Described as “One of the most likeable figures in British comedy” (Radio Times), Stephen K Amos has charmed and entertained audiences all over the world with his natural, assured delivery and his honest, funny material. He is filled with an almost child-like joy and exuberance and can find the funny in some of the most unexpected places.
He has been on the road since November 2018 with his new stand-up show ‘Bouquets and Brickbats’ and it was my pleasure to spend time with him recently finding out more about his comedy, his life and his reflections on the world in general.
Robin: Stephen, thank you so much for joining me, your tour Bouquets & Brickbats has been going since the start of November and you have a just a few weeks left, how has it been?
Stephen K Amos: It’s been an eyeopener, it’s been cathartic, it’s been great fun travelling up and down the country and most of all it’s been humbling to see everyone turn up to see what I’ve got to say.
You say your aim for this tour has been to cheer the audience up, what’s been your funniest audience moment so far?
It’s difficult to try and pin down the funniest moment because one tries to be the funniest in the room! Although, there is an element in the show where I encourage the audience to share funny stories. But, the best thing about the tour is when people have chosen to share quite private moments and we all rejoice that they feel so safe in that space that they can share these things, and that for me is probably the most goose bump-y moment of the shows.
I imagine that’s also an empowering moment also for both yourself and the audience member
I hope so! I’d be loathed to suggest I empower anybody, but as an example, I was doing a show in Edinburgh and we had about 25 drama students aged between about 14 to 22 in the audience and we got on to the topic of same sex marriage in Australia. I’m not sure who brought them, maybe a drama teacher or parent, but I’d established a good rapport earlier in the show with a 15-year-old and a 22-year-old in the group.
At some point later in the show I said, “give me a cheer if you’re a heterosexual”, and that obviously threw the audience slightly. Then I asked, who here is a homosexual and a chorus of applause from these two lads rang out and I was taken a back and proud of them to be so out & proud and to just own it! Then, the entire audience just cheered and whistled, and it was so lovely.
As that noise died down, one of their dads, who was also in the audience as I’d met him earlier in the show too, piped up “oh, I never knew!” and it was just a brilliant moment. It was so funny, that’s the mark of great parenting that you are there for and support that child. It was a very special moment that was funny but in a pure kind of way, not a hateful funny.
It’s great that the touching, revealing moments can be funny moments too because people feel safe to express themselves.
Indeed, there’s a couple of times in this current tour where I do touch on quite sad moments and it’s designed to be that way because my thing is to encourage people to laugh as one, to enjoy that moment connecting us, and then when some does say something that could be divisive or personal, we all embrace it.
It teaches me that despite all the troubles in the world like Trump and BREXIT, let’s not lose track of the fact that we can still talk to each other and we can still debate without descending into abuse and chaos.
You’ve admitted to having a tough 18 months personally, how did this influence the writing for this tour?
A hundred percent. There was a time where I thought, I can’t do this anymore. I thought all I was doing was just writing comedy hoping to make people laugh. We all know that comedy, like music, theatre and any other artistic form, is subjective. If you don’t like my style, you can go see someone else, and that’s totally fine. What I don’t see the need for is for people to be so aggressive or to take things so personally, like you’ve offended their ears! I’ve had great emails saying lovely things and I’ve also had many more emails saying I talk about race and sexuality too much, I mean what’s too much?! I’m talking about my life!
Where did the name Bouquets and Brickbats come from?
I’ll let you into a little trade secret… a lot of us performers have to think of a title for their show way before the show is written! So, what I do is try to think of something interesting. One of my earlier shows was called ‘The Spokesman’ simply because that’s an anagram of my name, and who better to talk about me, than me!
With this Bouquets and Brickbats, I thought, because of what has happened to me over the past 18 months or so, there are always good things in our lives like birthdays, weddings, etc., and you always associate flowers with good news, and that was the bouquets. But then life throws you the odd curveball, we’ve all experienced something, and they are the Brickbats, and it’s such an old-fashioned saying which amused me. Also, the pronunciation of Bouquets varies so much, that makes me laugh too.
The world is so divided at the moment, what can a comedian do to help us through it?
I’ve spoken to a few of my comedic friends about this and I don’t think comedians make the best people to do anything about it per se. But I do think that if you’re in the luxurious position to have a job where you can say exactly what you want to a captive audience, you have an obligation to use that platform wisely. I can’t think of any other job where you have the total freedom to say what you want without being constrained by compliance rules.
When I have 1000 people in front of me, that is an amazing opportunity to critique things in a humorous way. I can throw in some nuggets of thought that people can take away with them. I don’t want my audience to all be the same, to think the same as me, to sound like me, to have the same political beliefs as me, it’s like preaching to the converted.
As you head into your 50’s, is life as a gay man what you expected it to be at this age?
Oh my god, no! I really thought I’d be settled down, I thought I’d have the picket fence, dogs and two cars!
In reality, I have no idea what to expect for the future… but I’m single, I’m happy, I’m doing a job I really enjoy, I have an amazing team around me, including family and friends, and I’m grateful for all of that.
I’m also really happy to live in era where you can see change happening around the world in terms of LGBTQ legislation in front of our eyes. I’m the child of a generation where being gay was tough, restricted, and with all the hysteria over HIV, I remember those days. I also remember the days of meeting other gay people who were so far deep in the closet out of fear, even in the big cities. So, to be able to witness this change is really exciting.
Do you feel that you have more power as a middle-aged gay man?
Personally, I think I do, but mainly because of the job I do. I have been very fortunate to travel around the world, I have made documentaries that address these issues, so I do feel fortunate, but I am very aware that there are others around the world who are in a less fortunate position than myself.
Without resting on one’s laurels, there is a lot of work to be done. When I get messages from young people telling me that when they saw a documentary or a show I’ve done where I talked about homosexuality and embraced it, it gave them the courage to come out, it makes me realise that there is still work to do and it keeps me well grounded.
How do you feel LGBT people over 40 are portrayed in the media?
Times have changed, but I still think for the most part we’re invisible. There are those who are very vocal and active, so they do stand out and can be found. But in terms of general media, we’re ignored. You’ve only got to look at the magazines you get in bars, it’s total invisibility!
What’s your coming out story?
I don’t really have one! Although I’m generally a very private person, I do not lie to my friends or family, so they’ve always known. As soon as I knew, they knew.
I was doing a tour in Australia and when I came back, I had the news on in the background and there was a story about a body that was found on Clapham Common, believed to be the victim of a homophobic attack. I glanced up at the television and they flashed up a picture of the victim, and it was someone I knew! This was in London, ten minutes’ drive from where I lived. I was absolutely furious.
The following year, I did a show called ‘All of Me’ and the poster was me sitting astride a sofa naked, and it was meant to be symbolic for me baring all. In that show, I said “oh, by the way, I’m attracted to men!” Because this was pre-social media, there was a huge surprise and it was perceived as me ‘coming out’. I hadn’t taken into account, that because I’d never announced it publicly, this was the first time they’d found out. It wasn’t really designed to be a coming out, but when one night there were audible gasps from the audience, I thought I probably should have addressed this differently!
I told this story to another comedian friend of mine, Wanda Sykes, and said to her “don’t you think it’s a bit outrageous and sad that some of the high-profile gay people we know, be they comedians, actors or sports stars, haven’t come out?” and she said, “In their own time, it’s not up to us to decide”, and that taught me a massive lesson. I thought, now I’m doing this, I’m on a crusade, where are the others? But you know what, it comes when you’re ready.
I think in this social media age, we’re all a bit guilty of trying to push people out of the closet before they’re ready.
Oh goodness yes, I’m a bit concerned about social media, but you know what, people say “social media is evil”, but it’s not, people are evil! People can be such assholes! What possesses people to write such horrible things to each other out of the blue?
When Tom Daley and his husband Dustin Lance Black announced they were having a child, the vitriol they got online was appalling. Are there no other things happening in the world that concern you that you could be fighting for more than this happy couple who are celebrating bringing a new life into the world?
It’s given people a much easier platform to say what they want. In the past you had to physically go out to attack someone, to write obscenities on someone’s house, or whatever. Now, they can just stay indoors and shout at people round the world!
It’s LGBT history month here in the UK and black history month in the US, who do you count as your historical inspirations?
For me, it’s the civil rights movement. It was so important, and you only have to watch a historical programme or documentary to see that it wasn’t that long ago. In South Africa, it wasn’t that long ago at all where it was in the legislation to discriminate against someone based solely on the colour of their skin. It was in my lifetime that countries around the world decided sanctions were enough to punish a country like South Africa. We’ve gone to war with other countries for a lot less, but we didn’t with a country who were carrying out disgusting and heinous crimes against mankind.
I was one of these young people who would go up to Trafalgar Square in London and join the daily protest outside the South African Embassy. I have sympathy for people involved in protests, because sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work.
As a black gay man, are you concerned the way the world appears to be turning back the clock on rights?
That’s exactly a line I use in my show, we are turning back the clock. It’s as though we haven’t learnt the lessons of the past, history seems to be repeating itself. One doesn’t have to go through struggles yourself to empathise with someone else. You don’t have to be LGBTQ yourself, but if you believe in the principle of six degrees of separation, then you know somebody who is and who could be suffering.
You made a documentary over 10 years ago called Batty Man for Channel 4 about homophobia in the black community. Why was that important to you?
It was important because I didn’t see any positive representations of black gay men at all and I felt like I had a platform and responsibility to address that.
10 years on, how do you think homophobia in the black community has changed?
I think it’s getting better, one step at a time. But we’re trying to deal with the legacy of colonial rule. The bringing over of Christianity and the ancient statute books that have been left in the former colonies, with laws that are still in power today. In the UK, it’s only been 50 years since homosexuality was decriminalised even. There is a lot to undo, and this is just the beginning in some ways of trying to unpick all of that.
What’s next for you? What have you got coming up?
I’ve just released the second series of my talk show on Audible which we record at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
I’ve got a new three-part show coming out on BBC2 in March called ‘Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome’, where myself and two other celebrities are following the Via Francigena trail – to finish up at the Vatican.
I’m also about to embark on a tour of Australia and the United States, and there’s talks about doing something big later in the year, watch this space!
Stephen, thank you so much for your time today and good luck with all those exciting things you have coming up!