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Photograph: YOSHITAKA KONO

Mo Gilligan: ‘I didn’t have a conventional route into comedy’

London comedian Mo Gilligan on how a gig at Dulwich Hamlet and a job at Levi’s Covent Garden paved the way for his career

By
Bobby Palmer
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Camberwell-born Mo Gilligan is a very modern comedian. He gained fame with his character sketches of grime MCs and Essex lads, uploaded online while he worked at Levi’s Covent Garden. Now, he’s done sold-out shows at Leicester Square Theatre, Netflix specials at Hackney Empire and fronted Channel 4 shows.

When you’re 15, London feels massive. I played football for a team called Southwark Youth. We’d all travel on a bus and go as far as Wandsworth, Tooting Bec or Hackney Marshes. Those places felt like a million miles away.

I feel more familiar with my surroundings in south London. My dad was from Brixton and I’d often visit him on weekends. There’s a big Caribbean community there, from the Windrush days – and my dad’s a Rastafarian, so he’d always get a lot of respect walking down the high street.

When I first got into comedy I was just mucking around. I got invited to do five minutes at a small comedy night at the Dulwich Hamlet clubhouse. It went well and I ended up doing 20 minutes. Back then, it was a small local club and the people who came to the comedy night were just people from the local estate who had nothing else on.

I didn’t have a conventional route into comedy. I didn’t know where to go for it. Universities like London Metropolitan University and Roehampton would have Afro-Caribbean Society events, so I’d message and ask if I could come down and do some stand-up.

My first paid gig was performing at the Slug & Lettuce in Soho, at the Sunday Show. It was a young, predominantly Black audience. I was 21 years old and totally broke. I got paid £50, which felt like a lot of money. It was a big deal for me.

Working at Levi’s Covent Garden helped my routines. I’d built up a name on the black comedy circuit, but I was trying to break into the mainstream and worked part-time to pay the bills. I started posting videos online: I’d film them at home, edit them on the bus, then sneak into the changing room to upload them. The characters were just the people I’d interact with every day.

Performing in the West End was a huge deal. The Vaudeville Theatre was the first time my name had been ‘up in lights’. We had a DJ and people went to the pub at 4pm before the show. You’d have thought it was a football match. It was cool to have my audience in a place you wouldn’t expect.

The Channel 4 building is iconic. I went to school in Pimlico, so I’d walk past it. Years later, I remember going in and them saying they wanted to give me my own Friday night show. I remember the time, the place, the weather. I’ve had career-changing moments, but that was life-changing.

London will always be home. I’ve been lucky to travel for tours, but there’s nothing better than flying in, looking over the city and realising you’re home. Besides, I tried Popeye’s chicken in the States and it was rubbish. Nothing on Morley’s.

Subscribe to Mo Gilligan’s YouTube channel.

Read more from this series:

Inua Ellams: ‘London is the closest I’ve felt to a home’

David Lammy: ‘Tottenham is the beginning and end of me’

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