‘Being bitter and vitriolic is not in my nature’: Stephen K Amos’ optimistic message in troubling times
- Credit: Archant
With the world lurching from one crisis to another, affable comedian Stephen K Amos' latest thought-provoking show, Bread and Circuses, aims to cheer us up even if he is still tackling some thorny subjects.
Few comedians laugh so much as Stephen K Amos. The highly acclaimed, uplifting stand-up comedian, actor and broadcaster chuckles as he describes himself as a mix of bombastic, fun and friendly.
These days he mixes current affairs and challenging topics with more observational comedy, but the chief takeaway is affable warmth.
'When I started out I did a lot of stuff about myself, my family and where I'm coming from, but these days I do more material about current affairs because it seems to me like we're living in more turbulent times,' he says.
'I do think that comedy is a great lens through which to look at challenging topics. I suppose if world peace were declared I'd have to do all my comedy about the Great British Bake Off.'
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But with the world seemingly intent on lurching from one crisis to another, his latest thought-provoking show, Bread and Circuses, which brings him to the region for a series of dates, sees him aim to just cheer us up. It sounds the perfect cure for January blues.
The show's title originates in 1AD Rome, coined by satirical poet Juvenal as a dual attack on the state's propensity for giving the people what they believe they wanted and people being so easily swayed by fripperies when real issues should have concerned their minds.
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'The way I'm looking at it is that the world now is one big crazy circus,' says Stephen. 'And circus was one of the earliest forms of entertainment to keep the masses appeased in the same way that we have all these crazy distraction techniques now.
'One of the biggest TV shows of last year was Love Island: if that's not a major distraction technique I don't know what is. And also I was looking at the phrase, 'let them eat cake' as we live in a world with artisan types of cake and bread and no one is eating the regular bread any more. What was once a staple food of the poor has become £4 a loaf!'
He is better known as a comedian who happily teases and cajoles members of his audience rather than beating them over the head with a heavily politicised stick.
But is he getting angrier as the years tick by? 'I don't think I'm getting angrier, but clearly the things around us are not getting any better. One of the things I'm talking about in this show is where we are today and why it seems like we're regressing and not moving forward. I am certainly more politicised, but I don't want to be one of those angry people who moves away from rational debate and goes to the extremes of being bitter and vitriolic: that's not in my nature at all.'
His previous show was ironically titled The Spokesman because amongst the things that he would least like to be, a spokesperson is right up there.
'I couldn't be a spokesperson or a role model,' he admits. 'I have my own issues, but if I can't be 100% certain about what I'm saying, I'm not going to speak up about it.'
That isn't to say he afraid to make a stand. A decade ago he made a film about homophobia for Channel 4 which later went on to win a Royal Television Society Award.
'I did it because I knew someone who had been killed in a homophobic attack. That was my impetus to speak out but I was then asked to appear on all these current affairs shows. I said no; there's more to me than that and I don't want to be defined as a black gay comic.'
Racism has never been too far from Stephen's mind on and off stage, and in Bread and Circuses he muses over the fact that golliwog dolls can still be found on sale and highlights people's ignorance of the golliwog's origins and meaning.
'I like the fact that it's uncomfortable: people just go, 'it's not a problem anymore is it?' I think it's good to put things into people's minds that they don't really think about. But generally, I'm keeping the show loose due to the worldwide events that seem to just keep on happening.'
The man behind a string of acclaimed stand-up touring shows, he has recently become an actor of some repute having appeared in everything from a West End production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest to EastEnders.
But, while he admits that touring can be a tough old slog, he loves live comedy.
'I love the fact that I go around the country and see the odd place that still has character and not just the same bog-standard high street,' he says. 'I like the fact that you can engage with people and do jokes that are social commentary or maybe a bit risqué, and people will get them.'
The biography section on his own site pinpoints the 'child-like joy', which oozes out of him and can clearly be seen whenever you see him having fun with his crowd.
'I would say that I am young at heart but the child-like joy possibly does erode as time goes by. I was recently doing some gigs in the Newcastle area in old working-mans clubs from the 70s that haven't been decorated or anything; it was like stepping back in time. But the sheer joy of those people simply because we were there was incredible. Those people weren't jaded. But because we sometimes feel disappointed and disenfranchised and upset about things happening in the world, it can be hard to keep that optimism and joy alive.'
So, what keeps the joy alive in Stephen K Amos during these worrying times? 'The last thing that brought me joy was the birth of my latest niece. There's a new life to look forward to and to hopefully pass something on to, be it wisdom or love. But what really inspires me is having faith in human beings and my hope that there is still more good in us all than bad.'
• Stephen K Amos is at Colchester Arts Centre on January 27 and Norwich Playhouse on January 29. Then the Palace Theatre, Southend, on January 31 and Cambridge Junction on February 1.