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There Was 'No Chance Of Me Going Into The Arts,' Says Comedian Gina Yashere

Sep 22, 2019

When Gina Yashere was growing up, she loved to entertain other kids. "At school I had a drama teacher who was like 'You should be an actor or an entertainer,'" she recalls. Her mom didn't agree. "My mom was like 'Actor? No, no, no. You can act like a doctor when you become a doctor.' There was absolutely no chance of me going into the arts."

She jokes that in African families there are four career choices: "doctor, lawyer, engineer, disgrace to the family." Yashere's mom had plans for her before she was even born: "When my mom was pregnant with me someone went up to her and said, 'What are you having?' She was like, 'I'm having a doctor.'"

Yashere was born and raised in London — her parents had emigrated from Nigeria to the U.K. In a special for Netflix, Yashere is incredulous at her mother's decision to emigrate from sunny Nigeria to foggy London: "What the hell was she thinking?" she asks. She imagines her mother, with maps spread out before her, deciding where to move: "Where shall I go? You know what? I am fed up with the sunshine. I want to go somewhere with a lot of drizzle and subtle racism."

Yashere didn't become a doctor — but she did become an engineer. She worked for The Otis Elevator Company building and repairing elevators but was laid off in an economic downturn. And that's when she started pursuing comedy. Yashere and some friends performed a play at a charity event; she did stand-up wherever she could find an audience. Eventually she began landing TV jobs, including on The Lenny Henry Show, a popular sketch comedy show in the U.K. She's now toured the world doing stand-up, filmed specials for Netflix, and made regular appearances on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

TV veteran Chuck Lorre (who's behind hit sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men) first saw Yashere in online stand-up videos. "She's a terrific, comedic voice," he says. He recruited Yashere to co-create his new CBS sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola.

Yashere plays Kemi in the CBS show Bob Hearts Abishola, fulfilling a longtime dream she's had of playing "the best friend."
Michael Yarish / 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

"She has a wealth of knowledge, and a very big, open heart about the experience of being an immigrant," says Lorre. "And that's really what we were trying to write about."

The show, which premieres on Monday, 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 (Folake Olowofoyeku), a Nigerian immigrant.

When Yashere's agent told her that Lorre had reached out, Yashere didn't exactly know who he was. "I knew the name, but I don't watch lots of television because I'm always on the road," she says. "My agent was like, 'Put the phone down, Google him, and call me back.'"

Once Yashere saw Lorre's long list of hit shows, she was on board. Plus, she says, she wanted to help Lorre and his team get the Nigerian characters right. "We always complain about representation so I was like: Here's a chance to work on a show and make sure the representation is correct," she says.

Yashere wants audiences to know: Nigerian immigrants are "trying to make better lives for ourselves and for our children. ... We're leaving places where we can't necessarily sustain ourselves and coming somewhere else."

While Yashere was originally brought on to consult behind the scenes, she quickly realized she could seize the opportunity to fulfill her longtime dream of playing a funny sidekick.

"I just want to be the best friend who comes in, steals the scene, and bounces ...and then use that small amount of fame to sell out theaters and play to bigger audiences," she says. "So as we were starting to write the show, I kept saying to [her co-writers] 'You know what? [Abishola] needs a funny friend ... a confidant.'"

Lorre laughs remembering the moment he realized Yashere had cleverly written herself into the show as a series regular. When it came time to do the casting, Yashere raised her hand for the part of the best friend. It was "really, really smart," Lorre says. And yes, she got the part.

The world is made up of "people traveling to different places and exploring and setting up new lives," Yashere says. And she intends to continue telling that story — in her stand-up, and in a forthcoming memoir.

Nina Gregory edited this story for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Comedian Gina Yashere has toured the world with her standup, filmed specials for Netflix and made regular appearances on "The Daily Show" with Trevor Noah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: This royal wedding has people around the world excited, so in Britain, it must be pretty big.

GINA YASHERE: Oh, it's huge, Trevor. We haven't been this excited since Piers Morgan left for America.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Now Yashere is the co-creator of a new sitcom on CBS called "Bob Hearts Abishola." Yashere was born and raised in London. Her parents emigrated there from Nigeria, and the immigrant experience is where she finds a lot of her material. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Gina Yashere tells a lot of stories about people making transitions. She moved to the U.S. from London 12 years ago. She misses the U.K.'s free health care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YASHERE: I made the mistake of getting sick in America...

(LAUGHTER)

YASHERE: ...Last year. And I was - I didn't want to go to the hospital. I ended up going, and the doctor was speaking to me, and all I'm hearing is, dollars, dollars, dollars...

BLAIR: Yashere also jokes about the transition her mother made when she decided to move from Nigeria to London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YASHERE: My mother had the pick of the globe. She could have gone anywhere in the world. Imagine my mother in Nigeria with all her maps spread out before her. (Imitating Nigerian accent) Where shall I go? Where shall I go?

(LAUGHTER)

YASHERE: (Imitating Nigerian accent) You know what? I am fed up with the sunshine.

(APPLAUSE)

YASHERE: (Imitating Nigerian accent) I want to go somewhere with a lot of drizzle...

(LAUGHTER)

YASHERE: (Imitating Nigerian accent) ...And subtle racism. That's what I want.

CHUCK LORRE: She's a terrific comedic voice.

BLAIR: Sitcom veteran Chuck Lorre and his team enlisted Yashere to help them with the Nigerian characters on their new sitcom. But first, they had to find her, so they Googled Nigerian female comedian.

YASHERE: And obviously, a few of us came up, and they found a set that I'd done.

BLAIR: Gina Yashere.

YASHERE: And that particular set, my mother was in the audience, so I was doing a lot of material about the expectations as a Nigerian child.

BLAIR: Do you remember the clip? Or...

LORRE: It was probably about her mom, and it was breathtakingly funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIVE AT THE APOLLO")

YASHERE: African family, you've got four choices of career - doctor, lawyer, engineer, disgrace to the family.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: This is from the BBC show "Live At The Apollo."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIVE AT THE APOLLO")

YASHERE: My mom picked all our jobs before we were born.

(LAUGHTER)

YASHERE: While my mom was pregnant with me, someone went up to her and went, what are you having? She's like, I'm having a doctor.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Yashere says there is truth to this story. When she was growing up, people often told her she was funny.

YASHERE: At school, I had a drama teacher who was, like, you should be an actor and entertain them because I was always entertaining other kids. My mom was, like, actor - no, no, no. You can act like a doctor when you become a doctor. There was absolutely no chance of me going into the arts.

BLAIR: Yashere became an engineer instead. She worked for Otis building and repairing elevators but was laid off in an economic downturn. That's when she started pursuing comedy. She and some friends performed a play at a charity event. She did standup wherever she could find an audience. Eventually, she landed TV jobs, including on "The Lenny Henry Show," a popular sketch comedy show in the UK. One of the characters she created was a pushy Nigerian mom in London who visits her 12-year-old daughter's teachers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LENNY HENRY SHOW")

YASHERE: (As Mrs. Omokorede) How is my daughter doing?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Fumi is been settling down very nice.

YASHERE: (As Mrs. Omokorede) I don't care about her sleeping arrangements. How are the lessons going? What do you teach her?

BLAIR: Chuck Lorre says Yashere was a natural to help him with "Bob Hearts Abishola."

LORRE: She has a wealth of knowledge and a very big open heart about the experience of being an immigrant. And that's really what we were trying to write about.

BLAIR: Bob is a sock salesman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA")

BILLY GARDELL: (As Bob) I'll get you a couple pairs. You'll see.

FOLAKE OLOWOFOYEKU: (As Abishola) Thank you.

BLAIR: When he lands in the hospital after a heart attack, Abishola is his nurse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA")

OLOWOFOYEKU: (As Abishola) Good night, Bob.

GARDELL: (As Bob) (Laughter).

OLOWOFOYEKU: (As Abishola) What now?

GARDELL: (As Bob) I never liked the sound of my name. But when you say it, it sounds nice. (Imitating Nigerian accent) Bob. Say it again.

GARDELL: (As Abishola) Good night, Bob.

GARDELL: (As Bob) Oh, yeah. It's way better than Bawb (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: When Chuck Lorre asked Yashere to help with the Nigerian characters in the show, she was reluctant at first. Then she looked up Lorre's credits - "Big Bang Theory," "Two And A Half Men" - and said yes.

YASHERE: You know, we always complain about representation. So I was, like, well here's a chance to work on a show and make sure the representation is correct. So I was, like, all right. Let's do it

BLAIR: At the same time, she says, she doesn't want audiences to think Nigerian immigrants today are so different from the millions of other immigrants who've been coming to America for hundreds of years.

YASHERE: We're just coming. We're trying to make better lives for ourselves, for our children. We're not trying to rock the boat. We're not trying to - we just want to work, and we're leaving places where we can't necessarily sustain ourselves and coming somewhere else. And that's what the world is made of - is people traveling to different places and exploring and setting up new life.

BLAIR: As they were developing the sitcom, Yashere realized she might be able to turn this opportunity into a part for herself. She says she's always wanted to play the funny sidekick.

YASHERE: I just want to be the best friend who comes in, steals the scene and bounces. That's always been my dream - and then use that small amount of fame to sell out theaters and just play to bigger audiences. So as we were starting to write the show, I kept saying to the guys, you know what? She needs a funny friend. She's needs a friend, a confidant.

BLAIR: And yes, she convinced Chuck Lorre to give her the part of the friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOB HEARTS ABISHOLA")

YASHERE: (As Kemi) I swear, businessman has come to your house to court you.

OLOWOFOYEKU: (As Abishola) There's no courtship. He just brought some new socks now.

YASHERE: (As Kemi) From his business. I like this man

BLAIR: Gina Yashere says she's learning a lot working on "Bob Hearts Abishola." She also plans to continue doing standup. And she's working on a memoir.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.