Turning the tables

Comedian draws on the confusion sown by 50 years of immigration

Stephen K Amos artsdepot, London

The last comedian I saw play such a dastardly trick on a white, liberal audience was Omid Djalili back in the mid-1990s. It was at the Edinburgh Festival and he came on with a heavy Middle East accent. "Keep the laughter coming, it helps with my asylum application," he told us, as we marvelled that, you know, an Arab could be so funny. Then, midway through, he turned into a public school stockbroker.

In More of Me, at Finchley's artsdepot (8 November), Stephen K Amos arrived in a mid-height hairdo he described as the "shit stage" of an Afro and a heavy accent. "It's a greeting where I come from," he countered when an audience member responded in too much detail to his query, "How are you?" I have to say - because I'd forgotten seeing him on TV - I thought he came from the Caribbean. Someone else thought Ghana. But by now Amos had disconcertingly abandoned the patois and revealed himself to be a cockney.

Amos reaps comic glory from the cultural confusion sown by 50 years of Commonwealth immigration. He used to tell audiences: "While you're in here my mates are robbing your homes." An old lady accused him of racism. "But, madam," he replied, "my mates are white." The first half of the show was all about interacting with the audience and it was a pleasure to see a comedian so confident that he could perform alchemy on whatever dross he was thrown. I get anxious when a compère picks on an audience member's inarticulacy. As John Cleese explained to Dawn French on BBC4 recently, your brain works faster when you are the one on stage. But Amos's assaults were well turned: "The wheels are turning, but the hamster's dead," he told a student.

Part two was a reprise of his 2007 Edinburgh show. After misleading us in the first half, this was an attempt at candid autobiography. His parents had arrived in London in the Sixties which was, he said, similar to how Australia is now. There were signs saying no blacks, no Irish, no dogs, although they were often so badly punctuated that they appeared to be banning black Irish canines. At school he was called a "nig-nog" because the term had been licensed by a sitcom called Love Thy Neighbour. His careers master told him to consider jobs as a bus conductor or Tube driver because that is what "you people" do. Then his sister - "she had a long face like a horse so we used to call her Black Beauty" - was diagnosed with cancer and she told him life was too short for him not to pursue his dream of being a comedian.

The trouble was he did not want to upset his father, so he got jobs as an Orient Express guard (guarding it on a siding in south London) and selling mince in a supermarket. He has had, in other words, a humble enough beginning to know he is behaving like an arsehole when he wipes his face with a hot towel while travelling business class by air. I'd like to have heard more about his family's reaction when he told them he was gay, but his coming-out was last year and we heard little about it. Still, his documentary Batty Man, on young attitudes to homosexuality, sounds hair-raising.

Amos's success clearly has taken him to a point where in public, at least, he is more amused by racism than outraged by it. He has been on TV shows Have I Got News For You and Live at the Apollo, and is booked for the Royal Variety Performance. He recently did two episodes as a doctor on EastEnders and freaked the director by speaking in deepest dialect. On it he met Rudolph Walker, who was the "nig-nog" on Love Thy Neighbour. When he remonstrated with him, Walker said: "It was the only job I could get at the time. I couldn't drive a bus."

Times have changed, although Amos is not sure how much, as he wouldn't be doing gigs in Finchley if he had his own TV show. But the BBC's diversity policy means he'll have to wait for Lenny Henry to die first. The only unfunny thing about him is how many of his jokes turn on stereotyping Australians, Yorkshiremen and the people of Croydon. When a woman in the audience said she came from the latter, I promise you, he almost blanched.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

Sean Hughes
12-17 Nov, Arts Theatre, London WC2
Novelist, actor and professional Irishman returns to form.

Jimmy Carr
18 Nov, New Theatre Oxford
The new Monkhouse pumps out the one-liners.

Bill Bailey
21 Nov, Cardiff International Arena
Kant, Baudrillard, Revels and Match of the Day.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?