BBC Radio 4 stand-up special star and award-winning comedian Athena Kugblenu (BBC2’s Mock The Week, BBC Radio 4’sThe News Quiz, The Guilty Feminist podcast) talks to ALT’s Editor Joy Coker, on her new hour long show ‘Shaking Her Class’ coming to Soho Theatre from Monday 16th to Saturday 21st May. (Main image credit: Athena-Kugblenu-Colourful_Beyond-Collective)
Athena’s brand-new BBC Radio 4 special Magnifying Class is also out now on BBC Sounds. An insightful and funny look at her working-class childhood in London, with her Guyanese mum working as a dinner lady and her Ghanaian father struggling to find his place after a successful career overseas. Now, as a mum to two middle-class kids, Athena is trying figure out how to best bring them up and instill some of her own working class childhood experiences. Alt caught up with Athena to talk career, her new show, and more.
“Black is still seen as a genre…when people look at what you do, they compare it to whatever expectations they have of blackness rather than saying, this is what the art should be. In my first Edinburgh show, I was given a joint review with another Black woman. Like, when you get a Twix, you get two Twix, it was bizarre.” Athena
ALT: What was it that lead you into comedy, who was the nine-year-old Athena?
At nine years old I would never even imagine that I will be a creative, at this point in time. Cause I didn’t see many people who looked like me and it never even occurred to me. And obviously my parents weren’t like, hey, you could be a comedian. They were like, yeah, you could be a lawyer or you could be a doctor or you could be maybe a writer. I think they liked the idea of me being a writer. I was always like a funny kid, so it was always there, but I didn’t realize it was there. So, I was much, much, much, much older.
ALT: So how did you discover comedy stand-up to say I can do this as a job?
I was working, I had a couple of jobs for a long time actually. I kept doing both for a very long time. And I decided, or, I realized that, working in a kind of professional environment, there would be a bit of a glass ceiling in terms of what I could achieve. So I looked at the way to take more control of my career and maybe my work life balance. I’ve told the story a lot and it is a true story. I looked at the FT Rich List and they’ were a lot of comedians on it and I thought I’ve been making people laugh my whole life. Like, you know, I really have like, I thought, okay, if so, if I can learn how to, if I can learn the craft, like people go to people, go to colleges and they learn how to do still life drawings and they learn how to write novels. I thought maybe I could learn how to do comedy. I always had a natural ability to make people laugh. So maybe I could understand how the craft works. So, it’s a combination of things, workplace frustration wanting to have more financial control. I’m from London and London’s a very hard place to live, it’s hard to get financial security. Which is becoming more and more the case. And I was just trying to think about original and interesting ways to perhaps give my future more assurances. So, lots of things, but mainly that Sunday Times Rich List. There were lots of comedians on it that year (laughter) and I thought I’m funnier than them, like I make people laugh like they do. but obviously that didn’t work out. I’m not on the Sunday Times Rich List I’m nowhere near it. But I have learned to enjoy the art for what it is.
ALT: What was your first, professional, stand-up gig and what was that like?
So that question is really interesting. Cause you know, when you start doing stand-up, particularly in the UK, you start on the open mic circuit, so you don’t really work professionally. And then when you get a professional gig, you might do what they call an open spot at a pro gig. So you don’t get paid for it. It’s really hard to know what my first professional gig was because you do so much for free or for little money, but I can’t remember, that’s terrible. I would say, I do remember the first time I got paid money for a show. I was paid five pounds for a gig. I don’t think about this the first time someone’s given me cash in exchange for jokes. And I remember thinking that I’ve got a long way to go <laugh> because this is five pounds it cost about 11 pounds to get there. The reason that’s a hard question to answer is because the progress you can make on the circuit is slow and incremental. It’s not like you do a professional show. Oh I am a comedian now. So, but yeah, that first show I got a five, I remember that show in Norbury, and I still thought to myself, this is a milestone so remember it and I do and I’m still grateful for that night.
ALT: Can tell us about Shaking Her Class and Magnifying Class?
Magnifying Class is a half hour special that’s coming out, towards the end of April, (out now) on Radio 4 show. and it’s basically, about me thinking about how I was parented, and questioning whether or not I’m as middle class as I thought I was, particularly having the middle class assistance now that bear no resemblance to the way I was brought up. I’m just kinda trying to look at the intersection between race and class, pick out the contradictions in this country about the class system and what it means and what it doesn’t mean. Shaking Her Class is an hour, special at Soho Theatre, which is connected to that half hour cause basically the hour version of that show that is at Soho Late. And that is a wider explanation of how class works in society and how it isn’t a fair system and how it completely discriminates against people based on race, but also trying to tell funny stories about how that plays out in my life.
I really want the show to kind of connect to people because everybody is implicating the class system, whether they realize it or not in this country, if you exist, if you’ve got heartbeat, there is a classification, whether you’re upper class working class, whether you are working class, but you made money, but now you’re middle class, but you’re not middle class, the right accent. you might be African well educated, but you’re not middle class because you can’t get the kind of jobs that you’re supposed to get that match your education. So, I’m just kind of just trying to kind of just peel back all the layers of class in this country in a way that I don’t think has been done as clearly in comedy.
ALT: What do you like about stand-up on stage and how do you find the joke. Do you know what will work with an audience or is it something you might just know, on the night, how do you work an audience as a stand-up comedian?
So first of all, I straight up do make people laugh. It’s great. It’s real, I’ve learned to embrace that. That’s a skill that I have and that’s a good skill. And some people are good at heart surgery. Some people are good at hair. You know, some people makeup I’m good at making people laugh. I’m good at finding the strange things in world and picking them out and showing them to people. So, I’ve learned to kind of just say, this is my thing and I should use it almost as a gift isn’t it? I could just leave it on the shelf and have it gather dust I could say, oh, lemme just do that. Making people laugh is a great thing. Everyone makes someone else laugh every day, by the way, it’s not a unique skill, but you know, the time that you put into being able to do that over and over again.
So I just enjoy making people laugh. I’m a very opinionated person. So it’s such a privilege to get, to shout my opinion down a microphone. Not many people get to do that in their life. So I enjoy making people laugh, but also getting my opinions out there’s a very, we know that’s a classic thing, social media, that’s what social is I have got an opinion I’ve gotta share it. So we know love that. So I’m very privileged do that living. Where does the funny come from it comes from the audience. So I do this single laugh that’s like an improv skill. So when you go on stage and people laugh, you just keep going until they stop laughing. And then you say something else. so it’s a real, like there’s no <inaudible> comedy. My audience is part of my shows. anyone that comes to see me will know that I do a lot of improv, a lot of banter.
I also just love people joining in, in their way. so where I find the comedy from is I kind of make a guess that something is gonna be funny. And when it goes on stage, if the audience agree, I just take it like a thread or like a breadcrumb trail that I follow so it’s a very shared experience in many ways I need to give my audience royalties cause they help me write my jokes. You know, they laugh, that helps me, understand what’s good and what’s not, but, that’s the truth for all comedians. We write our art in public. It’s the only art that gets written in public, which is why you have to have a very thick skin to be a comedian.
ALT: You mentioned growing up not seeing many people that looked like you, in this space, being a woman and being a Black woman. How do you think that’s evolved in the last take 10 years, specifically in the UK?
Massively. Shout out to Gina Yashere, Ninia Benjamin, there were Black women comedians there, l don’t want to erase anyone, there were people there, out there doing it, but I saw how hard they worked how little reward they were getting compared to their peers. Gina had to go to America, she spent a decade there working and now she’s got big TV show, but she should have had that here. Like I think that’s, I think that’s just a statement of fact Like she’s so talented but anyway, It has evolved Sophie Dukar, Judi Love and that’s very London centric. There are probably people coming out of other cities in the UK. I still think that just generally in the creative space, in this country, Black is still seen as a genre. And that means when people look at what you do, they compare it to whatever expectations they have of Blackness rather than saying, this is what the art should be. You still have to overcome that. Like you see that in the reviews people have, I say this all the time, in my first Edinburgh show, I was given a joint review with another Black woman. Like, when you get a Twix, you get two Twix, it was bizarre. That’s a very hard experience to forget because that was in a national broadsheet. It’s such a good example of how people kind of put your racial identity first and the art second. You wouldn’t put Jimmy Carr and Russell Howard in the same review, it wouldn’t even occur to anyone. I think people sometimes not the audiences, but sometimes there’s a tendency to compare what a black person is saying to whether or not it aligns with your politics rather than whether it’s funny or not. Does that make sense?
So I think we’re still getting there, but there’s a lot of unconscious bias that we need to work through this isn’t unique to comedy. This is a societal thing. So whatever industry you work in, you’ve gotta feel that unconscious bias. But luckily in comedy we get to talk straight to the audiences, you know? so I know wherever I go, like I think people enjoy what I do, and it means a lot to to people. So, I know what I’ve, got to do is keep going, if that makes sense, but it has changed. There are black women working in comedy now more of us than I think there has been, and we are visible. Particularly behind the scenes as writers, which is one of the main things you know we’re not just people to have big energy and singing and dancing in front of people.. We are writers, we are producers, we are behind the scenes as well. And I think that’s just as important. my other job is as a writer too. And I embrace that because I think we need more diversity across the industry, not just on stage.
How did your parents, respond when you said mum, dad I am doing comedy?
I never told anyone I was doing stand-up. I thought when I got good at it, I will tell people, I think one day I was in Edinburgh I think somebody at my mum’s church saw me in a newspaper and gave it to her and she was like, what is this? So that’s how she find out. But that’s probably the best way. Think you gotta tell people you’re not working hard enough. (laughter) I’m quite bizarre, quite introverted. I’m shy and I didn’t want to run around saying I am comedian and then not have the sort of the cash to back up that cheque. I think it was better that way. The same that, my twin brother found out was one of his friends saw me in Edinburgh. So yeah, just organically people just found out as I got better in my profile, got a bit bigger. I got a bit press and stuff, and they were really pleased. And now my mum’s like, tell me when it was the next time you on the BBC, w tell me and all this stuff. So, she’s very supportive. Very.
ALT: What was it like doing, trying to do comedy or did you do anything during the pandemic?
Was busy during the pandemic and I’m very grateful for it as a writer and, I did a lot of online comedy a lot of zoom gigs. I love a chat. And if you love chat zoom gigs are great. You get to look into people’s living rooms, right? You can like look at their curtains and look at their sofas and they’re all there with their dry crusty feet on their sofas and stuff. So you can have a real good chat with the audience, which is I love talking to people. I, I did enjoy my, I was lucky enough to do, I do a lot of writing for TV and radio. So I was lucky enough to be able to kind of, um, to continue with that. So, I, I think the, you know, comedy club is so important in this country and the comedian who would normally play them, um, probably had a harder time and yeah, please support the comedy clubs because they are people who lost out over the past two years. Luckily I was able to do zoom gigs and write, but there’s definitely a load of comedians who was hard and I’m so glad the clubs are open now so we can get out and chat our rubbish on stage to people.
What would you say your most memorable moment on stage?
You know, something, , I just recorded the special that’s connected to my Soho Theatre run last week. And that was great. because this show is a bit different than my other shows. My other shows. I normally just take all my club material and stick it all together.. Now this is sort of written from scratch about a topic that I really care about. And it’s a very sensitive topic. I don’t want to have a go at anyone and similarly, I want it to be funny. I thought I got it right. And it’s really nice as a creative standing on stage and delivering work.
You know, and what’s really cool is the audience was so diverse, black people, younger black, older black people and white people of all ages and white people, young white people, old white people, professionals. a cross section of people came out and watched the show. I do write material that comes from me. You know, that must give you, the perspective of a black, mixed race woman. But my materials are for everyone it’s not for me just to talk to one group of people. So I really appreciated people came out to watch me tape my first special from like all walks society and life. Because I write jokes to be funny. And I think if you can make people laugh the best jokes that are jokes that make everyone laugh, and that’s what I’m aiming for always get it. Because I don’t always get it right when I get it right it feel really good and,that recording was great, a really lovely moment for me.
Do you think that there’s a time and a place for certain jokes? I know that sounds like a very simplified question. Do you think that regarding comedy and comedians, they should be no bar into what you can joke about, or do you think there has to be a tone set?
I get asked this question lot. And I think the, concept of the question is, needs to be challenged. Not, like it’s a bad question, but people think comedy is just a magical thing. whenever we speak we have tact, like all of us, when we speak to our kids, when we speak to our partners, when we get on a bus you know, we ask a question, we all have tact and as comedy performers we don’t escape that rule of tact. Like it’s just, it’s common human decency. Also, to make someone laugh, we have to say something that doesn’t appall them, right? No, my audience will not laugh at my jokes if I appall them, I’ve got to find a way to say the things they don’t want to hear in a way they’ll listen to it.
This is part of the craft. So absolutely there should be a kind of a barrier or benchmarking comedy. There is whenever we open our mouths, when whatever we do. And that’s part of the discipline of comedy. People will not laugh at our jokes. If we are saying things that are cruel, they will not laugh at our jokes if we are saying things that are horrible, and also they won’t laugh at our jokes if it is not funny. GI Jane is 25 years old I googled it. I didn’t even remember the film GI Jane. And I was like, yeah, I remember Demi Moore she was famous.
My understanding it was an adlib as well. You know I love Chris Rock and it’s not for me with my earning power to criticize someone who once had his name painted on a plane. Chris Rock, I love you but that was a terrible joke as well as a cruel joke. Having said that like, yo, I don’t know what to say I don’t. I generally found the whole incident really appalling I found the joke appalling and I found the reaction appalling. I talked about this last Wednesday, because it’s one of those things you can’t escape now. It was just an unfortunate thing. We’re gonna be talking about it for the next two or three years here, every awards ceremony, every time I go do a stand-up again, I think it’s a whole shame that has created this cloud.
Because that’s just not something at least seen to exist in my industry. We have enough conversations at the moment about what comedians should or should not do and what we are and are not allowed to say, but yeah, humans have tact when we speak, we have it. So last time I checked comedians are human.
ALT: Where do you call home?
ALT: What are you looking forward to next?
The show at the Soho theatre, and then I’m really focused on that and afterwards I’m looking forward to maybe doing the show in other places. It’d be nice to take it around, and have more and more people see it. I’m really excited about it. and I’ve got some writing projects, that can’t probably shouldn’t talk about.so I’m looking forward to get my writing hat on and, and progress in the projects I’ve got going on there. So it’s a busy busy year, but I’m very grateful to be busy. I’ll never complain about being busy.
With our young creative audience, what would you say to the little girl who wants to become a comedian? What are two qualities that she might need to have?
Graft and craft work hard, have a serious attitude, but never forget that it’s a craft and there’s a learning process. Have humility. when I did comedy in the early years and I would always take classes, improv classes, sketch writing classes, clowning classes I did all sorts. I just wanted to learn and surround myself with creatives who were way better than me. Do you, do you play tennis? This is analogy. The way to learn tennis is to play with someone better than you the ball always comes back. Right. So it’s same with, with an art form. Like always try and be around people who you, who you admire and try to hassle the people that you love. and learn as much as possible. And then, implement that in your work. So, graft and craft for sure.
ATHENA KUGBLENU – SHAKING HER CLASS
Venue: Soho Theatre
Date & time: Monday 16th to Saturday 21st May at 9pm
Duration: 60 minutes