The Woman King of Comedy Comes to Chicago: A Q&A with Gina Yashere

Gina Yashere is known for soaring to great heights. Before she became a comedian, Gina rode on elevators. No, not in elevators. As the first female electrical engineer hired by Otis UK, Gina stood on top of elevators – designing, installing, repairing, wiring – as the machines hurtled through skyscrapers’ vertical canyons. As a comedian, she is every bit as exhilarating as that thrilling, unconventional history suggests. To Chicago’s great fortune, Gina chose our city as one of a small number of stops on her new Woman King of Comedy Tour. She will appear at Thalia Hall on Saturday, July 8.

Gina is the co-creator, showrunner and co-star of the CBS hit series Bob Hearts Abishola, recently renewed for a fifth season. Before the writers strike, she “planned a mini-tour around eight weekends” where she would “pop off to do a show and be back at work on Monday morning.” With the strike ongoing, the popular comedian is “picking up loads of shows and traveling a lot more than I envisaged.”

When I asked Gina what Chicago audiences can expect, her response was characteristically buoyant and intriguing. “I have no idea what I’ll be talking about, but that’s the fun of it! I’m a storyteller, so I tell a lot of stories from my life and experiences.” Gina’s recent hilarious, vulnerable memoir Cack-Handed (a Britishism for left-handed) may hold some clues.

Gina was born in England to Nigerian parents. She endured the unbearable pressure that often comes with being first generation. Her mother expressed love with scathing criticism and demands for perfection. Requests to attend field trips and parties were met with her mom’s swift response – a scrapbook of articles about people who met untimely ends.

Still, like the adult she became, Gina was a funny and fearless child. She ingeniously skirted her mother’s rules, avenged schoolyard bullies, and stood up to racist kids, adults, and a monstrous stepfather. Ultimately, the stress took a toll and at sixteen, Gina attempted suicide. When she pulled through, her mom’s first question was “Are you okay?” followed by “When is your biology exam?” In her memoir, Gina also goes behind the scenes of her groundbreaking engineering career, the surprising way she became a comedian, her rise to stardom in the U.K., and what it’s like to come out in British and Nigerian culture.

Cack-Handed ends with Gina leaving England for the U.S. She had always envisioned a series like Bob Hearts Abishola, but it would be years before it happened. How did she connect with legendary producer Chuck Lorre to make the show a reality?  Here’s a scoop for July 8. Gina confided that she “has a routine about how Bob Hearts Abishola came about. It’s a very funny and interesting story. That is definitely one of the stories that I’ll tell.”

Gina is also known for her comedy specials Skinny Bitch, Laughing to America and Ticking Boxes. She headlined the Netflix series The Standups and was the British correspondent for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.  She is an internationally touring headliner whose shows sell out worldwide.

Gina kindly Zoomed with me to discuss her connection to Chicago and her unique, insightful approach to comedy, health and life. (Yashere is pronounced “Yash-HOORAY” as Gina explained to talk show host Rushion McDonald.)



Teme: How did you decide to include Chicago in your tour?

Gina: I performed at Zanies in Chicago a few times and loved the audiences. Nina Rose, my missus, was born and raised in Chicago and her parents still live there. We often go back to visit and always have a good time.

Teme: What is your favorite thing to do in Chicago?

Gina: I love hanging out by the lake. In England a lake is usually not as expansive as your American lake. I got to Chicago and I was like, this is a lake? I can’t even see where it ends! I love hanging out in the park areas around the lake, especially in the summer. It’s really a lovely place to read a book or people-watch.


Teme: What is your process for developing material?

Gina: If something happens to me that brings some level of passion, then it’s a story that I will want to tell. Sometimes it just comes to my head and I’ll write a bullet point down in my phone. If I have ideas for jokes, I’ll write those down. If not, I’ll just go on stage and throw the story in the middle of my established routines and see if it has any legs. If it gets a good response, I’ll keep polishing it like a diamond. The next time I’ll throw it in again and embellish it a little bit more, see what the crowd responds to, and just keep polishing it until it becomes a piece.

I’m not one of those writers that says, “I’m going to sit and write a whole new routine.” It’s like a conveyor belt. The new bits get bigger and better and more plentiful and the old stuff just falls off at the end.


Teme: I was going to ask about the Bob Hearts Abishola origin story, but since you’ll be telling it when you’re here, I won’t ask. But I can’t wait to hear!

Gina: Yes, let’s save that for the show!

Teme: May I ask you about the writers room and how you put it together?

Gina: I can tell you about the writers room! It’s very difficult for Black writers to get into and stay in the industry because we once we get in, we often are the first to be let go when cuts are made. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to be the only Black writer in the room. Not all Black voices are exactly the same. We all have different perspectives.

I was headlining a comedy show at Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank. I invited Chuck, Al [Higgins] and Eddie [Gorodetsky], the other two executive producers on the show, to come and see me. Then I invited a bunch of my comedian friends to open for me who I knew were writers as well. I didn’t tell them and I didn’t tell Chuck, Al and Eddie, either. Chuck didn’t make it to the show, but Al and Eddie did. When they saw Gloria Bigelow, they were like, “Oh, that woman was very funny!” I said, “She writes, also,” and set up a meeting between Gloria and them. She has been a writer on the show since the very beginning. After that, it was much easier to say “Let’s interview more people,” and we got some other great writers. We got a young Nigerian writer, Ibet Inyang. She has also been there from the beginning.

Another writer, Jamarcus Turner, was working in a factory in Indiana. He had been writing for a while. He sent in a script for a competition to be a writer on the Daily Show. He didn’t win, but his script ended up on our desk. I read it and I said, “This is a really nice script. Let’s interview him.” He was really fun and nice and loved the show and was very eager to learn. So we got him in the writers room as well.

One of the most rewarding parts of doing this show is that I’ve been able to help people not only get in the industry, but actually get promoted and stay in the industry and have a body of work to take with them to their next show.

Teme: Is American television improving when it comes to inclusivity and diversity?

Gina: The advent of all these streaming networks helped because there was a lot more content that was needed. A lot more Black writers got employed, which was wonderful. It goes through waves of, “Oh, more inclusive! This is great! There’s more of us  …… Oh no, they’re making cuts.” Then we [writers of color and women] are the ones that go first.


Teme: How did you decide on the name “Abishola”?

Gina: We wanted a Nigerian name. Even though my family are not Yoruba and I was born and raised in London, I was surrounded by a lot of people from the Yoruba tribe. I thought if I’m going to pick Nigerian names, I’m going to pick a Yoruba name because they are a lot more phonetic. If you simply read the letters, you’ll be able to say it. They all have deep meanings that connect to the culture. I picked out a bunch of names and showed them to Chuck. “Abishola” [born to wealth, born to guide] was the one that everybody liked the best.

Teme: How did you decide to play Kemi? I always look forward to seeing her. In fact, when people ask how to pronounce my name, I say it rhymes with “Kemi.”

Gina: That is funny. But people even pronounce that wrong. They call her Kimmy. They spell it wrong. And I’m like, it’s Kemi, it’s not that hard. K-E-M-I. It sounds like the spelling.

Teme: I get called “Tammy” all the time, so I know how that is.

Gina: Yes, it’s very irritating. As a comedian, my dream has always been to play the best friend on a sitcom. It’s always the funniest role and they don’t have to carry the show. They come in, they often steal the scenes and go. I always get the best lines. When we started writing, I had in my head that I wanted to be in the show, but I didn’t want to be Abishola. I wanted to be Abishola’s best friend, so I kept suggesting, “I think she needs a best friend!”  So I helped create the character of Kemi.

Originally, Kemi didn’t even have a name. She was just “woman on the bus” who rode the bus with Abishola to work every day who Abishola confided in. But the whole time we were creating this character I knew that was the character that I wanted to play. I infused certain character traits into her that I knew that I’d want. When the time came to begin casting, Chuck came to me and said, “If you want the role of Abishola, you’re going to have to audition.” I said, “Well, I don’t want the role of Abishola. I want the woman on the bus.” And Chuck looked at me and went, “Oh, you are very fucking smart.” And that’s how the role came about.

Teme: How are the people in your life reflected in the characters on the show?

Gina: The story of Abishola is based on my mother’s story; the story of how Abishola ended up in America alone with [her son] Dele, with her husband unable to get a job as an architect in America and leaving to go back to Nigeria to follow these dreams of a successful career. That is basically the story of my parents. My parents had us in England. My father wanted to be a lawyer. England in the 1960s was very racist. The only jobs that were available to Black people were driving the buses or working in the post office.

My mother didn’t want to go back to Nigeria because her children were born in England and she wanted us to stay in England. My father left and went back to Nigeria and became a successful lawyer. A lot of the stories from the show are pulled directly out of my life.

Abishola is very much based on my mother, but so is Kemi. Abishola is the mother that I grew up with, the harsh disciplinarian who wants her children to be successful at all costs. But Kemi is a little bit of my mother when I’m listening at the door when my mom is with her friends. Both characters are based on different facets of my mother’s personality.

Teme: Season Four ended with a lot of cliffhangers! May I ask what’s coming up for everyone in Season Five?

Gina: We don’t even know because we don’t write that far in advance. We literally go with the flow of the story when we’re writing it and ask, what would happen next? It is as much a cliffhanger for us as it is for you guys.


Teme: I follow you on Instagram and Facebook and love your hotel reviews. I relate when you point out disgusting carpets, and cups and towels near the toilet… ARGH! For all of us on that wavelength, I would love advice on coping with hotels and what to bring from home.

Gina: Oh, absolutely. People think, “You carry your own bed sheets! It must be so bulky.” I get several days of clothing and sheets in one carry-on bag. It’s not as heavy as you think. I have my own pillow which works better for my neck. It squeezes very small. If I want an extra pillow and I need to use the hotel pillow, I’ll put my pillowcase on top of theirs.

I bring slippers for the hotel room floor because my feet never touch the carpets in the hotel rooms because they are disgusting. I get extra towels from the hotel and lay those on the floor. I use a trail of towels from my bed as a pathway to the bathroom. I have plastic or rubber slippers for the shower as well because the problem with the showers is those drains. They’re not often cleaned out. And I always bring an extension lead because often they only ever have one power outlet by the bed or it’s often too far away from the bed.

Teme: That’s all wonderful advice. I sometimes get stranded in part of a hotel room because I’ve taken off my shoes and forgotten slippers, and I don’t want to walk directly on that carpet.

Gina: Exactly.  


Teme: You’ve spoken about managing lupus with dietary change. For all of us who have dealt with autoimmune issues, may we hear more?

Gina: I suffered with lupus extremely badly. I had horrific arthritis. It was just horrific inflammation, my entire body, my head. I used to get horrible migraines and I was on a lot of medication.

At one point, the doctors were telling me that they were going to try chemotherapy to blast out my immune system. I was like, “You guys are just experimenting on me like a guinea pig.”  I started researching more natural ways of healing. I saw a TV show where they took a bunch of celebrities to Thailand to do a seven-day fast and detox where you cleanse your body of all toxins and just do coffee every day and juices and fluids.  At the end of it, you start eating cleaner. You get rid of all processed foods, sugars, processed sugars, meat, any animal products and dairy, and go raw vegan.

So I got on a plane and flew myself to Thailand and did the same detox. At that point, I’d been on steroids for quite a while. I was like 230 pounds. I was bloated and overweight from all the steroid use. I came off all my medications. I don’t advise everybody to do that. I did it because I’m that kind of gung-ho person. I lost thirteen pounds in the first week. I started eating an alkaline diet. It took a while for me to make the jump all in. Within a month of going completely raw, all of my symptoms subsided.

Within a few months, my inflammation reduced. My doctors said, “You shouldn’t have come off your medication. You could go into shock.” But every time I went back to the doctor, the [patients] that I’d seen on a regular basis at those appointments were steadily getting sicker and sicker while I was getting healthier and healthier.

Eventually my lupus went completely into remission. I go back to the doctor once a year for the blood tests. I get the odd flare-up from time to time. I was going abroad and I took an injection and had a reaction that brought a full-on lupus flare-up. So now I’m aware of which medications don’t react well with my body and the lupus.

I’ve steadily fallen back into the habits of a sugar junkie. I love chocolates and cake. But I know when a flare-up is coming and I stop behaving badly and then the flare-up goes. Touch wood, I’ve been in remission since 2009.


Teme: I loved your memoir Cack-Handed. Will there be a second book?

Gina: My next plan after Bob Hearts Abishola is to make a TV show based on my life. Hopefully if that happens, that will make this book even more popular and maybe spawn a second book. Who knows, but there’s not one in the pipeline at the moment.

Teme: Until I read your book, I had no idea about all that you’d been through. What is your advice for staying so positive and fearless through difficult times?

Gina: It’s not something I strived to be able to do. It’s just something that was innate. I want to enjoy life and I want to be happy. I don’t know if I may have another life. I do believe in reincarnation, but I want to make the most of this one that I’ve got. Since childhood, I’ve always been drawn to happiness and trying to make joy wherever I can. I’m not saying that I’ve never had down moments. There are days where I’ll just be in my house by myself. Sometimes I like peace and quiet. People go, “Gina come out!” I’m like, “No, I just want to be by myself. I don’t want to talk to anybody right now.” I need some time to myself. I strongly recommend taking that time when you need it. But yeah, I’ve gone through times of depression and times of feeling very low and feeling very ill. But then I’m like, alright, I don’t want to feel like this all the time. I need to snap out of it and try to find something that gives me joy and gives me something to work towards.


Teme: Thank you for this great conversation! Absolutely anything else we should include?

Gina: Get the book if you haven’t because you get a really good insight into what makes Gina tick. I’ll be on tour for the next sort of seven weeks all over the country. If you’re not in Chicago, if you have friends and family elsewhere, tell them to book a ticket. It’s a great night. And Bob Hearts Abishola! Hopefully once these studios see sense and pay the writers properly, we’ll be back to work on Season Five!


See Gina Yashere’s Woman King of Comedy Tour at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, Chicago on Saturday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. With Kellye Howard. Purchase tickets here

More about Gina at

Cack-Handed is available in hardback, paperback and audiobook anywhere you find your books. Note a special feature of the hardback’s front cover: the title Cack-Handed is in Gina’s handwriting. A special feature of the paperback: it includes beautiful photos of Gina and family.

More about Bob Hearts Abishola at

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