It’s fair to say Stephen Kehinde Amos has seen the world over the past decade or so, this highly-entertaining and likeable comedian charming audiences from Edinburgh to Sydney and several points in between.
And while we’ve all had plenty to feel world-weary about over the last few months – from austerity measures to terrorist atrocities – ‘the maestro of feelgood comedy’ is determined that we should still see the funny side of life too. That’s not to say this 48-year-old London entertainer is one to sweep issues under the carpet, as his ground-breaking work for gay rights in the Black community might suggest. But he is – above all – keen to get us laughing.
According to his latest press release, Stephen is ‘filled with an almost child-like joy and exuberance and can find the funny in some of the most unexpected places’. So come on then, what’s all this ‘laughter master’ business about?
“It’s been such a long time now that I think I’ve earned the right to call myself that. I’m not the orchestra leader, but if you come to my gigs, you will laugh. This show’s an extension of last year’s, taking a look at the confidence you see everywhere around us – maybe due to the huge popularity of social media – where everyone has an opinion and is liable to have a kneejerk reaction or have false stories to respond to and get angry quickly online.
“I’d like to think if you come to one of my shows, we will touch on heavy topics and important issues, but the whole idea is to be funny. That’s why people come to a comedy show. The kind of people that come to my show are on my wavelength anyway, so there’s no point me trying to preach to the converted, because I don’t have the answers. If I can have a funny take on a situation and dissect something, that’s where I’m at.”
Don’t you find yourself getting more political or perhaps more grumpy at the world’s evils as the years pass though?
“I think you’re right. In the early days, it might have been, ‘Look at me – jazz hands! Aren’t I funny!’ But the older and wiser you get, you’re more clued up and know you’ve got a captive audience. And what better platform to talk about things. In the old days, polite society wouldn’t dream of saying the things people say online to complete strangers. The level of abuse for simple things is really astonishing, so I want to remind people that when you go to see a comedy show, with people there of all different cultures and backgrounds and ages, your main bond is that you all want a laugh.”
Stephen released his debut DVD, Find the Funny, six years ago, recorded live Down Under at the Enmore Theatre, Sydney, and within two years was playing a mammoth 75-date third UK tour. By 2010 he had filmed the first BBC2 series of The Stephen K Amos Show and released a second DVD, The Feelgood Factor, and then in 2012 was on his fifth stand-up tour, Laughter Is My Agenda.
In fact, it’s difficult to work out where one tour finishes and the next starts, this latest stint involving 40 shows between November and mid-February, that busy schedule including The Lowry in Salford and the Unity Theatre at Liverpool in late January, my excuse for speaking to him.
“I’ve played The Lowry, many times. I love it there, and because it’s such a fantastic venue they get lots coming through the different spaces within that complex. It’s great, and that whole region captures people from Manchester, from Liverpool, and all the surrounding areas. I’ve never played the Unity before, but when I go out on the road I always try and sneak in a place I’ve never been, just to mix it up.”
And Liverpool did play host to one of his defining gigs in 2007.
“When I did Liverpool’s Empire Theatre for the Royal Variety Show, that was really good fun. The Lowry’s up there with the best too. I think the first time I played it was there in the main room and back then I wasn’t doing any TV, so it was just from reputation alone that we managed to fill that, which was a really good feeling.”
The current dates for The Laughing Master follow more in the UK, Europe, Australia and yet another Edinburgh Fringe. Surely it must sometimes be a case of – to paraphrase the 1969 film – ‘If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Buxton’.
“It can be like Groundhog Day, when you’re going up the same motorway, and I have to leave South London, where I live, at half past two in the afternoon to account for any traffic I may encounter. If you want me to go on any quiz show and name all the service stations on the M1, I’m your man.”
When you are travelling, is it just you in a car?
“It’s me, a tour manager and sometimes a support act, and we’ve been working together for at least two years so we’re all good mates as well. So the journey is recording itself for a podcast, I think. We all laugh at ridiculous situations.”
Are you a good passenger?
“I am, but I don’t like personally to travel more than three hours to do a gig. Otherwise it means staying overnight, because driving five hours there and five hours back is very taxing. But I can’t complain. I’m doing a job I really, really like.”
Away from the road, Stephen’s a prolific writer too, somehow fitting all that in besides a new hour-long show every year and touring the world’s festival circuit. But something has to give, and accordingly his acting often takes a back-seat. That said, he’s still managed to fit in appearances on shows such as Celebrity Great British Bake Off Comic Relief, Live At The Apollo and Mock the Week (BBC), Batty Man (Channel 4), and Dave’s One Night Stand (Dave). And then there’s the regular BBC Radio 4 work, including Just A Minute, Out To Lunch, The Big Night In, Life: An Idiot’s Guide and his What Does the K Stand For? show.
There must be moments in all this – while playing Sydney Opera House for instance – when he thinks, ‘This ain’t a bad life’, though.
“Well yeah, thinking back to being a young kid in South London, in my wildest dreams I would never have thought I’d be at one of the most iconic buildings in the world playing a show. I played the Opera House two or three years ago now, so to come back again this year to do that again was like, ‘Wow! Pinch yourself!”
A twice in a lifetime achievement, then. Or is he back in the car and on to the next show straight away, not having the time to properly visit these places?
“People assume that because you go to all these great places you get to take a holiday or see all the sights. But you’re there to work really and you’re kind of in and out. But when I go to Australia I’ll try and do a month in Melbourne and one or two weeks in Sydney and the same in Brisbane, and that’s nice, getting the odd day off. When you tour the UK, generally, it’s a different city or town every night. And I like my bed … when there’s nobody else in it.”
And you’ve played the Edinburgh Fringe festival every year since 2003, having debuted there two years before.
“This is the one time in a comic’s career that you can do an hour’s show in front of a comedy-savvie audience for people from around the world, at arguably the biggest arts festival in the world.”
Do you tend to use that show as the basis for all those that follow?
“I do now. In the early days I would work up a show to debut at Edinburgh, doing it every night, tweak the material, introduce new bits, drop what you think isn’t working particularly well. And this year we did a talk show in the daytime a few times and it keeps you very busy, and you get extra spots later in the evening.”
This current tour is set to finish at Hackney Empire on February 13. Was that a venue you knew as a kid?
“No, I’m a South-West London guy, and my parents weren’t the kind of people to take us to the theatre or to see anything. But it’s a venue I now know very well. Last year I did a little run in the West End but this year I’ve decided to go to the Hackney Empire to finish the tour.”
As much as you enjoy it all, I’m guessing you’re looking forward to a rest in mid-February.
“You’d think so, but like I did this year, probably the next day or the day after I’ll be on a plane and either going to America or Australia!”
Something got to give with all this, and it’s been a while since I spotted you on TV. Any plans for a new series of The Stephen K Amos Show (BBC2), five years on?
“Never say never, I’m always in talks, and I’ve a couple of radio shows in development for TV transfer, but as you know there are lots of BBC cuts, and everyone says digital is where it’s at, so go online. When I started there were far fewer comics than there are now. So you’ve got to be really kind of seen to be doing things on live circuits so people don’t forget who you are, and I’ve got a big radio presence, and I’m still here if you want to call me!”
How well did your autobiography, I Used To Say My Mother Was Shirley Bassey – your 2012 memoir of ‘a life fitting in, standing out, and (almost) always laughing – go down?
“Let’s just say I did a show a few weeks ago where a young lady in the audience mentioned how the book was used in her A-level English Literature class, which I had no idea about. That was just mind-blowing. And people have commented on it and sent nice messages about the book. If people like what I do, that’s great.”
It also led to your radio show. So how much of your upbringing was reflected in that series?
“The first series was very much semi-autobiographical so very much based on the truth, but we don’t have as many siblings as I do. We did take some comedic license on certain things.”
As one of eight children, I’m guessing the Amos family reunions are big affairs.
“They are big affairs … and that’s why I try to avoid them at all costs.”
You’ve stayed pretty close to your family roots though.
“Yes, I’ve lived most of my life in South West London, and I’ve seen my old street regenerate. We’ve now got Starbuck’s, and an independent pram shop – that’s how my old place has now become gentrified!”
I’m sure your role in EastEnders – playing a doctor in 2007 – was a dream. And being involved with the BBC’s prime soap opera is something you have in common with Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince – Joseph Purcell – who you’ve mentioned in your past live shows as someone Americans have mistaken you for in the past.
“Oh, was he? Well. But it never really occurred to me that they’d ask me to become involved in something like EastEnders. That was really out of the box thinking-type casting, and it was great to be asked. And I like to do something that’s so different to my stand-up.”
Was there ever a plan to go down another line through your studies in criminal justice?
“That was the plan! I had no idea starting when I did in stand-up, by pure chance, and doing little gigs to 30 to 50 people, never in a million years did I think it would turn into all this. Back then there was very little stand-up on television. It was all quite new and no one quite knew where it would end. It was just people doing something they really enjoyed.”
You’ve probably had more of an impact than you might have in that field though, not least through trailblazing for gay rights in the Black community. Has that led to a lot of positive comeback?
“Yes, and if you have that audience and a chance to be in a position to have a voice, you do it! One thing that always amazes me on other people’s social media accounts is when they have to put a disclaimer saying ‘these views are my own’. I don’t have any of that. Nobody’s going to censor me … unless of course I’m doing something for the BBC or any other broadcaster as a sideline. But in terms of when I get out on stage.”
I’ve seen the American comic Richard Pryor mentioned as a big influence. What other comics or actors inspired you to get on a stage in the first place?
“We weren’t really exposed to American comics or actors. In our household it was just people we saw on television who kind of represented us. Lenny Henry was up there, the guys from The Real McCoy … all those people inspired me. Even my next-door neighbour, a musical actress in Cats. They were all people doing stuff that I didn’t think was in any way in my realm of vision.”
Finally, on your website it says, ‘Comfortable as a performer, presenter, actor and guest’, right next to a photo of you in a nice frock. I’ve seen plenty of drama group productions where the boys seem a little over-eager to dress up in drag. Was that your experience?
“I think we all want a bit of escapism, and we’ve all had either an imaginary friend or played imaginary games with friends and brothers and sisters, pretending to be people. I was very active in dramatics at school. But again, I never thought in a million years it would be a career changer.”
Stephen K Amos is at The Lowry in Salford on Sunday, January 24 (8pm, with details from http://www.thelowry.com/) and the Unity Theatre at Liverpool on Tuesday, January 26 (8pm, http://www.unitytheatreliverpool.co.uk/). For more information, and further dates, head to www.stephenkamos.com or follow @stephenkamos on Twitter.