‘I never thought I’d sell out the Apollo’: Mo Gilligan on why he’d rather be gardening than partying

Standup Mo Gilligan’s rise to fame is the stuff of dreams – in fact, he can’t quite believe it himself. The boy from Camberwell talks about sharing a stage with his heroes – and why his tulips will be ‘banging’ next year

In 2011, Mo Gilligan posted on Twitter that he quite fancied hosting the Brit Awards. Or the Mobos: he wasn’t that picky. At the time, he was a very green, 23-year-old comedian, who lived with his mum in south London and worked as a sales assistant in shops – it might have been Jo Malone in Westfield or Levi’s Covent Garden back then. Gilligan set a target for 2013 and signed off: “fingers crossed”.

This February, admittedly a few years later than projected, Gilligan stood on stage in front of 20,000 people at what he called “the MO2”. Wearing a deep-green Ozwald Boateng three-piece suit, he had taken over from Jack Whitehall as the steward of the first gender-neutral Brits. His impression of Liam Gallagher had gone down well, and he’d mostly got away with accidently saying “fuck” on primetime live TV: “Auntie Patrice won’t be happy,” he apologised. “No curried goat for me.” Now, in an ad break, Gilligan had a few seconds to take in the scene.

“I looked around the room and you’ve got Adele there, Idris Elba’s over there,” he recalls. “I’m seeing all these names and it was so humbling. It was the one time I felt like I was in the moment. I’m in the middle of it, and I’ve got the producers in my ear going, ‘OK, Mo, we’re gonna go live in 30 seconds…’ and everyone’s just screaming. And I was looking around and I was just, like: ‘Whoa, I have come very far in my career.’”

Gilligan does seem to be everywhere right now, in a good way. The 34-year-old is a judge on The Masked Singer and The Masked Dancer, alongside Jonathan Ross and Davina McCall. He’s on Celebrity Gogglebox, slurping Calippos and singing along to the Spice Girls. His Channel 4 chat show, The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan, won a TV Bafta in 2020. He was so pleased that he named his dog, a cockapoo, Baffy. Gilligan picked up another one the following year for The Big Narstie Show, which he has co-hosted with the British grime MC since 2018. (The Lateish Show was up for best Comedy Entertainment Programme again at the 2022 Baftas last weekend, after we went to press, so Gilligan might already have a third golden statuette by now.)

Mo GilliganMosiah Bikila Gilligan is a British stand-up comedian. He is known for his observational comedy. After several years of uploading comedy clips to social media, he found global success in 2017. He hosted The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan, which debuted in 2019 on Channel 4
‘For Black comics it’s not a thing to take the mick out of the audience.’ Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Observer

TV isn’t even Gilligan’s comfort zone: he calls himself “still a student” of the medium. He’s most at ease doing standup. During his tour last autumn, he played 28 dates in 15 UK cities before finishing at the Hammersmith Apollo, where he sold out 10 – 10! – nights. The show has now become his second Netflix special, There’s Mo to Life, a masterclass in slick, smart observational comedy. Gilligan topped off the tour with a showcase at the O2 called Mo Gilligan + Friends: the Black British Takeover, where he performed alongside less-established Black comedians, including his Gogglebox sofa-mate Babatúndé Aléshé.

Gilligan still appears to be a bit stunned by his recent success when we meet at a photo studio in north London: like a man who placed an accumulator bet five years ago and has watched them come in, one after another. His hair is buzzed short, his beard’s a bit wispy and he’s in good shape, mainly from half-hour, daily runs on a treadmill in preparation for the Soccer Aid charity football match at the London Stadium in June. It has been announced that his manager will be Arsène Wenger, and Gilligan, an Arsenal fan, doesn’t want to let him down.

“I never thought I’d sell out the Hammersmith Apollo,” says Gilligan, shaking his head. “Then you do one night and it sells out. And that’s exciting. Then you do three and four, and it turns to 10. And you’re like, ‘Whoa, man, I’m happy with that.’ Then you do the O2. In the moment it is quite hard to understand it, but especially once you’ve completed something you’re like, ‘Wow, bloody hell man, this is just going all right. Yeah, I think I’ll keep at this, man!’”

The Brits tweet from 2011 wasn’t meant to be taken too seriously – Gilligan was not a man given to 10-year career projections, certainly at that time. “I’d be lying if I was sitting there as a 23-year-old and I was like, ‘That’s the goal, write it down and put it out to the universe,’” he says. “I didn’t, I was just tweeting.”

Man of the Mo: on the The Big Narstie Show.
Man of the Mo: on the The Big Narstie Show. Photograph: John Ferguson/Channel 4

Is Gilligan relieved – after what happened with Will Smith at the Oscars – that he didn’t get a slap from Liam Gallagher for his impression? “Haha, I wouldn’t call myself a provocative comedian,” he replies. “In the Black comedy circuit, it’s not a thing to take the mick out of your audience. Because they’ve dressed up. They’ve had their hair done, babysitter, you know, my man’s got a trim, he’s got the car cleaned. And the minute I go out there and I’m like, ‘What’s going on there, my guy? Is that your missus, yeah?’ He’s already looking at me like” – under his breath – “‘Big man, don’t do it! Don’t do it.’ I learned that very early on.”

Gilligan says that he was “as shocked as everyone else” by what happened to Chris Rock. “I felt like I got slapped!” he exclaims. “I felt like the world was like, ‘Yeah, we got slapped as well!’ I’m still waiting, there’s going to be a documentary where the whole thing was a big setup. Something’s going to happen in the next year, and I really want to be the person to be like, ‘You see! I knew it! I told you it wasn’t real.’”

When he was growing up, Gilligan says, “TV didn’t feel realistic” as a future career. Home was an estate in Camberwell, south London, where he lived with his mother and two sisters. His parents separated when he was five, and his father, a Rastafarian, lived in Brixton, where he grew his own vegetables and did some landscaping. Gilligan, who is dyslexic, went to Pimlico School, a few years after the rapper and actor Ashley Walters, who was from a nearby estate in Peckham. They had the same drama teacher, Miss Simpson. When Walters made his film debut in Bullet Boy in 2004, she organised a class trip to see it.

“I wanted to be a footballer… everyone wanted to be a footballer,” says Gilligan. “But when I was 14, Miss Simpson said, ‘You’re really good at performing arts, you should try and pursue that.’ It was the one thing that someone told me that I was good at.”

Bright start: with AJ Odudu on The Big Breakfast.
Bright start: with AJ Odudu on The Big Breakfast. Photograph: Ricky Darko/Channel 4

This background in acting makes sense when you see Gilligan’s standup. He’s a brilliant mimic, perfectly picking up the verbal tics and mannerisms of, say, a shifty man telling his girlfriend that he has arranged to go out with his mates on Saturday night (he’s also pretty spot-on as the aggrieved girlfriend). Gilligan’s jokes are almost impossible to repeat: when you try, you realise how much of the skill and craft comes from his pauses, posture and sly eyebrow raises.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a comedian who’s incredibly witty,” says Gilligan. “Every comic has their thing, and when I first started doing comedy, I would try everything: ‘I’m gonna try do some political jokes… yeah, this ain’t really running.’ Or, ‘Let me sit down on a stool and tell some jokes.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, man, I can’t sit on the stool.’ I think at that age, when I was doing standup, I hadn’t earned the right to be the comic that can sit on the stool and be cool like Dave Chappelle, maybe have a cigarette and… [he takes an imaginary puff].

“I am massively influenced by acting and movement, which we did a lot at school,” he continues. “But I think my observations and my storytelling are what grabs people’s attention, that’s probably where I’m able to excel, really.”

Talking about this period, and his fails, is also Gilligan’s way of saying that he’s no overnight success. He worked hard for years before anyone really took notice. Most of this was on the Black comedy circuit, but in the summer of 2015, Gilligan decided to try his luck at the Edinburgh Fringe. He went up with his friend, the British-Kurdish standup Kae Kurd, and they would flyer in the morning and perform a free show – bucket at the end – in the Caves at midday.

All the right moves: on the the Masked Dancer with fellow judges Davina McCall, Joel Dommett, Oti Mabuse and Jonathan Ross.
All the right moves: on the the Masked Dancer with fellow judges Davina McCall, Joel Dommett, Oti Mabuse and Jonathan Ross. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

“The format before was that you’d go to Edinburgh and, if your show did very well, you might go on a panel show and that’s how you can sell your tour,” says Gilligan. “But I realised my audience wasn’t there. The audience that I was going to get wasn’t going to come from Edinburgh, it wasn’t going to be the people who are like, ‘Yeah, we go Edinburgh…’ and they tell their friends at a dinner party to come and see Mo Gilligan.” His audience, it turned out, was on social media. While working at Levi’s, Gilligan started making minute-long videos that he edited during breaks. A series on the “different type of MCs” went viral in 2016 and 2017, with a nudge from the Canadian rapper Drake. “I didn’t have a big following at that time and it was just one video that done well,” he recalls. “MCs, musicians, celebrities started sharing it, and I think that was the thing that propelled me.”

TV work followed, first bickering with Big Narstie. “We’re almost like two brothers, a little bit,” says Gilligan. “And the nice thing about Narstie is that he can equally take a joke. We get at each other – cussing each other’s mums is probably the one thing that’s off-limits – but we make sure if we’re gonna get at each other that the jokes are funny.”

There are moments that are career-changing and others that are life-changing: Gilligan knew instantly that when Channel 4 offered him his own chat show, The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan, it was the latter. It’s part of the reason that he is so furious – “a fuckrey” – about the government’s plans to privatise the broadcaster.

“Channel 4 trusted me,” he says. “They were like, ‘You’re very good at what you do, we want to give you a show.’ And they didn’t need to do that. Yes, I had an audience that was thriving and stuff, but to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna back you, give it a shot…’ that was like, ‘Wow!’ I knew the minute they said it, my life would change. And what I worry about is, with it being private, is the next young Mo Gilligan going to get that same opportunity?”

Host with the most: presenting the Brit Awards on 8 February 2022 in London, England.
Host with the most: presenting the Brit Awards on 8 February 2022 in London, England. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Gilligan was right that his life would change. He moved out of his mum’s, first to a penthouse – well, top-floor – flat in east London, and he’s recently bought a five-bedroom house in the leafy northern suburbs, which he shares with Baffy and his girlfriend, actor Sophie Wise. He’s still close with his old crew from south London – “They keep you grounded, they’ll still take the piss out of you” – but also now Stormzy, Dave, Raheem Sterling and Ashley Walters.

Zone-five life seems to suit him. “I have turned into such an old man before my time,” says Gilligan. “I went to B&Q the other day and bought a lawnmower, a petrol lawnmower. And I promise you that was one of the funnest days in my life of just cutting my own grass. I’ve got a jet washer, man. Oh, man! Do you know how fun a jet washer is? Hahaha, I bought one for my mum as well. I was like, ‘Mum, I’m gonna get you a jet washer.’ Mum was like, ‘I ain’t got nothing to jet wash.’ I’m like, ‘We’ll find some stuff… We’ll find some stuff.’ That’s my life now.”

Gilligan is fully animated, recommending those little LED-studded gloves, which allow you to work when the sun goes down (“The job doesn’t stop because it’s dark!”). He’s also fallen hard for Lego Architecture sets, and is proud of the Big Ben he’s just completed. “Ah man, these are the things that I really enjoy in life,” he says. “It is so mad because I’ve got so many other friends who are like, ‘Yeah, we going to this festival, we’re going to that.’ And I’m like, ‘I hear that, but I’m trying to get some flowerbeds ready. Next year my tulips need to be banging!’”

Work isn’t slowing down, either. A new series of The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan starts at the end of the month, which is the most ambitious yet, with eight episodes instead of five, and a guest list jacked up by Hollywood stars travelling again. Gilligan also has eye on America himself: he recently had his first headline show in LA at the Netflix is a Joke festival. He’s not ruling out returning to acting one day, too. “I have been offered lovely roles, which I’m so flattered by,” he says. “But I’ve always been like, ‘That’s just not right for me.’ But yeah, hopefully one day, man. Don’t get me wrong, if Top Boy came calling, I’d be there in a heartbeat, bruv.”

But before all that, at least this morning, Gilligan is mostly preoccupied with getting home and digging out a couple of invasive bamboo bushes in his back garden. “Oooh, it grows lightning fast,” he sighs. “And you can’t just cut it down, you’ve got to take it out from the root. These are the fun tasks that me being a comic that has two Netflix specials and does TV and has all these fun celebrity mates has… Who knew that Alan Titchmarsh has a rival!”

The new series of The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan starts on Channel 4 on 27 May


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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