white teenagers), and want to keep it edgy, keep it dangerous, keep it ­ as the cliché goes ­ real.

Exhibit A in this new cultural divide was a very silly recent film called Soul Plane, conceived as a black version of Airplane, in which Snoop Dogg plays the pilot of a Day-Glo plane permanently fogged up with marijuana, which serves an exclusive diet of soul food. Spike Lee, the film director who has taken his fair share of interest in comedy (Bamboozled, The Original Kings of Comedy), derided it as "coonery and buffoonery", and said that it bespoke a "minstrel act" mentality among black performers. (Perhaps Lenny Henry, as a former minstrel ­ Black and White Minstrel, that is ­ understands exactly what it was getting at.)

Very similar objections are now being raised to a brand new comedy series on Fox television called Method & Red, starring the rappers Method Man and Redman, who move into an overwhelmingly white gated community in New Jersey and proceed to appal the neighbours with their peculiarly "black" habits. One radio critic accused the premiere of yet more "coonery"; and James Hill of Black Entertainment Television said that it was "one long illustration of White fear of supposed Black culture".

Method Man has responded furiously to both the critics (the charge of "coonery" stung) and to show itself, complaining in The Los Angeles Times about its corny laugh-track and lame story lines. "I'm just not happy," he said, and he appeared to mean it.

The comic material is, understandably, edgier in the world of stand-up. Chris Rock is the undisputed king of that arena, even as he combines his television specials and road tours with parts in movies (though nothing memorable since Nurse Betty in 2000). Rock produces humour that appeals with effortless ease across the cultural spectrum, although he certainly doesn't compromise on his material. As he said near the outset of his recent HBO cable-television special, Never Scared: "Only the good rappers die young. Biggie Smalls? Dead. Jam Master J? Dead. Tupac Shakur? Dead. Vanilla Ice? Still alive."

Rock addresses racial politics, marital politics and everything in between, with glee. His closest competitor is another veteran of the 1990s Fox comedy show In Living Color, Dave Chappelle, who is younger and often edgier, especially on issues of race. In his own HBO special, Killin' Them Softly, he joked about the unlikelihood of an international terrorist ever taking a black American hostage. "Hello, yes, we have five black men ­ hello?"

On a television show last year, he came up with a parody of the US family sitcom in which the cheery tone was dragged down by the fact that the white family at the heart of the story were called the Niggars. Chappelle, playing their milkman, would cheerily greet them: "Good morning, Niggars!" In an America that is supremely squeamish about race and the niceties of politically correct language, this is humour that plays very close to the bone.

One can see parallels between the evolution of black American comedy and the progress of hip hop. Many of today's prominent stand-ups came up through the Def Comedy Jam shows organised by the rap impresario Russell Simmons. There is a similar vision, too, between the mainstream pandering to clichéd notions of black macho posturing, and more interesting, experimental material on the edges. The tensions between the two poles, and the verbal eruptions that they occasionally cause, are not unlike the rap "battles" between rival stars.

One thing, though, is clear. With an unprecedented number of outlets, especially on the cable channels (HBO, the Comedy Channel, Black Entertainment Television, and more), comedy by black artists in the United States is thriving like never before.

Andrew Gumbel