Hackney People: Funmbi Omotayo

The comedian talks about growing up in Hackney and his journey to stand-up success

"I WAS always funny as a kid, but I never thought about making comedy into a job until I got my GCSE results back and realised I was going to have to think creatively,” says Funmbi Omotayo. Adding: “I think I got two in total, maths and English. So I can talk, and I can count, but not much else!”

The comedian, whose solo show ‘Legal Immigrant’ has been winning rave reviews, was born and raised in Hackney. When he brought down the house on BBC One’s John Bishop Show last year, the borough provided much of the material.

Talking about how much the area has changed, for example, he quipped: “I came out of the station and this white guy offered me drugs ... I got really offended at first cos I was like: look at these white boys coming into our neighbourhoods, taking our jobs.”

The borough is central to his performances too, which tell the true story of the young Funmbi leaving East London for Lagos at the age of 10 and trying desperately to fit in there, before returning to Hackney six years later and finding himself a fish out of water once again.

He says: “Hackney was such an interesting place to grow up. I went to Orchard Primary School and we were a typical mixed, minority neighbourhood: black kids, white working class kids, Asian kids. We were all part of the same team.”

When his GCSE results came through, he realised he was at a crossroads. “I had to make a choice. I could go down the wrong road, because there was a lot of that about, or I could do something positive,” he explains.

Comedy was his route to doing something good. “It was really tough. I was working as a porter in Harrods all morning, pulling palettes, then going to drama school in the evenings. I was exhausted. They asked me to leave after the first year,” he says.

That could have been the end of his confidence and his career, had his sister not arranged for him to have a slot at a stand-up night under a wine bar in Soho. He explains: “I didn’t think I could do stand-up, and the nerves nearly killed me. I had a stomach ache. I wanted to pass out. But I went out there and did my five minutes.”

And it paid off, he says: “I became part of the ‘urban scene’ and did pretty well. My material was very Nigerian and I developed a really strong following. I was playing Hackney Empire to an audience of 1,000. I felt like a rock star.”

But, still, something was missing. “My mum said I had to stop dividing audiences into black and white,” explains Funmbi. Adding: “There was only so far I could take my niche if I didn’t write for wider audiences.”

The Olympics was happening at the time, his hometown of Hackney was one of the London 2012 host boroughs, and, Funmbi recalls: “It was really bringing people together, across cultures.” 

So he scrapped all his material and started from scratch, performing new work at tiny venues. Funmbi continues: “It wasn’t easy. I had to play to rooms of five people all over again. And now, suddenly, it would be predominantly white audiences, in middle class neighbourhoods. There were moments when I thought I would quit, but I knew I had to give it a proper go.”

Today, his shows are packed with material that is current, even political. He talks about how London neighbourhoods like Hackney are changing, and how race continues to affect people’s experiences in this country. (From his John Bishop show: “My full name on my driver’s licence is Oluwafunmbi Adedeji Omotayo. I’m one of the only black guys in London who looks forward to being stopped by the police.”)

In 2012, he won the prestigious Leicester Square New Act of the Year award and became joint winner of Amused Moose’s Laugh Off Competition. More TV appearances are coming soon and right now he is working on a pilot for BBC Three and developing another show.

Time Out magazine recently said of him, ‘soon, he could be playing to thousands’. Let’s just hope he never forgets where he came from. 

Funmbi is performing his stand-up material at Camden Fringe from 23 to 27 August.