From a young age, Dane used comedy to his advantage, and with his natural gift to make people laugh, he has not looked back since. In this exclusive interview, Dane speaks about having his show on the BBC, and what it was like to work with legendary black British actors. He also shares how his platform created life-changing opportunities for creatives from diverse backgrounds, his views on racial oppression, and more.
How did it all begin, what’s your story?
DB: It was always there comedy has always been my go-to for most life situations. When I started in primary school or when I was around people I didn’t know comedy was like an icebreaker. It reduced tension and made me feel a lot less daunted by new situations. I used to do lots of extracurricular activities like karate, swimming, and cub scouts. I always used to be around people that I wouldn’t be around under normal social circumstances, so comedy helped.
As a teenager, everyone was making a big deal about speaking to women’ which was never a big deal to me. I come from a female-dominated family, my mums got six sisters, and I’m the first boy in my generation of kids. I was not on the roads, and I didn’t have any money, so I used comedy. It became my go-to secret power.
I didn’t know I wanted to do comedy’ I didn’t quite know what it was. When I was growing up in the 80s, it was sketch comedies like French & Saunders on the TV. My mum got Cable, and I was introduced to BET’s Comic view with D.L.Hughley, and sketch shows like In Living Color. I then loved comedy as a form of entertainment. When I was 15, my friend’s mum came back from America with a few comedy videos. One included Chris Rocks Bigger & Blacker, Eddie Griffins Voodoo Child, and George Carlin.
I also went to watch a comedy show at the Catford theatre. Leo Mohammed from The Real Mccoy opened the show. The second act was Russell Peters when he was relatively unknown; today, he is one of the world’s biggest acts. D.L. Hughley closed the show I remember him making fun of me, and my friends as well.
“I believe it was watching Chris Rocks Bigger & Blacker, and then watching that comedy show live at the Catford theatre made me know comedy is what I wanted to do.”
I loved it so much plus you can say what you want. I enjoyed doing it for my friends coming back with witty one-liners. Even doing skits in assembly at school, I realised that teachers couldn’t suppress my voice or narrative. No reining my behaviour and you get popular. I noticed the freedom you have as a performer comedy is different from a dramatic performance because you can say what you think I enjoyed that aspect of it.
In the UK during the 90’s we had one black comedy show which was Desmonds, whereas in America they had “In Living Color” and loads more, it felt like we were 20 years behind over here. I started not caring about what was happening in the UK, and as far as I was aware, the only people that did performing arts were people that went to Italia Conte, The Brits, or Silvia Young.
Growing up as a black kid, observing wealth and social mobility was in the holy trinity of sports drugs and entertainment. When I was growing up, people used to throw bananas at black footballers I used to think why should someone who’s making 10% of your salary call you a nig nog, and you have to shut up and take it. I cannot play football, but even the idea that football is an aspiration and you can make that much money and still get abused by a racist with 10% of your salary did not appeal to me at all.
As far as entertainment, as black Britons, we were pretty much starved for a range of aesthetics where music was concerned. Now and then someone would breakthrough. You would have a Mica Paris, or Beverly Knight, Cleopatra or, Ultimate Khaos – it would be few and far between. To me, it felt like everyone wanted to be a footballer or performer, an actor, or a presenter. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we can’t all be singing and dancing as a black person without ownership of anything.
“I realised I always wanted to be a comedian but I was in the closet I was like I need to live my truth and I came out to my parents. At first, they did not accept my lifestyle, but now they tolerate it.”
How did it feel about writing and starring in your show Sunny D, which was the first black sitcom commissioned by the BBC in 20 years?
DB: At first, I was not aware that was the case, but I loved the challenge. It was a great opportunity. Growing up, I watched them all from Moesha, Sister Sister, The Fresh Prince, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Living Single, My Wife & Kids, and more. I wanted to take all of these influences and make a show that black Britons could be proud of 20 years is technically a generation. A generation has gone without a narrative or phenomenon to represent them culturally. Art is supposed to be like a time capsule and capture particular eras. For example, Coming To America was very ’80s, and Moesha was very 90s.
In the UK, we didn’t really have anything to show what we were like in the 90s. Musically we did, but I felt in a comedic way we didn’t. I knew I would do everything in my power to bring that nostalgia in the show, and make sure I made that reference. That was the exciting part of the challenge.
“The next thing was that I had to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and a very very limited budget. I was not going to let any of that adversity slow down my project.”
If it meant we would provide our costumes we would do that, even paying for a few extra things out of my out pockets, I would do that.
Because there was no black sitcom for 20 years at the BBC, it meant a lot of people there did not know what they were talking about for example, if you worked in a garage and no one there fixed a Volvo in 20 years no one there would really know what to do. People would say I think you should do this. I would say well you haven’t done this before, so you don’t know.
When you hear about creators being divas or overbearing, now I understand why. I had to learn very quickly to play the fine line and be assertive and not aggressive. I had to say what I wanted, and some people would push back against that. I had to be like “this is how I see it”, and “you cannot tell me about my family”.
I had to learn to act because I have never done that or written for TV before. It wasn’t too hard because it was about myself, but I had to learn. I am a low energy comedian, I’m quite deadpan, so I had to take certain punchlines and make them a lot more animated to make it exist within the capacity of a sitcom. That was the challenge, but the crew and cast made it feel like a holiday.
Gbemisola Ikumelo played my sister Kadean, and David Ajao played Stefan. They were both Shakespearean trained actors who never played on TV before. Both contributed to the show, and I am happy it was a springboard. Now Gbemisola is nominated for a Bafta, and David is doing Holby City and other work at the BBC. It was great having Don Warrington involved. He was one of the first black people to be in a sitcom in the UK. People gave me the trust as a creative to represent and articulate a story of the black British experience.
In terms of inclusion and diversity, the show didn’t get a lot of credit. Sunny D gave jobs provided work for 42 different nationalities and people of ethnicities. We had a female director, female producer, and female executive producer and again having the first black British writer in 20 years. Two of the people have gone on to be nominated for Baftas. It should have been more celebrated. Akemnji Ndifornyen, who played my cousin in the first episode, went on and got the opportunity to produce Famalam. It was amazing!
I do wish I got to tell the story in its entirety and expanded on that universe. I saw Sunny D as the British equivalent of The Fresh Prince as it was a platform for up and coming black creatives and talent. It was a great challenging experience and a learning curve. I owe that to the people who helped me to bring forth the project.
It is brilliant that you created a platform that served as a creative hub for new talent—helping them springboard into new opportunities and careers. I didn’t realise you were instrumental in so many black creatives careers.
DB: Yes, you see many people talking about Katherine Ryan now, but nobody was putting Katherine in sitcoms before Sunny D. They were all saying Katherine is cool, but none of them was putting her in any shows.
She did Sunny D and then got her own sitcom commissioned. I used to open for Katherine on tour she showed me the sitcom she wrote when she used to work at hooters.
“She had a whole restaurant based sitcom, which was very funny but nobody cared. After Sunny D, the doors started opening for her.”
It’s about seeing the talent early. Bemi is being nominated for RTA’s, Screennation awards, and nominated for a Bafta.
I had the opportunity for someone with no prior experience to tell a story, and it made sense that everyone was involved. They got to employ there own ingenuity and their innovation as well. Sometimes, the actors would be like can I say it this way I’d reply why are you asking me such a weird question. If it’s funnier, of course, you can, some people are a lot more precious about their scripts, but I’m looking for the laughs. I was confident I could lend to everything else, the aesthetics and stuff.
I also did a soundtrack for Sunny D, so anything I could not put into dialogue, I put in the music to tell the story. The show didn’t deal with race relations. It had a few subversive quips and microaggressions that most black people have experienced.
Every single African American actress of the 90s featured on The Fresh Prince, and I wanted to provide something over here. A portal for black British creativity, somewhere to appear positively.
I’m glad you are sharing this story. You gave black creatives fantastic opportunities. People like you are needed. You said Sunny D didn’t have many racial topics. I believe we don’t have to always go on about race. That is just one aspect of the black experience.
DB: Our triumphs and human experience in the face of adversity and how we can even take that and create laughter is how we can lead the world in terms of comedy. You can ask any comic who performs live – white, black whatever they know if you can make a black crown laugh its one of the best feelings in the world. Getting laughter from people that are under oppression is a gift unto itself. We want to move away from this homogenised view of black people. When we do have a narrative on TV in places like the BBC, it’s a binary state being very young or very old. Then we only discuss sports, drugs, entertainment, knife crime, and racism.
If you live in a town or village where you don’t see black people, your perceptions will be shaped by what you see in the media. If you only see black people playing football, in knife crime documentaries, or music, you get a very narrow view of what you perceive black life to be. In Sunny D, my dad is a regular upper working-class guy, my mum and I have a decent job. I have no delusions about wanting to be a rapper I made sure I left it out. I made sure I included diversity within diversity.
Do you prefer out of stand-up comedy or scripted shows?
DB: Stand up comedy because it’s the style I learned first. Its what I’m most comfortable with, it’s very minimalist. With live performances, I can grab a microphone and start coming up with ideas. When you say a funny joke on stage, everyone starts cracking up, and you’re are like Yes. Scripted comedy has a lot more stakeholders. When we tell a joke in scripted comedy, the director will laugh and say that’s so funny Dane “take 2”. It’s not that bad, just a little repetitive.
So I would say live stand up because it’s free and the most conceptual and fluid. I like that scripted comedy can take ideas and represent them in a different stimulus. With scripted comedy, I can create a lot more vivid imagery.
I think both skills feed into each other. I can create ideas and visions using my voice and talking about them. When I’m writing scripts, it’s a lot more improved. With scripts because I have to learn things repetitively and from different angles, I learned my annunciation and delivery of my jokes. My live shows improve, so they both feed into one another.
Can you share the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome since becoming a professional comedian?
DB: The biggest challenge has been getting used to the uncertainty of being an artist, unlike many of my peers, I wasn’t planning on becoming a performing artist, or doing the acting. Comedy was something I enjoyed,
The transition of getting used to the crests and the waves the game. Sometimes, you are doing great, and sometimes you are like I don’t know if I still want to do this, you learn it comes with everyone’s journey. I’m learning to manage it a lot better now. I think it’s the uncertainty of not knowing the next job.
I looked at the tragedies of Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant. You can nail it, have wealth and esteem, but in the grand scheme of things, your life can end tomorrow. It was very sobering. I guess the most challenging things these days are still the same the uncertainty and self-doubt. You want to be your best self as a performer I’ve learned through experience to rationalise a lot more. It will happen if it’s supposed to happen.
Sometimes it’s a good test to do things that don’t provide an immediate reward of a financial nature because at least you know then that you are doing it because you love it.
Life is uncertain. 2020 is a movie that we couldn’t make it up if we tried. You still have to push through on what you are doing and not get distracted. You have to stay focused, get up, and be your best every single day. There are weeks when it feels like nothing is progressing then I will get moments like this where I would get a breakthrough in achieving a goal on my list. Its definitely about pushing through, grinding, and staying focused despite what is going on in the world.
DB: Again, as performing artists and creatives, we have to get on with our work. We look at Motown, and we romanticise Motown as this golden era of music, which it was. When you talk to Motown artists and ask what was the difficult part of their journey. They say racial oppression and segregation. But through it all, they still created some of the best music we’ve ever heard in the 21st century. It is challenging times, but we triumph over adversity. More than anyone, we are the best equipped to deal with this.
I love the Motown example. I’ve never thought of it like that before. Looking at what they had to go through and still, they were great, unique, and untouchable.
DB: And that has always given me a sense of esteem and pride. Even in these times as a social observer, I find it interesting. There are many aspects of life where we’ve told ourselves many lies over the centuries. A lot of what’s happening now is a result of us finding out stuff that doesn’t make any sense. There’s never been any merit to white supremacy or racial
oppression. From a historical standpoint, there has never been any justification. I say to people what is happening now is – you know the story about the emperors’ new clothes? Some white people are the emperor, and all that’s happening now is everyone is saying you are not wearing any clothes. They are not used to hearing it.
“We now have the democratisation of the internet, which allows for democratised narratives.”
Before they could tell the story and we couldn’t say anything in response. We had to depend on either the tolerance of our peers or society’s tolerance to not believe the mainstream media’s narrative.
“The lies that have made people feel comfortable about their existence no longer exist.”
They can’t do that anymore; now you have the cameras and social media. We can now oppose the double standards and look at how we are marginalised and underrepresented. Now we have a quantity of data that now supports that.
The digital age has been useful for us because white supremacy or European dominance has no basis on any scientific level. For example, if you live in England, there’s no reason why you have more food than Africa if the food is grown in Africa. That is the sad truth, and we’ve all tried to tiptoe around it. When you’ve got a spoilt child and are finally confronted by their attitude, they thrash, throw, scream, and tantrum, but the bottom line is – times up. For me, it’s like observing social trends at the beginning again.
Any ideology that’s going to serve the destruction of other people will never work out long term. Its crazy times but with all the Motown stuff that was happening in the 60s when it was worse. Think Selma, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm x. If that kind of adversity can produce that beautiful art, then the potential, for us now, is equal.
What are two personal habits that have served you well throughout your career?
DB: Obsession, when I have an idea in my head, I can get as much from that as possible, I can mine it for every single element. Humility, and respecting everybody else has helped me with my career. Having talent helped me to put the show together. Having people skills is how you navigate show business. It’s good when you’re on stage, but the business side of this is not what you know, it’s whom you know.
People will never think about how much money you spent or what you were wearing. They will always remember how you made them feel. So treating everybody, whether they are a runner or director, with a level of respect has been massively beneficial for me, not that I did it for the benefit, but I think its good for everyone. The same way I want to be able to thrive and realise my full potential, I wish to provide that for people I am around.
What are your thoughts on the comedy scene in the UK?
DB: The comedy scene in the UK is very similar to the football scene in the UK. For performing and live clubs in the comedy scene, it’s one of the best in the world because it is so diverse with a lot of foreign influence, just like the UK’s club-level football. However, on the world stage, it’s woefully behind because of the old English imperialistic complex.
On a large scale, British comedy is about ten years behind America, and I think it’s because of the old gatekeepers. It’s good, but there are a few dinosaurs we need a meteor to wipe out so we can move into the next era.
To date, what achievement are you most proud of?
DB: The transition of working a regular job, to doing what I want to do, that was the first decision I made, and that was the best one.
“Telling my manager I quit, developing the strength to walk away from toxic situations changes you as a person, and it’s something you can always do.”
It’s valuable that I can walk away from something because now and in this industry, people cannot hold money over my head or appeal to my ego to make me do something that doesn’t represent my people. Doing something because I love it is the best decision I’ve made.
What are you passionate about outside of your career?
DB: People, humanity, peace, and love, I’m passionate about human beings. I don’t think we’ll be able to evolve to the next level of our existence. If we don’t make peace with ourselves, I say people who are trying to hold on to the complex that your superior because of your skin colour are dinosaurs and the meteors are coming.
Is there a film you wish you starred in?
DB: It would be Coming To America. To me, it’s a comedy masterclass from Eddie Murphy. In terms of format and style, he influenced us with Sunny D. Coming To America’s creation was a positive depiction of Continental Africans for a start, which was rare at that time. There is a sequel underway, but it should be clear that it is distinct from the original one. When you’ve got something that’s perfect, you don’t have to make a sequel for it because it’s already perfect.
My next choice is Avengers Endgame because I’m a geek like that.
Whom would you choose to be your co-stars in an action-comedy?
DB: Danai Gurira and Chadwick Boseman from Black Panther. Both action stars are amazing, and they could carry the acting part for me where I would fall short. I’d call the film Black Rage.
Can you share some advice for aspiring comedians?
DB: The best advice is that you will never know until you get on stage. As scary as that sounds, regretting what might have been’ is scarier. Nobody will hate your stuff more than you so don’t worry about it give it a go, and then we will take it from there. Worse than trying, and failing is trying and succeeding, and someone else taking credit for it, and you can’t do anything about it.
What can we expect over the next year?
DB: Over the next year, I hope I can return to my tour, its called The Chocolate Chip where I am talking about validity and justification for black anger, and how it’s going to precipitate if it’s not addressed.
I have my podcast, which is called Dane Baptiste Questions Everything, I’m questioning our reality, and how we exist, I’ve had some great guests on there like Trisha Goddard, Jamelia, Reggie Yates, and more. Then the usual stuff, pissing off racists, I’m hoping this industry will address many of its shortcomings, like race relations and representation. I hope I can carve out a place for myself.
Where can we find you online?
DB: You can find me on the BBC player because Sunny D is now online.
BBC Iplayer: Watch Sunny D