“My story gets lost”, Mo Gilligan explains via video call. “The more success I’ve had, the more my story gets lost and gets packaged into this ‘Ah this guy worked in retail, done some videos then Drake discovered him! He’s on TV now!’ And I’m like, that sounds like a great fairytale for a film but that’s not my story.”
Since growing a loyal online following with his hilarious comedy skits in 2016, grabbing the attention of international stars such as Drake in the process, Mo’s career has propelled to new heights. From selling out numerous dates on his Coupla Cans tour and hosting the BAFTA-winning The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan to landing his own Netflix special and being a panel member on The Masked Singer UK, it’s safe to say Mo is one of the biggest comedians in the UK right now.
However, as the first Black British comedian to front a primetime TV show in 20 years, his success highlights some deep flaws within the entertainment industry regarding representation and inclusion.
In a new documentary titled Mo Gilligan: Black, British & Funny – which is out tonight (October 15) on Channel 4 – the comedic star sheds light on not only his story thus far, but also the journey of the Black British comedy circuit over the decades; speaking to iconic figures who paved the way for his success, as well as the new breed of talent within the scene. The doc also examines why there is a lack of Black British comedians in the mainstream world in the UK.
We recently caught up with the man himself via Zoom to talk about the doc, Black history and more.
So, Black, British & Funny focuses on the the Black British comedy circuit as well as your journey too. Why was it important for you to make this documentary and tell this story?
“It’s really important for me to highlight and showcase this circuit that was here before I was born and to showcase these comedians. I think sometimes it’s very easy to show like ‘Oh, here are the black TV shows you’ve had’ as opposed to the comics. You’ve gotta remember, it always comes from the circuit before it gets to a place of TV.
“These are the people I used to watch on TV as a kid, you know. Watching things like Blouse & Skirt or The Real McCoy, seeing people like Richard Blackwood, Desmond’s – that was what I had seen as a kid growing up in the nineties where we’d all sit down and be like ‘Look! there’s a Black person on TV!’ That was how I got brought up. I think what’s really great now is that you’ve got these great young comics who are emerging that might not’ve gone down the conventional root of stand-up comedy but they’re getting that notoriety and that recognition through what they’re doing online.
“I think for me it was really highlighting the icons that have come before me and the greats. They’re still actively working but the kind of messed up thing is that they didn’t get a fair shot like I did so it was really important to celebrate that circuit. I always say, if they’re not gonna tell our story, who will? So that’s kind of why I wanted to do this documentary.”
You kind of touched on it there, talking about the iconic figures you speak to in the documentary. Who were your inspirations?
“The first comedy show I went to ever when I was like 18 or 19 – it was like a show with comedy and music – and the first person I had ever seen was Slim. That’s the first ever comedian I had ever seen live on stage. Through that, as a 19-year-old, that was one of the catalysts to make me do stand-up.
“[Slim] was one of the people I was on the circuit with and I’d speak to and he was one of the inspirations. Watching people like Richard Blackwood on TV as a young kid and seeing that success of like ‘Wow he’s on TV, radio, doing music videos, doing everything!’ But also the women in the scene like Angie Le Mar – an amazing writer – and looking at these icons like ‘Wow if they wouldn’t have walked I wouldn’t have ran’.
You’re the first Black British comedian to front a primetime TV show in 20 years and it’s not like there weren’t any Black comedians in that time. Why do you think there’s a lack of Black British comedians on mainstream TV over here?
“Over here there’s definitely a one-in, one-out system. I realised that with the doc because when I’m looking back at this journey, Lenny Henry had his show in 1984, Richard Blackwood had one in 1999, then I had one 20 years later in 2019. That is the perfect example I can give to anyone about a one-in, one-out system.
“It’s not to say that there weren’t other people that had shows – I know Javone Prince had a show as well – but when I say it, I say it in terms of stand-up comics. So I don’t wanna discredit him within that journey but when I say like Black comics having a show it’s like a 20-year gap – it is that one-in, one-out system.
“There used to be a time when we’d just wanna see Black people on TV, that’s all we want. We’re not asking for a lot, just some more Black people on TV. But now the conversation is different because we don’t just wanna be in front of the TV. We don’t need TV that deep. We want to be the people making the shows and commissioning the shows. It’s starting to happen with music. You look at people like Twin B and stuff and that has not filtered down to TV. So for me it’s definitely a place of like it’s great being in front of the camera but we now need people behind the camera. People that can start making these big decisions like the commissioners and the execs because that’ll be real change.”
I’m sure already from what you’re saying that the documentary is gonna be a real eye-opener, but is there anything that you learned while making it that was like ‘Wow!’?
“When you hear a lot of people’s stories, especially when it started for a lot of comics in the eighties and they’re talking about their journeys and when I first started like 10 years ago, it’s like history repeating itself. You’ve got comics in the nineties in rooms with commissioners and they’re like ‘So can you make white people laugh and stuff?’ I had those same meetings but they were just a bit different.
“One thing I really discovered is that if you do it yourself, they will come. That’s one thing that’s really evident in this film. It started off as a documentary but it kind of feels a bit more like a film and a journey now. When you’re speaking to comics like Angie Le Mar, Curtis Walker and Slim they said ‘Look we’re gonna do it ourselves, we’re gonna put on our own shows’ and if you do that, they will come. That’s something that’s filtered down to this new, young generation.”
And the doc’s arriving in Black History Month. Why is it important for us to celebrate Black History in general?
“When it comes to Black history, it needs to be celebrated. Black History didn’t start when the Civil Rights Movement happened or the Slave Trade happened, it happened way, way before that. It needs to be on TV and it must be celebrated. It can’t just be ‘We’ve got a film on’. It has to be all forms of entertainment. Our culture brings so much to the world, that sometimes I’m like ‘A month ain’t enough you know’. It’s not. It really ain’t. Black history is every month. That’s the beauty of Black culture – you can’t escape it. You’ll find it somewhere. It’s everywhere.”
Like other fields, comedy has been affected by coronavirus, with your own tour being postponed. What’s the wider impact of the pandemic on the circuit?
“With what’s happened, everywhere has been affected. Whether it’s places closing down, or stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedy only works with people that can come out their house and go to venues so it’s definitely been impacted. But people are always gonna consume comedy somewhere; whether it’s on video, zoom comedy gigs, Instagram Lives – you’re always gonna get comedy. No matter what’s happening in the world, there will be some form of comedy going on somewhere.
“My tour was postponed but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really that bothered because there’s real stuff going on right now. I want people to come when they feel safe. You wanna do comedy when everyone else is doing comedy. I don’t wanna do a show when I’m the only one touring. It works when everyone’s working. It definitely has impacted anything live. But the cool thing is whether it’s Instagram, Twitter or TikTok, [comedy] is still working in some form.”
How have you been coping and keeping your spirits high during this crazy year?
“I just took each day as it came really. When I kind of realised we’re in here for the long-haul, for me I was just trying to keep fit, trying to read books. I started doing the Quarantine Games thing on Instagram Live and I felt like I was working! I’m at home, setting up lights and stuff and I’m like ‘Cool, 9 o’clock, here we go!’ So for me that’s definitely the one thing that really kept me sane within this mad time. It was a hard time but I tried to make it work in whatever way I could.”
You’ve got your fingers in a lot of pies. You’ve got The Masked Singer – big congratulations on that – The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan and now this doc. What else do you see yourself getting involved in in the future? More documentaries?
“Yeah, definitely! By making this doc, it’s given me a hunger to want to do more documentaries and explore more things. One thing I realised is whenever you start a documentary, your thought process changes from how you started to when it’s finished. I’ve learnt so much in a short space of time through making this doc. So that’s definitely something I wanna get more involved in.
“One thing I’ve really done a lot more of during lockdown is writing. I’ve written more than I’ve ever written. Whether that’s something I can put in place in comedy, or sitcom or film, I think that’s what’s hopefully next. Things like comedy are fun and great but doing something like this documentary or writing a piece for a sitcom or film is so much longer but the outcome on the other side is like ‘Woah, that was a fun journey’.”
Be sure to tune into Mo Gilligan: Black, British and Funny at 10pm on Channel 4 tonight (October 15), and then on All4.