I’m on the phone with Jody Kamali, who’s describing the wave of gentrification taking place in the Kent coastal town he now lives in. “It’s probably the beginnings of what Bristol is now, with the DFL [Down from London] vibe,” he explains. “A lot of artists are here”.
As a comedian and performer, Kamali is known for his energetic, playful and physical style of comedy. But his work is also informed by an acute awareness of class distinctions, which have shaped his most well-known and loved character, Terry the Odd Job Man.
Becoming popular on YouTube in the late 2000s, Terry is rooted in affectionate parodies of class, accent and stereotypes about Bristol.
Having since moved on to other types of performance, Kamali has just finished a run of his new show, Things We Do For Love, when I speak to him. It was a big hit at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe – which touches on identity, complex family dynamics and growing up in north Bristol.
‘Gloucester Road was not trendy at all’
The Bristol of his childhood was a far cry from the ‘Top 10 places to live’ lists that have warped perceptions of the city over the past decade. “When I grew up, Gloucester Road was not trendy at all”, he explains animatedly.
“People felt embarrassed,” he adds. “Older people from school that jumped into being a tradesman and started to earn good money, they were like, ‘Oh, I’ve just bought a flat in Gloucester Road’, but they would be all shy about it. It was grittier. A real sense of the unknown.”
Much of the observational comedy that he’s known for was shaped by growing up in Southmead. “It was really rough, but that’s all I knew,” Kamali says. “So there was joyriding, you’d see cars on fire, burned out houses.
“When I speak to other people now, they felt very threatened by coming into Southmead,” he continues. “I didn’t notice that at all because my family has been there since the estate began.” He adds that a strong sense of solidarity also shaped the area: “It was always very humble and down to earth. Everyone knew everyone and helped each other out when in need.”
‘I used to feel embarrassed by my dad’
Kamali was raised by his mum’s extended family. His mum worked in the canteen and as a typist in the local Rolls Royce factory.
He had less contact with his dad, who arrived in the UK from Iran to study engineering, and who lived away from the family in Cotham. Navigating the complexities of his mixed heritage was something he began to face in school.
“My dad used to take me to school, and I used to feel embarrassed, which I discuss in the show. And I feel quite bad about that. It’s probably because of the racism — I didn’t really know why. My dad had a big black moustache, big hair. So he looked Middle Eastern, very different.”
Around the time he was trying to make sense of his own identity, Kamali, a self-described “class clown” found a reprieve from feelings of isolation by channelling his goofy sense of humour into acting, via his school’s drama department. “I started to mock the teachers, and then in a drama class I used to make people laugh, and it just went from that.”
He left Bristol at 18 to enrol on a performing arts course at Middlesex University. But his real break came at stand-up gigs on London’s comedy circuit, where he started developing the character of Terry.
Following a four-month trip to Central America, Kamali created a show called Backpacker, based on some of the people he’d met while travelling. “One of the characters I shoehorned in was loosely based on my cousin, who was a plasterer.”
Kamali puts the popularity of Terry down to a lack of relatable working-class Bristolian experiences – particularly authentic Bristol accents – in film and TV. “It was identifying to Bristol’s working class, and it resonated. For me to use all my experiences of growing up in Bristol, and the archetypes in Bristol, the accent – it was a revelation to them, because they were seeing stuff that they don’t normally see on TV”, he explains.
A coming of age story
But Things We Do For Love emerged out of a desire to do something more personal. “It is a coming-of-age story of a boy from Southmead, Iranian dad, growing up in this complex relationship and going out into the world, finding myself and trying to figure out my identity and who I really am,” he says.
Putting the show together proved challenging at times, especially given the contrast between his experiences and those of his audiences. “The first time I did the show – and I don’t say this much – I broke down in tears, because I found it so personal. I felt ashamed. I genuinely thought: My life is not very interesting, but it was quite the opposite.”
After some initial negative reviews, the show went on to be a huge success. “I’ve done 12 or 14 solo shows and this was the one that was consistently good every day”, he says. “People really enjoyed it. Even the bit where I was sort of mocking the middle-class stuff”.
Kamali gleefully recalls a pivotal scene about going to Waitrose for the first time. “The scene was like: ‘Nan, what is this place? What is this green light? What is it?’. And I say: ‘This is a place full of wankers!’, and it would get a big laugh.”
Despite his recent success at Edinburgh, Kamali is keen to retain the connections to the types of neighbourhoods he grew up in. “Most years I do a Terry, the Odd Job Man show, which I do in community centres in these areas,” he says. “So I go to Hanham, Kingswood, Bedminster Down. It’s not all about Old Vic and Tobacco Factory, [although those] are great venues. But this is bringing comedy to these people, that they can identify with, and that’s what I really love about it.”
Jody Kamali will be performing Things We Do For Love at the Alma Tavern and Theatre, Clifton on Thursday 30 November. Get tickets here.
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