On being a black comedienne: An interview with Joy Carter
They’re an odd breed, comedians. To be born with the nerve that happily allows one to get up on stage and proselytise, feet firmly on that soap box, on the day’s issues, before airing a pile of dirty laundry so confidently and brashly all to generate some chuckles, is something to be admired.
British comedy is an institutional force unto itself, revered at home and lauded internationally. But what is it like for a comedian who doesn’t quite fit the traditional mould of household funny person; someone whose image is a far cry from the white male staple that it seems still enjoys panel show dominance?
Meet Joy Carter. As a black woman she’s swum against the tide of the zeitgeist, battled low expectations and found herself being carried by a current that slowly but surely is bringing exposure of funnywomen to line with funnymen. Well, almost.
Carter is a pixieish creature. She arrives for our interview slightly late, plonks her slender self opposite me and chatters. She’s a fast talker.
As a baby she survived Nigeria’s Biafran war (her twin sister did not) before being adopted by two white British missionaries and bring brought back to the UK, settling in the North of England. “I knew I would ostracise myself by taking this career,” she says. But it wasn’t just the comedy that set her apart from her peers growing up, but her skin colour and later, as an adult, being middle-class.
It’s this dichotomy of labels that she says really confuses people. She’s a well-spoken black woman, brought up in relative financial comfort, shrouded with all the lashings of British bourgeois proclivities. “People don’t know where to put me. I’m not black enough and I’m not white enough. Some say ‘we can tell you’re different,’ but I’m neutral, I’m Switzerland.”
Six years spent hiding her femininity and wearing dungarees to ensure a look-in on the ‘masculine’ comedy scene became a tad grating. It all ended with an overwhelming eureka moment when she “slowly had confidence to wear a bit of make-up.”
Not that it was her audience that she had to contend with, mind, that reception was overwhelmingly positive: “For example in one gig, the crowd loved me. It was the booker that was like ‘oh’.” She admits that most of the problems have been in simply getting gigs, and in the presumptions that people make about her and her comedy.
“I did a gig in Peterborough and the booker said to me ‘I thought you were gonna be really rubbish’.” Though, to be fair, this booker does sound like the kind of guy who’d say that to any underdog, woman or not, black or not.
But it’s the “banal, gratuitous, misogynistic comedy” which she believes is marring the scene, preferring to talk about “adoption, race, culture… intellectual comedy” herself.
She says that as a comedian you eventually “find your niche, your voice. That takes a minimum of 10 years,” but is it difficult to gain ground as an anomaly? She quips: “People stare at you as if you’re from out of space, but if you only eat fish and chips and then you’re faced with curry, you freak out.”
Joy Carter is performing at the Prince’s Trust RBS Charity Comedy Fundraiser on 9 August 2013
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