Gina Yashere on her Chuck Lorre collaboration, diversifying their writer's room, and bringing Nigerian culture to American primetime
- Gina Yashere has championed Black and African actors and writers in Hollywood.
- Chuck Lorre asked her to consult on his CBS show “Bob Hearts Abishola.” Days later, she became a co-creator.
- “There’s a lot more me’s out there waiting for a good opportunity,” she told Insider.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
When comedian Gina Yashere was first brought in as a consultant on the CBS show Bob Hearts Abishola she was skeptical, even after her first meeting with series creator Chuck Lorre.
The show is about a middle-aged white man who falls in love with his Nigerian immigrant nurse, Abishola, while recovering from a heart attack. Lorre, who created the mega-hit shows Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men, needed someone to help bring authenticity to his show idea and Abishola’s character.
Lorre googled “female Nigerian comedian” and discovered Yashere on YouTube. She’s well known in the United Kingdom as a comedian whose bits cover her experience as a Nigerian lesbian woman who left her native U.K. for the United States. Lorre watched her set as host of Live at The Apollo in London, and wanted to meet her.
“So, originally, I was brought on as a consultant on all things African. It sounded weird to me,” Yashere told Insider, recalling her meeting with Lorre. “Once I got in the room with the guys, I began to really like them. I could see that they were trying to make a really good show, and it wasn’t really an exploitative thing.”
The pairing worked, and she was promoted to co-creator of the show after two days.
“She flew over from England to spend a couple days with us to just talk us through what she thought we could be doing,” Lorre said during a panel discussion promoting the show “And after a couple days, we just went, let’s see if she’ll stay with us… Don’t leave!”
She eventually became an executive producer, writer, and actress — playing Yemi, Abishola’s best friend. “I got in the room with them and just started helping them create an overall sort of template for the sitcom, giving them character names,” she said.
Bringing her in could easily be the best decision Lorre and his other co-creators, Eddie Gorodetsky and Alan Higgins, made when creating the show. In its first season, Bob Hearts Abishola, was CBS’s highest-rated new sitcom with over 5 million viewers consistently every week, though reviews have been mixed. Now in its second season, the ratings are still consistent, and the show was renewed for a third season in February.
But Yashere, who has been living in the U.S. for over 13 years, isn’t an overnight success. Her IMDB page is proof of that with acting, producing, and writing credits starting back in the early 2000s. Her self-funded comedy specials Skinny B*tch and Laughing to America were sold to Netflix and are available now. She became a regular on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah as the show’s British correspondent in 2017.
“THIS IS A BLACK SHOW NOW”
Yashere was able to have an impact from early on. “I know you’re used to doing things a certain way, but technically in the eyes of the world, and in the eyes of CBS, this is a Black show now.” The storyline of Abishola and her family, which is based on Yashere’s life, naturally meant at least half of the cast, and a number of writers would need to be African and Black.
“Abishola’s life story is based on my mother’s story,” Yashere said “My mother had us kids in England with my dad, then my dad couldn’t get good work in England. He was a qualified lawyer, my mom was a qualified teacher, but they couldn’t get work because England in the 60s and 70s was super racist.”
Like Abishola’s husband in the show, Yashere’s dad moved back to Nigeria when she was a child, leaving her mom in East London as a single mother. Yashere based the character she plays, Kemi, on her aunt and aspects of her mother.
“Kemi is was kind of an amalgamation of those two, the fun side, the outspoken, you know, not giving a crap side, and does what she wants to do,” she said about the comic relief character she created for herself.
Yashere also had a hand in choosing which actors to cast, and said she was mindful of her own experience auditioning for black and African roles in Hollywood and how demoralizing it can be. “I made sure I was in all the auditions to make sure that, when those black actors walked in that room and saw me, they could relax and enjoy the audition knowing that they’re not going to be asked to do any kind of coonery.”
She was also adamant that they cast a dark-complexioned, Nigerian actress to play Abishola, knowing that proximity to whiteness is usually the Hollywood standard, even with African roles.
“You’d watch movies with African characters, and the actors were completely wrong,” Yashere said. “Their style of dress was completely wrong, or you have an entire family and every one of them has got a different accent from a different country within Africa.”
They ended up casting the actress Folake Olowofoyeku to play Abishola, a Nigerian nurse with braids, who has created a life for herself and her son, while being estranged from her husband, with the help of friends, family, and community in Detroit. The show’s fluency with Nigerian and Black American culture makes it stand out among other sitcoms.
“You can tell research was done, and it speaks to what actually happens in a Yoruba family. It’s refreshing,” said Dolapo Adedapo, a Nigerian nonprofit consultant and radio show host, who was included in an NPR story about the show when it first aired.
Yashere was also a force behind making sure that half of the show’s eight-person writer’s room was Black. She invited Lorre, Gorodetsky, and Higgins to comedy shows around Hollywood to intro uce them to other Black comics. “She’s a writer too, you should hire them,” she would tell them whenever she noticed an act had gone over well.
All of this has brought positive attention to CBS, which has been criticized for its lack of diversity in front of the camera and behind the scenes. Last summer, the network announced that by 2022-23 season, half of its writers would be non-white. The announcement came after the Writers Guild of America West’s Committee of Black Writers released an open letter calling on the industry to “revolutionize the way our industry hires writers.”
“A LOT MORE ME’S OUT THERE WAITING”
Yashere’s success with Bob Hearts Abishola has left her convinced she can do more. “Being able to book black actors and book black writers has given me a new passion. So moving forward, I want to carry on executive producing and bringing through other talent,” she said.
As her career continues to unfold it never escapes her that there are more people like her- women, black, LGBTQIA, immigrant, etc- waiting for an opportunity to break into the business. Understanding that she can’t do it alone she also plants seeds to the people in power around her.
“You know, I said to Chuck, recently, you guys discovered me, but there’s a lot more me’s out there waiting for a good opportunity.”
She is also a new author. Her book Cack-handed, a memoir about her life before she moved to the U.S., hits bookshelves in June. Cack-handed, which means left-handed, and hence awkward and clumsy, in British slang, represents for Yashere how non-traditional her rise in Hollywood has been. She started off as an engineer, a path that she says delighted her immigrant mother, but decided to become a comedian after taking off a summer to act in a community play.
Now with “Bob Hearts Abishola” she’s showing that a left-handed professional can hold sway in a world built for right-handers.
“I’ve never wanted to push myself into a box that they put me in. I’ve never wanted to do things that are against my core principles,” she said. So because of that, it took me a lot longer to make it. But it feels a lot sweeter now because I’m making it on my own terms.”
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