“UK comedy needs a Black Panther” – Che Burnley on the Alternative Black Comedy Showcase

Alternative Black Comedy Showcase, Che Burnley
Date: 28/10/2019

Are black people funny? Not funny enough apparently. At least that was what DJ and comedian Che Burnley kept hearing when he asked why there weren’t more black comics doing gigs round the country.

Most people might have shrugged their shoulders and headed to Youtube to rewatch old clips of Chappelle’s Show. Che didn’t. He headed to Edinburgh with a vegan meat raffle and rounded up some of the best acts he could find.

With three sell-out seasons at the Edinburgh Fringe, Burnley has brought his acclaimed Black Comedy Showcase to Liverpool, with Britain’s Got Talent star Daliso Chaponda headlining and turns from Vince Atta, Tayo Cousins and musical guests including The Anfield Wrap’s Maurice Stewart.

Ahead of the gig this week at the Royal Court, we talked to Che about the need for such a show, why he’s developed a blackdar and how comedy isn’t always a laughing matter.

LU: Why do we need a black comedy showcase?

Because I’ve got bills to pay? Boris Johnson? The systemic institutionalised and structural racism in our society?

Truthfully I got fed up of comics and promoters telling me that they would book more black comics but the standard wasn’t good enough, which is part bullshit and part cop out. There are great old and new black comics out there but again sometimes the system puts you at a disadvantage.

I got feedback once early on that my material was too ‘typically black’. But it’s not: it’s observational like a lot of other comics, it just so happens to be coming from the perspective of being black. You still get audiences who as soon as a black comic or female comic – or heaven forfend a black female comic – comes on stage start thinking ‘oh here we go…’ and then afterwards go ‘I don’t usually like….’

I think audience sometimes need a little retraining, I work to the adage that we’re giving you something you didn’t even know you wanted. I stopped listening to people bemoaning a lack of black comics whilst at the same time asking ‘Do we really need a black comedy showcase.’ I’m just doing it and hopefully in a few year’s time, we wont need it. After I’ve paid my bills of course.

Alternative Black Comedy Showcase, Vince Atta

Why isn’t there a white comedy showcase?

Unfortunately white people aren’t funny. I mean the women are, they have a different perspective on traditional subjects told in a new and interesting way, but if I hear another white male straight comic banging on about being white and the usual typical white stereotypes…

Look I get it, one of my best parents is white, but one bloke told me in Edinburgh, ‘white people are the most persecuted people in the world’. Just get over it! You’ve finally got a racist white President and Prime Minister – what more do you want?

LU: What’s your role in this?

I am your host and compere and it’s the culmination of three hard years of slog to showcase new or lesser-known acts, coupled with some of the biggest stars we could get in Edinburgh. We’re building up a reputation with comics and venues and trying to get more black audience members out to see comedy.

I’ll be running everything from front to back of house as I’m a control freak and I want everybody to have the best possible time – and run more of these next year.

LU: Tell us about the bill

I’m trying to have a more alternative show and give it more of a cabaret feel. So we have one of our Edinburgh regulars Vince Atta, who uses a loop pedal to devastating effect in creating hilarious songs and even a bit of audience participation.

You still get audiences who as soon as a black comic or female comic – or heaven forfend a black female comic – comes on stage start thinking ‘oh here we go…’

As well as The Anfield Wrap’s Maurice Stewart as our DJ, we’ll also have a musical guest and our special guest headliner Daliso Chaponda who’s been appearing on Britain’s Got Talent recently and has just got a new show on Radio 4. He’s one of the best in the country at the moment.

Tayo Cousins is one of the new acts that shone in our second year so we’ve brought him back as one of our up-and-comers along with one more act to be announced.

LU: You played this show in Edinburgh at the fringe. How did it go down?

This was our third run and to be honest I never knew if it would actually work when we started. It relied on subverting some of the things that can and used to happen regularly at shows, but in a playful way such as our ‘token white act’ based as being known as ‘the token black’. It’s still essentially three to five comics on a stage but with a wide range of diversity – not just in colour but in material.

The audiences got on board really quickly, and considering Edinburgh is quite a white city during festival time I was quite chuffed. They were very savvy. We’ve had comics from all over the globe and all go down well. We had around 15 black audience members over three week on the first run and by last year we’d hit that number on the second day, which is a great achievement in getting a wider audience.

LU: Is it still difficult for black comics to get a break?

I think it’s easier but two problems are there: you can’t be what you can’t see, so there are more black comics but I’d like to see more impressionists, music-based acts, magicians or alternative styles. When was the last time you saw any of those?

Also the gatekeepers are still predominantly white and therefore don’t fully grasp different perspectives, I mean they really only took black films seriously when Black Panther made money at the box office. UK comedy needs a Black Panther and greater influence in decision-making.

LU: Liverpool is known as a cosmopolitan city – but we don’t see a lot of non-white faces on stage. Why is that?

Opportunity and gatekeepers. People aren’t consciously discriminatory but systems and structures make it easy to subconsciously make decisions that lead to this and justify them. People at the top of a lot of professions are still white and wont even realise they may be surrounding themselves with people just like themselves. If they’re the same colour, background, schooling… it’s comforting.

Look at all the shit that kicks off every time a black actor gets a traditional white role! Everybody wants to be the hero and see themselves represented on stage or screen. Audiences are still predominantly white so there could often be a disconnect with a black lead as they can’t put themselves in the shoes of someone different, so why not just play it safe?

LU: Racism stopped being a thing in the 80s didn’t it?

Of course. Yes every black comic I know has a ‘stopped by the police’ story (I’ve got five) or a ‘when I gigged and someone was racist’ story, but essentially racism died when Bernard Manning did so we should all pat ourselves on the back for not saying the ‘N’ word in public anymore.

LU: Dream line-up on the BCS?

Dream line up living: Lenny Henry, Reginald D Hunter, Dave Chappelle, Desire Burch, Alexei Sayle.

Dream line up dead: Patrice O’Neal, Richard Pryor, Felix Dexter, Redd Foxx, Joan Rivers

LU: What is the Blackdar?

I can see black people.

Sometimes I can have some dark conversations about race with people and make jokes that I couldn’t tell on stage. Most of the time the people I talk to aren’t racist or bigoted but sometimes your blackdar picks up on someone too eager to go all in, pretend it’s ‘ironic’ racism or that it’s just a joke and you’re being to sensitive. We know it’s not, we know.

Alternative Black Comedy Showcase
Royal Court
7.30pm, 30 October