Gina Yashere’s ‘Unconventional’ Journey from Elevator Engineer to Sitcom Co-Creator

In a new memoir, the L.A.-based British comedian traces her path from working-class East London to Hollywood, where she looked to her roots to create a show that’s an ode to her Nigerian mother
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Cack-Handed, the title of Gina Yashere’s new memoir, has different meanings: It’s British slang for left-handed, but it also describes someone who’s clumsy. Yashere, the British comedian, writer and co-creator of CBS’ Bob Hearts Abishola, recently renewed for a third season, writes about her fortuitous path from daughter of Nigerian immigrants to working in Hollywood with the king of sitcoms.

“My whole life and career have been very unconventional,” says Yashere. “I went from engineering to sketches to comedy to a sitcom. It’s not been a straight journey or straight line. It’s been very awkward and weird.”

Yashere wrote her book while quarantining with her girlfriend in their Altadena home. She was encouraged by fans on her Instagram and Facebook after posting some throwback pictures and stories from her past.

Yashere grew up in working-class neighborhoods in East London. Her father, a lawyer, emigrated to England from Nigeria. Unable to find work, he went back when Yashere was only two-and-a-half years old. That left Yashere and her three brothers and sisters (a fifth child would come along later) to be raised by a strict, almost militant single mother who stressed nothing but hard work and studying—fun was for other people. Even school trips were forbidden.

Yashere says she was abused and mistreated by her older sister and step-father, who made her childhood intolerable, which was compounded by the racism she endured in England, not just by white people, but by people within the Black community. Yashere’s mom wanted her to become a doctor, but she worked as an elevator engineer instead; she was the first female engineer in her company’s history.

gina yashere

Courtesy Harper Collins

Some of Yashere’s biography might sound familiar if you’re a fan of Bob Hearts Abishola. The premise centers on Bob (Billy Gardel, star of Mike & Molly), who falls in love with Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku), a Nigerian immigrant and nurse, after she helps him recover from a heart attack. He’s a sweet, likable owner of a sock company in Detroit, and she’s a stern, no-nonsense single mother who insists her young son become a doctor.

“All the stories of Bob Hearts Abishola are basically stories straight out of my life and out of my stand-up,” Yashere tells Los Angeles. “Her story of being a single mom in America and her husband going back to Nigeria because he couldn’t get work as an engineer. That’s the story of my parents. My dad was a qualified lawyer. He couldn’t get work, so he went back to Nigeria to fulfill his potential. And my mom was like, ‘Well, my children are British, so I’m staying here to give them opportunities.’ The show is an ode to my mother and her work ethic and the opportunities she gave us in the U.K.”

Yashere was initially brought on the series as a consultant, but quickly became a producer and writer. She also plays Kemi, Abishola’s wise-cracking, scene-stealing best friend. The producers had never even heard of Yashere before they hired her.

After ditching engineering, Yashere started doing sketches and stand-up in British clubs and showcases in the 1990s. She appeared on TV shows, including The Lenny Henry Show, where she developed recurring characters based on her Nigerian heritage. “I wanted to talk about my culture and my experiences, because when I started, there were not many comedians of African descent doing comedy,” says Yashere. “The perspective was always from a white perspective or the Black Caribbean perspective, but not the Black African perspective.”

 

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Despite her success in the British comedy industry, Yashere encountered a lot of racism. “For Black comics in the U.K., it was like a nightclub policy: one in, one out,” recalls Yashere. “You could have any number of different white men on television doing the same material, the same kind of shows, and they had no issue with that. I remember going into a meeting and pitching a show. The head of the network said, ‘We’ve already got this Black guy.’ So basically only one of us was allowed in at a time. If one Black person got a show, all the rest of us had to wait until the show ended or he died. The British TV establishment never came to Black comedy clubs. If you wanted to get picked up, you had to go and play the white clubs to get seen.”

But Yashere’s life-long dream was to live in America. In 2007, she became a finalist, along with Amy Schumer and Doug Benson, on Last Comic Standing. She made the rounds at the Comedy Store, the Improv, and Laugh Factory. She was hired as a British correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and played “Madame Yashere, the Surly Psychic” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She’s performed at Montreal’s prestigious Just for Laughs festival several times, and hosted three Netflix stand-up specials.

While living in New York, she got a call about co-writing a pilot for a new Chuck Lorre project. Lorre, the man behind Two and A Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Mom, The Kominsky Method, and Dharma & Greg, was not exactly known for his on-screen diversity. He and co-executive producers Eddie Gorodetsky and Al Higgins needed the authenticity of someone with actual West African roots. They searched “female Nigerian comics” on Google and found Yashere’s material.

“Chuck said, ‘I’d like you to come on as a consultant because we’re three white guys and we need somebody who knows about the culture. We need a consultant to help us with all things African.’ At first, I was skeptical. I thought it sounded weird and exploitative. I was tempted to turn it down. But I had talks with my best friend and my brother and he said, ‘Look, this is an opportunity and you can actually make something really good.’ I went from consultant to co-creator and producer in under a week.”

Lorre had stated in the press that he was partly inspired to create the comedy as a response to all the anti-immigrant sentiment in the country during Trump’s presidency. With Yashere’s help, the show, the first to delve into Nigerian culture, tackles immigrant families with intelligence and kindness.

“It was a kind of an antidote to the increased, outward racism,” says Yashere. “It’s a romantic comedy, but it’s also a family saying, ‘Yes, we’re all the same people. We come here, we work hard and we try to provide the best for our children. We love the same. We hate the same. We’re the same people. It’s nice to see a show like that on CBS, which, let’s be honest, has a majority, older white audience, who may have never met a Nigerian or an immigrant. They can watch the show and just enjoy the characters and realize that we’re not the boogeyman. We’re not coming to take from them. We’re coming to add.”


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