Joan Rivers’s first memoir, Enter Talking, ends with her finally making it on The Tonight Show. It reads like a bit of an origin story, with the ending suggesting itself to be actually a beginning. Gina Yashere’s new memoir, Cack-Handed, functions the same way, but ends with Yashere, already a giant stand-up in the U.K., getting Last Comic Standing here in the States. LCS was not her Tonight Show, but it came with a two-year visa and, with it, the potential of getting opportunities that previously eluded her. Fifteen years of grinding later, with her own hit sitcom she co-created, produces, and acts in — CBS’s Bob Hearts Abishola — Yashere has achieved much of what she set out to do. She is not surprised. And she’s not done.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Yashere talks about having to start over when she moved to America, touring all over the world, and waiting for that big check. You can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Your book ends with you moving to the States. What did America represent to you professionally?
It meant no limits. In England, I was successful. I’m one of the top Black comics in the country, but that meant nothing compared to what my white counterparts could achieve. One particular white male comic, his name is Michael McIntyre — huge comedian in the U.K., sells out arenas — I remember him opening for me. He was so broke he couldn’t afford the cab fare to the airport, so I got a cab from my house to his house to pick him up and take him to the airport. Not even 12 months later, he was a multimillionaire selling out stadiums. This is the trajectory the white male comics were able to achieve in the U.K. As a Black comic, I hit a glass ceiling.
I used to do a joke where I’d say that the British industry for Black comics and Black entertainers is like a nightclub policy: one in, one out. So when one Black person got a TV show, all of us had to wait until they died or fucked up. And then even if they did fuck up, then that industry would go to, I don’t know. We tried this Black guy. It didn’t work out. See, Black comedy doesn’t work — whereas they can have any number of various size shapes of white men on TV, with none of the same restrictions.
I always wanted to live in America since I was like 4 years old. Even when I worked as an engineer, I worked for Otis building elevators. Otis is an American company. I thought, I’m going to get really good and then I’m going to transfer to America and be an engineer in America. So once I got into stand-up comedy and hit that glass ceiling in England, I was like, I don’t need to stay here. I want to go to America and swim with the sharks. I want to compete with the big boys. I don’t want to stay in England scrapping for the crumbs that they throw off the table for us Black comics. At least in America, as a Black comic, if you hit that glass ceiling, the glass ceiling is a lot higher and you’re a multimillionaire by the time you hit it, so you can cry in your money.
All these years later, do you feel like an American comedian?
No … I’m still feeling like I haven’t received the respect as a stand-up. I sound arrogant, but fuck it, whatever: I feel like I haven’t been offered the big money to do the Netflix special. Even the half-hour special that I did for Netflix, they gave me two weeks’ notice. Basically, somebody else must have dropped out. “Who can we get to?” And then I got a call saying, “Can you put a special together in two weeks?” And I was like, “Yeah, I stay ready.”
I never felt that wanted. I never felt like they came for me, that they respected my stand-up. I didn’t ask any questions because I was like, I don’t give a shit — I’m ready. I’ve got my set, and they’ll pay me a nice check. Let’s go. I’m still waiting for somebody like Netflix to say, “Let’s go. Here’s a big fat check. We respect your stand-up. We really want your special.” And that hasn’t happened yet, so I don’t feel like an American comedian in that respect.
Do you think that it will?
I don’t know. I’ve got the sitcom, and it’s going really well. I’m heading into season three. It’s a very successful sitcom. I’m working with Chuck Lorre, and yet I still haven’t had any of them come to me and go, “We really want a special from you.” It’s kind of disappointing to me because I’ve got one more really great special.
What does that mean to you? That “one really great special” — when you imagine it, what does that look like?
I feel like it might be a farewell. I’ve gotten into television. I’m going into writing and producing, and I’m enjoying that. I’m enjoying creating, and I’m really enjoying giving other people work and bringing people in that might not necessarily have gotten a look in the industry. You know, Chuck Lorre World is a very white-male world, and I’ve been able to get African cast members on this show; I’ve been able to get Black people in the writers’ room. I’m enjoying that aspect. I feel like I’m getting older, and my career may be going in a different direction.
I love my stand-up. I’ll always love my stand-up. I can’t see myself not doing stand-up in the future, but I can see myself doing a lot less stand-up in the future. So the swan song should be big. I want the big fucking check. I want Netflix to go, “You’re amazing. We’ve got three of your specials on here, and they’re really good. We want to pay you a ton of money to make the next special.” Because two of the specials that are on there, I made them myself. I’ve made the money back from them, but I would like to get that seven-zero check for my next special. I’m as good as any of those people. Yeah, I’ve got specials. Any of them. Iliza Shitslinger — all of them. I’m as good … better than a lot of them.
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