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INTERVIEW: Stephen K Amos – “The people who were the butt of the jokes have now got a voice and they’re fighting back.”

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From Hammersmith Apollo to Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Stephen K Amos is coming to North Wales. Seren spoke to the comedian ahead of his performance in Mold, Flintshire about his new show, free speech and not being known as ‘the black, gay comic.’

How much are you looking forward to performing in North Wales?

Jesus, I haven’t been to North Wales in a very long time. I’ll be honest with you. I do Cardiff, Swansea – I’ve even been to Llandudno. But I haven’t been to North Wales for such a long time so I’m looking forward to making an appearance.

Because I tend to do a lot of my touring in England, Europe, Australia and America – I don’t get to see all of what makes up the United Kingdom. It’s my first time playing in your kind of area so I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of people of there, and if indeed there are any students.

I never did any school trips to North Wales. In fact, when I was a kid, my parents didn’t let us go on any school trips because they were so overprotective and scared that something might happen to us. As you can probably imagine, a group of 25 inner city London kids heading up to a farm in North Wales – there a was a feeling that we would be met with pitchforks and one of us would be sacrificed.

 

You’ve been doing BBC Radio, a show for BBC2, touring all over the shop, and of course your podcast – are you knackered yet, Stephen?

Very good research! I won’t lie to you I’m absolutely knackered. My voice is croaky. But you know what, I couldn’t imagine doing any other job. What other job in the world could you think of where you can say literally whatever you like on stage – it’s amazing. Whether you work in radio, television or newsprint, there are certain compliances, rules and regulations. But I work genuinely for myself.

Even on social media, I don’t have to have that disclaimer saying: “All views are my own.” Of course they’re my own!

Any person who works for themselves, in any industry, the aim is to be very busy. You never know when it may all end or when the competition could become really fierce. So you’ve got to keep your finger on the pulse and be out there. Always better to complain about being too busy then not having any work at all.

Also, it absolutely helps the writing process. One thing feeds into another. When we do radio shows, we do a lot of writing. Because they’re limited to 27 minutes, there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t get in. So that stuff that you’ve practiced and rehearsed will go into a live show. It all interweaves.

 

Talking of live shows, tell us about your new show Bouquets and Brickbats.

The whole world is in a weird state. Up and down. It appears to me that it’s all 50:50. You’re either right or left and there’s no grey area in the middle. And because of social media; because of the fact that anyone can write what they want and broadcast their opinions, there doesn’t seem to be any dialogue happening. It seems to be outright abuse – both sides.

So it came to me when I was thinking about the good and the bad, the ying and the yang. When you think of good things like birthdays and weddings, you think of flowers – so that’s bouquets. However, within those good things, there’s also bad things. Someone might turn up at the wedding and shout: “Yes! There’s a reason why they can’t marry!” There’s curveballs sent to derail us all the time. Those are the brickbats.

So what are you trying to achieve with it?

I’m trying make people just have a laugh. I would like people to come to my audience who have varying political beliefs and I want to unite them all through the medium of laughter. I’m not one of these comics who says: “People who voted Brexit are idiots!” I don’t do that kind of stuff.

There are more things that link us together. So let’s laugh together. I’m trying to remind everyone we’re all the same. People may have different political opinions but we’re all the same. If we stop talking and just rely on abuse because someone doesn’t share your point of view, that’s not correct. That’s not how things change.

So if you come to a comedy show and you’re sitting next to somebody who is a Remainer and you’re a Leaver and you’re both laughing at the same jokes – that’s something that connects you. On that springboard, we could talk about other things without it descending into chaos.

 

Are you coming at it from an angle of Brexit and Trump have been done to death?

I’m assuming that every single person in the country knows about Brexit and Trump. By now, everybody knows where they stand. So unless I’ve got a really funny take on it, I don’t want to rehash stuff that people know about.

I do it in a way that is very subtle. I mention Trump twice in the show. But I don’t criticise his politics. An example of how I joke about Trump in a way that completely disarms the audience is: “People are saying Trump is doing a bad job at being the President. Let’s cut him some slack. Just because you do a bad thing once, doesn’t make you a bad person. My Uncle recently beheaded a woman. Not a bad person – bad magician.”

They don’t see it coming. They might assume I’m a lefty or a righty or whatever. And when I say: “Let’s cut him some slack” – you can see the tension in the audience. That’s what I like to play with.

I do talk about politics. I do talk about race. I do talk about sexuality. But I do it in a way that is inclusive. I don’t want my audience to be filled with people who have the same beliefs as me, vote the same way as I do, have the same socio-economic standing. It’s like preaching to the converted. There’s no point.

I don’t want to do jokes for rounds of applause. I want to do jokes for laughs. I want to have someone in the audience who’s never been to a gay club before or who’s never met a black person before and make them absolutely wet themselves with laughter.

 

Your last point vaguely reminds me of a quote of yours from some years ago where you said you didn’t want to be known as the ‘black, gay comic’ – is your stance still the same on this?

I don’t want to be because those are elements that form who I am. But they don’t define who I am. So I don’t think it’s fair for any publication to use that kind of description.

It’s very rare you see a comedian described as ‘white heterosexual comedian’ or ‘white Christian comedian’. You know it’s there for purpose. It’s there to warn the audience that I might be talking about certain things. Just say comedian!

 

It seems your show is also linking into a broader debate about freedom of speech and the right to offend – as a comedian, surely you reserve the right to offend?

I will always uphold the right to freedom of speech. That goes for comedians and for audience members as well. So if I say something in this show that somebody takes umbrage with, they have a right to challenge me. I can either justify it or back it up.

I’m not going to go out and offend people for the sake of offending people. I don’t get any joy out of that. What I will do is upset the apple cart, I will antagonise and I will prod – with a purpose.

The common consensus is don’t offend for the sake of it, but be prepared for people to be offended because they’ve taken something out of context or they hear a buzzword.

I’m friends with a white comic who’s said he’s afraid to use the word ‘black’ in any context. I think you should be able to say anything in comedy as long you’re prepared to justify it and it’s not for gratuitous offence.

I’ve used the word ‘Bender’ in the context of a show before. People may be offended. But listen to the context.

 

In a few of your previous answers you’ve subtly criticised social media – do you want to elaborate on that?

I think it’s great in terms of reaching out to a wide audience and getting your own message out there.

The negative side is literally that people don’t think before they speak. People seem to think they have a right to an opinion on everything, even when they don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.

People also think they seem to have a right to address you personally. You know, there are many bands that I’ve hated over the years. But I’d never feel the need to reach out to them to tell them: “I think you’re sh*t.” In this day and age, people think that’s okay!

I would never engage with people like that. But I’ve got comedian friends of mine who do actually engage with these people who’ve said they’re awful or whatever. Why would you waste your energy arguing with someone you’ve never met who’s taken time out of their day to tell you how sh*t you are!? It makes no sense.

Let’s touch on your conversations with other comedians a tad more. Of course, you do your talk show at the Edinburgh Fringe where you speak to lots of comedians. How interesting has it been for you?

It’s been very interesting because I’ve spoken to people who are very experienced; people who are very famous; the newbies. And the learning curve is virtually always the same, you were either born with funny bones, or you are the odd one out and you’ve got a weird take on things.

I’m not one of these laugh-a-minute people off-stage. I’m not on as it were. A lot of my friends aren’t on, which really surprises a lot of people. They think we’re on 24/7 and that when we do a show we just stand there and all this funny stuff comes to your head. You can write a funny show and learn how to be a good performer without the funny bones.

It’s a very strange job. Standing up on stage in front a group of strangers and telling them that what you are saying is funny. The amount of times people say to all of us: “It must be the hardest job in the world” blah blah blah. You know, it’s not the toughest job in the world. I couldn’t bear the thought of being a social worker or a lawyer or a neurosurgeon – where people’s lives are in your hands. What’s the worst that could happen when I do my job? People don’t laugh.

 

How much do you delve into other performers’ processes of writing jokes?

It differs because we don’t want the formula to be the same for every episode. But we delve into things like the stress of going on stage, the mental anxiety, and the ups and downs. But people’s writing process does feature.

I found James Acaster’s process very strange. He’s one of the best comedy writers and performers in this country. But if you speak to him, he doesn’t strike you as this go-getting ‘I’m going to grab these people and I’m gonna make them laugh’. I didn’t realise that he was also in a band as the drummer. I thought: wow, didn’t see that coming. Normally, the drummer is the guy in the background who keeps the rhythm going. To transition from that, to being essentially the front man – is very, very interesting. And he said, the amount of times he died on stage to find his deadpan persona, other people would have stopped.

We actually have a comedy society here at the University, what advice would you give to comedians pursuing the craft?

I would write a 5 minute routine which you genuinely find funny and practice it over and over again. Don’t keep chopping and changing. Practice in front of a mirror. Find little comedy venues around town that have open spot nights and just keep doing it.

Watch other comics – professionals and otherwise. Look at their techniques. But do not copy them.

 

Am I right in saying that you stumbled upon stand-up reasonably late compared to comedians who may have started in their late teens/early 20s?

Absolutely. It was not in my remit at all. When I was growing up watching comedy as a young man, it was very much an era of racist/sexist jokes. I didn’t see black comics on TV when I was growing up. So it was something that never spoke to me at all.

It’s only when I went travelling and met a woman in America who said: “You’re really funny, have you thought of doing stand-up.” She happened to be a booker of a comedy club in South London – and I’d never been to a comedy club.

I was so amazed to see a man and a woman on stage doing jokes that weren’t sexist, racist or homophobic – and people were laughing. I tried it and never looked back.

 

I remember an old quote from you where you said you’d have to wait for Lenny Henry to die before you’d get on telly! How do you think the climate has evolved for comedians of different ethnicities and genders?

I think it’s evolved and it’s a positive thing. There will always be those people who say: “Political Correctness gone mad! It’s about filling quotas not being funny!”

The difference is, 30/40 years ago, the people who were the butt of the jokes have now got a voice and they’re fighting back. For a while, there was a certain type of person who dominated this industry, and it was always fun to punch down at people who couldn’t respond to you.

If you do really think the world is too politically correct, ask yourself: what is it you want to say now that you feel you can’t say?

 

Stephen is performing at Theatr Clwyd in Mold, Flintshire on November 24th. Buy tickets here: https://www.theatrclwyd.com/en/whats-on/stephen-k-amos-bouquets-and-brickbats/

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Finnian Shardlow

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