[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/13005?ns=guardian&pageName=Stephen+K+Amos%3A+%22Black%2C+gay+comic%3F+I%27d+hate+to+see+that+in+print.%22%3AArticle%3A1313014&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Comedy+live+%28Stage%29%2CStage%2CComedy+%28TV+genre%29%2CTelevision+and+radio%2CCulture+section&c6=Nosheen+Iqbal&c7=09-Dec-02&c8=1313014&c9=Article&c10=Interview&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FComedy[/img]He once joked that British TV couldn't cope with more than one black comedian at a time – now Stephen K Amos is getting his own BBC series. And he hasn't even had to kill Lenny Henry, he explains
There's a perfectly timed moment in one of Stephen K Amos's earlier routines: "The ultimate goal is to have my own TV show," he tells the audience. "But, as we all know, the BBC have a diversity policy. Apparently I have to wait for Lenny Henry to die."
It's a great gag the first time you hear it, sharp and unexpected – and funny not least because it seemed so awkwardly close to the truth. "You have to be an outsider to do this job," he tells me. "I don't think anything of driving six hours to do a gig for eight people, and driving back with five quid in my pocket." This is probably less accurate than it might have been a few years ago (we are conducting the interview in the Groucho Club). But, as Amos points out, "comedians aren't like other people". Few would deny that: there is something painfully vulnerable or, at the very least, odd, about standing on stage and demanding that people laugh at your jokes.
But perhaps it was better than the alternative. Amos realised he wanted to do comedy as he stood outside, of all places, a Citizens Advice Bureau in south London. Having read law at Westminster University, he imagined the charity might be the kind of place at which to forge a career. "But the reality of listening to people's problems all day? It was too heavy a load," he deadpans. "Like social work: depressing." But maybe making people laugh isn't so dissimilar, he reflects. "Laughter is the best medicine. It's come full-circle, in a weird way."
Born in 1967, the son of Nigerian immigrants, Amos credits the fact that he grew up with six other siblings (including a twin sister) for that competitive, attention-grabbing streak so useful for standup. The family moved almost a dozen times across south London before Amos began secondary school. "Balham, Tooting, Putney, Hammersmith – my mum and dad thought they were property developers," he explains. "We just thought we were in the witness protection programme."
Despite making for warm, witty company, Amos is reluctant to venture too far into his personal life. While I suggest that growing up as a young black, gay male in the capital can't have been easy in the 1970s, he shrugs it off. "Being defined as a black, gay comic? I'd hate to see that in print." Not that it's a subject he shies from; the homophobic murder of a friend spurred Amos to start talking about his sexuality on stage, a full decade after starting in standup. And in March 2007, he presented Channel 4's Batty Man, a documentary asking why homophobia is so prevalent in some areas of the UK and Jamaica.
He is more easily drawn to the realities of being a black comedian attempting to find his way in the mainstream. Two years since Amos's Lenny Henry joke was first broadcast on the BBC's Live at the Apollo show, there is still an obvious dearth of black entertainers to be seen on the box. The last name either of us can think of who enjoyed a brief period of mainstream success was Richard Blackwood, back in 2001. It is clearly something of which Amos is well aware. We talk about an article in which the London Evening Standard's Nick Curtis described Henry as "the country's most prominent but unthreatening black entertainer" – the paper removed the word "unthreatening" from later editions – after he won the Standard's theatre award for his performance as Othello. "I mean ... what can anyone say about it?" asks Amos. "What do they mean by it? [Henry] was a groundbreaking comic and now he's branching out. Can't we just praise him for that?"
Prejudice is still a force to be reckoned with, he suggests. "All you have to do is look at the clubs – where there's a breadth of black and Asian comics – and then look at TV. Those faces aren't there. And when you look behind the scenes, those faces aren't there either."
Comedy clubs haven't always been easy territory for Amos, however. He tells me about the time he got into a near-riot at one gig in Battersea. "By the end of the night, chairs were being thrown, fists being flung and the police were called." What happened? "Well, I was just doing my act, and some guy kept getting up and down from his table, so I said: 'Eh, come on. Sit down!' The bloke turned to me and said: 'Oi, mate, talk to me when you can speak proper English.' I turned straight away and said [in an exaggaratedly posh English accent] 'I beg your pardon? I think you'll find I can speak better English than you, your father, and your father's father.'" At which point, he says, it all kicked off. "A little old lady came up to me afterwards and said: 'He's only just come out of prison!'"
Amos is hoping that his current tour, which features some 80 dates, will go more smoothly. While his last two theatre shows offered more in the way of autobiographical detail – disciplinarian Nigerian parents, sibling squabbles – the new one, entitled The Feelgood Factor, is connected by what he describes as "the need to find the funnies." The show is more entertaining than it is either political or provocative.
And TV commissioning editors have, it seems, finally begun to take note. Amos has two new projects lined up with the BBC: a BBC2 series with his name on it, and a sitcom with the working title My Country, penned by Simon Nye (best-known for Men Behaving Badly). Both are due for broadcast early next year. If all goes to plan, he might finally have to bin the Lenny Henry gag from his repertoire. "I'm getting my foot in the door, and I really am having fun right now," he reflects. "It's taken a while, but that's the nature of the beast, I suppose."
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Guardian: Stephen K Amos: "Black, gay comic? I'd hate to see that in print."
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