The first time I interviewed the comedian – and now TV star – Mo Gilligan, he was still on the verge of major-league success, his days folding jeans in high-street retail only months behind him. “I feel like you’ve grown up with me, Brian,” he laughs when we meet again today. “You’ve seen me from the start, innit? You’ve seen my hair and my teeth change.”
I’d love to confirm this lengthy career-long connection, but that first interview was only three and a half years ago. It’s just that, since then, the 34-year-old has enjoyed what every glittering Gilligan profile describes as “a meteoric rise”. It’s one perfectly symbolised by the circumstances of our encounter today – on the sky-high top floor of NBC Universal’s London HQ, a jaw-dropping panorama of the capital framing Gilligan as he talks.
The NBC connection is Mo’s new show That’s My Jam. Produced for the BBC, it’s bound for Saturday primetime, a glamorous gameshow in which celebrities undertake music-based stunts and challenges. It represents the latest step in Gilligan’s all-conquering assault on the airwaves, which took in his own double Bafta-winning Channel 4 vehicle The Lateish Show and a judging gig on ITV’s The Masked Singer, before he hosted this year’s Brit awards and a recent reboot of The Big Breakfast. “I feel,” he says of all these feathers in his cap, “like this is it. I’m winning. I’m enjoying it. It’s fun. And I have to enjoy it, because tomorrow isn’t promised.”
As anyone who’s watched Gilligan’s excellent standup can testify, part of his considerable appeal is his unaffected boy-next-door humility, intact even as his life is transformed by celebrity (see the recent Netflix special There’s Mo to Life). I’ve seen many comics stumble when required to square the circle between newfound stardom and their everyman persona. But not Gilligan. His modesty seems genuine, and in conversation he is a study in niceness that would be wholly disarming, save for its occasional descent into blandness (“It’s about taking each project as it comes”).
It’s a point of principle for Gilligan not to take his stellar new life for granted. “I don’t want to normalise it,” he says. “Because every time I look around, I’m like, ‘This isn’t normal.’”
It really isn’t long since he was sneaking into his workplace loo at the Levi’s store on London’s Oxford Street to upload sketches to YouTube (“Get a coupla cans in, Julie!”). Now he’s being chauffeur-driven to work in Hollywood, “driving past the clocktower from Back to the Future on the way to the set. I was like: ‘Oh my gosh’” – his trademark phrase – “‘that is amazing!’ The day I feel like ‘This is a normal thing’ is the day I might need to take a little break.”
Good luck fitting that break in. That clocktower sighting happened en route to the filming of That’s My Jam’s US edition, fronted by Jimmy Fallon, from whose late-night talkshow the format was cannibalised. The American That’s My Jam was no sooner conceived than plans were hatched for a UK refit, and – by Gilligan’s account – Fallon himself poached the Londoner for the gig. “He was like: ‘I’ve seen your stuff, you’re hilariously funny and you’ll be perfect for it.’ And that was a big deal for me. He didn’t owe me any of that.” Gilligan was shipped out to Tinseltown, where he first shadowed Fallon before recording his own take on the show.
It’s odd, perhaps, that the British version was filmed in the US, with a guest-list (Nicole Scherzinger, Jason Derulo, Ricki Lake) that skews American, if not exclusively. It seems to have been a money-saving move: the two versions share an “absolutely amazing” set and some creative talent. “We’ve got this musician called Adam Blackstone,” says Gilligan, “he composes for the Super Bowl, he works with Dr Dre, Justin Timberlake and Jay Z. But here he is working with me!”
It’s a dream come true, because “in my heart”, says Mo, “I’m a musician.” He cites music as an influence on his standup and says he grew up in a musical environment. “I know I can’t sing,” he admits. “But get me on a mic, I can give you some bars!” He gets the chance on That’s My Jam, with a game called Take on Mo (this man loves a self-referential pun). “I rap a verse of a famous track over a hip-hop beat, and you have to guess what the song is.” Other rounds include Launch the Mic, where contestants must fire a foam microphone skywards then catch it before they can answer Mo’s questions. “These are world-renowned entertainers. And you get to see their childhood selves come out. They’re like, ‘We want to fire it!’ That’s what’s really endearing about the show.”
Actually, its most endearing feature may well be Gilligan himself, with his unshowy charisma and a relatability that makes mincemeat of audience demographics. In his standup, he has a routine about the “code-switching” required in a previous job at the Jo Malone perfume store. But in his career, he seems barely to code-switch at all, delivering “black-boy joy” (his words) via The Lateish Show alongside Netflix-conquering standup and mainstream lite-ent while always remaining open, upbeat Mo. “I feel like that’s been the thing that’s always steered me through. Doing this show, Jimmy said: ‘Be yourself. Be you.’ And whatever I’ve done, I’ve always been given that licence to be me.”
Not everyone finds “being me” that simple – particularly when their status is morphing as fast as Gilligan’s. “To be part of Saturday night TV,” he says of That’s My Jam, “it’s like, ‘Woah!’ I’m part of a dynasty.’ Bruce Forsyth. The X Factor. Ant and Dec.” Gilligan learned his trade from Ant and Dec, he says, by studying their craft when guesting on Saturday Night Takeaway. And now he ascends to a place by their side in the pantheon of the televisual gods. “This boy came up to me yesterday,” says Gilligan. “He said: ‘My mum loves you, man.’ That’s the world I’m in now. It went from 18-year-olds at the Wireless festival saying, ‘Yo, coupla cans! Say the catchphrase!’ And now they’re like: ‘Bro, my mum and dad love you. Mind if I get a picture?’”
The obvious next step, if Gilligan is to maintain his meteoric acceleration, is the movies – and sure enough, he’s about to lead the cast of animated feature 10 Lives, lending his voice to its feline hero. A performing arts graduate who quit acting for comedy – and whose standup is distinguished by his acting ability – Gilligan is returning to his first love, and perfectly happy to do so in cartoon form. “There’s a point where I’m playing a cat stuck in a tube. So there’s me doing an impression of what that’s like. It’s something new that I never thought I would do.”
It’s easy, in Gilligan’s company, to take his sweet nature at face value. But I have to ask: Mo, is there a dark side to this gilded story of honest-to-goodness niceness and stellar success? There is – but it’s one that only reinforces the sense that Gilligan is a fine chap with his feet on the ground and his heart squarely where it should be.
“In terms of my negative qualities,” he says, “it’s about becoming a workaholic. I’m trying to make sure that I am still a good uncle, that I’m a brother that’s present, that I’m there for my friends. And not just working all the time. That could just be about sending someone a quick ‘Happy birthday!’ text. It’s those little moments when you want to be present in the lives of the people that keep you grounded. They always give a lot to me. I want to make sure I do the same and that it’s an equal exchange.”
Happily, Gilligan has “good family and friends who keep me on the straight and narrow”. Long may this continue, he hopes. “I come from a working-class background. If I ever felt I couldn’t go back to where I live, that is when you’d lose yourself. It’s a big deal for me. I still go to my local barber’s to get a trim – and I wait in the queue like everyone else. I get no special treatment because I’m on TV.”
Might that soon change, with Saturday primetime beckoning? “I don’t want no special treatment, Brian. That would be bad barbershop etiquette. That’s not for me. I won’t be skipping the barber queue just yet.”
That’s My Jam begins on BBC One on 17 December