Leslie Jones: Comedian At Work

Leslie Jones will be the first to tell you comedy is hard work. But then, the former Colorado State University student who once considered careers in medicine, law, accounting and communications, isn’t afraid to work up an honest sweat if it will make you laugh.

During a recent conversation with Jones the comedian talked about how tough it is for a woman to succeed in a business dominated by men. She also served up a few surprises, speaking candidly about stage fright, other comedians and the general state of comedy today. It’s pure, raw emotion wrapped up in a love for her craft, and it gives a revealing glimpse into how extremely serious one must sometimes be in order to be funny.

What’s it like to be the funniest person in the room?

I tell people that, nine times out of 10, I’m probably not the funniest person in the room. The most regular person is probably funnier than me on any day. All of us got a great sense of humor, we just don’t know how to tap it. That’s what makes us professionals.

Does your humor come spontaneously, or is it the result of hours of writing, practicing and re-writing?

I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that to do this business, you would have to be kind of funny and naturally comedic anyway.

It’s just like a person who wanted to be a doctor. Before they wanted to be a doctor, they were interested in the medical field, and they had little things they could do. But to make it professional they still had go to the next level.

Your job isn’t to make a statement. It’s to make people laugh, because that’s what you’re called – a comedian.

Who were some of the people who steered you in the right direction?

When I started comedy, I started out here in L.A. I was just doing the regular clubs, trying to do the rigamarole to become a comic.

And I was working at a restaurant called Roscoe’s – Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Mother Love came in, and I had done a show with her two weeks before and I had blown it up.

She’s like, “What are you doing here?” and I said I had to pay bills.

She told me I should be out performing. She said I had never been to New York and that would be a great experience for me. Then she said I could always come back here.

And that just hit me in the gut. I was like “That’s true. I could come back here anytime.”

She was the reason I went to New York, Mother Love and Dave Chappelle. Chappelle saw me one night and said, “You’ve learned everything you can here in L.A.. You need to go to New York.”

They were both right. To me, New York is the college of every craft. Where Frank Sinatra said, “You can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” That is the truest statement ever made. It’s so filled with every kind of thing, every race is out there, every culture is out there. When you’re doing comedy, you’re hitting all of that. It was so eye-opening.

The first night I came into New York – I had never been to New York – we were riding in a cab into Manhattan and I started crying because I was like, “what the hell am I doing?” because it looked like Gotham. It looked like something Batman would be in. I was so scared. “What the hell did I do?” I’m leaving sunny California where everybody’s got it easy to go to this dark, cold place. That’s what it looked like.

And it was trash day, so it stinks. And I said, “Oh, my God. Who lives here?” But after that first week, I knew I was going to move there. In three days, I was saying I was going to move there. It’s the most wonderful place for someone trying to become a creative vessel. It’s one of the best places to be.

I stayed there for about two-and-a-half years, got really good training and became a beast. I mean, I was already funny when I went there, but I became a beast when I got to New York. New York beat my ass, put me up against the wall and later gave me love.

When I came back here to L.A., I was like the dragon slayer. I was killing clubs. It’s just training.

I learned how to take care of hecklers in New York. I learned how to do crowds. I learned how to take on TV, how to write correctly, how to write jokes. I learned how to go for it and learned how to find out what it is that I’m about.

(Audio may be NSFW.)

You went to Chapman College in Orange County and eventually transferred to Colorado State University. What was your major?

When I first started I didn’t have a major. I had a list of majors. I started off, I wanted to be a lawyer. The books were so fu**in’ expensive and the classes were extremely crazy. So I said, “I don’t want to be a lawyer.”

Then I said I was going to be a business accountant major. But then somebody introduced me to microeconomics and I quit the first day.

Then I went to computer science. My dad’s an electronics engineer, so I said I’d do that. But I was bored.

So, I don’t know how I ended up in communications. I became a radio DJ at Chapman, and the guy was like, “this is what your major should be – communications. It covers everything. You can probably do a little acting, you can do everything in communications.”

And I said, “Okay. I like that. Even though my dad was like, “Oh, you’re not going to get a job.”

How does one go from Colorado State University student to professional comedian? After all, the school isn’t necessarily known as a launching pad for comics.

No, I don’t think so. I went there to play basketball. My coach at Chapman, he got a job at Colorado and decided he wanted to take his best player with him. Wow, was he surprised.

Is it true the school newspaper voted you funniest person on campus?

That’s how I became a comedian. My friend signed me up for this contest on campus. She told me the day before that I was in the contest. I won the contest, and when I did, I stopped playing basketball – gave up the scholarship and everything.

It was almost overnight?

Yeah. My people were not happy. My coach, and all of them, they wanted to kill me.

One performance, and you knew that was what you wanted to do. Were you always that spontaneous?

Pretty much. I don’t like to really think. It might be to my error, too. I think some decisions I make, I probably should think about them. But I was like, “go ahead and do it, because you won’t do it if you think about it.”

(Audio may be NSFW.)

You said New York was like a school for you. Was there a particular moment or performance when you realized that you had made it – that you had become a professional?

Maybe second year. I had won a couple of contests. Then when I taped “Comic View” for the first time, after that I said, “This is what you’re going to do.”

After I did that, I came back to California and went to the Comedy Store and bombed like a frickin’ 747, and didn’t do comedy for three years.

It took a lot for me to start back, to actually figure out how to do it the correct way. I’m going to become a comic, I just don’t know how to do it yet. I got to live life.

That’s what happened. I went and performed, and I opened up for Jamie Foxx. At the time this was before Jamie got “Living Color.” He was actually at the level that I am now.

It’s so funny. I opened up for him and I was horrible. He told me, “the reason you were so bad is because you didn’t have anything to talk about. You don’t have a boyfriend. You’re fresh out of college. You ain’t doing nothing. You don’t have anything to talk about. Go live life for a little while’and then start writing.”

I took that time to figure it out. I think after my first boyfriend, breakup and craziness – that’s when I started doing comedy again.

You do a lot of observational humor. Is that a switch that’s constantly on? Do you see everything as possible material?

I was just telling my friend today that we see stuff so differently than everybody else. When I walk anywhere, I see everything. From the lady getting out of her car who can’t find her keys to the dude that’s sittin’ in a frickin’ wheelchair and got the Dominoes $5.99 sign in his fu**in hand because he’s trying to make some money. You see everything.

Like your bit where you describe the different people in your group – the driver or the drunk. And you cover subjects that seem to be so natural to joke about, that it’s a wonder no one has ever done so. Like your rants about the Jack In The Box fast food chain.

This is so funny. Do you know when the Jack In The Box guy first came out, ’92 or ’93? I remember when I first made that joke and people were pissed off at me. I was like, “you realize I’m talking about the Jack In The Box man?” And they were like, “He’s our friend.”

And I was like, “If we were sitting in a restaurant and a half-man, half-Jack In The Box man walked in, it would be fu**ing chaos. You would try to kill the Jack In The Box man. It would be ridiculous.”

You’re not too crazy bout the Burger King character either, are you?

I don’t know if there’s anyone, except for serial killers, that guy doesn’t creep out. And he’s even in the bed with you, or in the window. Somewhere in your personal space. It’s like he’s doing something to you while you sleep. And the fact he doesn’t talk is even worse.

Is it tougher for women to succeed at comedy than men?

Yes. We set the standard for that. It’s just not in comedy, but it’s in life, too. Women are the submissives, or the least-stronger sex, or whatever. So it’s not taken seriously. This is the compliment I get, that men think is so great when they say it to me. “You perform like a man.”

Because you’re not afraid to let loose with a few four-letter words?

Exactly. Because men get on stage, they carry such confidence. When men get on stage, most of the time you don’t know when they’re scared. They just carry a swagger and confidence of “I’m a man and I know how to do this.”

That’s how I come off. I come off like I know what I’m doing. I’ve worked and I’ve practiced. I’ve done what I’m doing for years. Once I come off like that, I’m considered more of a male comic than a female comic.

There’s a lot more female comics that are very funny now but before there wasn’t. All they talked about was periods, kids, men. We were thought of as the weaker ones because we didn’t have any subject matter until people like Whoopi Goldberg and Roseanne Barr. They showed that women don’t just talk about that.

Like the crazy comedy. It was alright. But it still didn’t show what women could do.

How can I put this? When someone tells you they have a ticket to an all-female comedy show, what’s the first thing you think?

Your regular people are going to say, “these girls don’t have anything to talk about but men.” They have a different attitude about female comics, about female anything.

So it’s harder. In other words, if a guy gets a referral from another comic, when he shows up a club, the club puts him up and he does his thing. But if I get that referral, the first thing the guy says when I get there is, “Are you funny?”

But why ask that? Why even hire me? And trust me, they are shitty to me until I perform. Then I perform, and I rip. Then they’re kissing my ass and wondering why I don’t have any time for them. I really don’t want to talk to you.

Like me and Eddie Griffin got into it really bad because he had never really seen me perform. He’s a big chauvinist – “bitches” this and “bitches” that. Then, when he saw me perform, he came up to me. But now I don’t have to talk to them. I feel like their minds are already set.

So there’s some resistance before you even arrive?

Some of the stuff I go through as a woman is so messed up. I show up and they won’t even pick up my bags. The type of little shit you notice – opening doors or making sure I have something to eat. But they do it for the male comics.

I’m never offered tickets or stuff like that. But when I perform, it’s a whole different… My thing is, it’s so fu**ed up. I wouldn’t be on this show if I wasn’t funny. Other comics would make sure I wouldn’t be on this show if I wasn’t funny. Trust and believe.

It’s still hard, no matter how many specials I have out. I’m still treated like second class.

I used to say it was because I’m black, but I’m not even saying that anymore. Somebody told me in London if I was a white male I would be famous with the comedy that I do.

Is there any kind of routine or ritual you go through before going on stage?

I really hope I have to use the bathroom. Because when I use the bathroom, I have a great set. If I pea, it’s a nice set. If I…. I destroy.

It’s not like there’s someone giving you cues, or you’re using a teleprompter. Is it tough to keep the night’s routine in your head?

That’s why you’re supposed sit down and write it down. I learned that in the early stages. When you’re young, you remember things like that. But now I’m getting older and, oh my God, I have to literally go over my set before I go on, because I go, “I forgot about that joke. Damn, that’s a good one.”

The older you get, you should be writing it down, and you should be rehearsing. I say that to myself also. I don’t rehearse as much as I used to.

There used to be a time that, if you called my house during rehearsal, you got cussed out because you know it’s rehearsal time. Now, I don’t have to rehearse as much, since I’m performing all the time. But you should really rehearse, especially new jokes.

It’s like basketball – knowing the fundamentals. People, they get into that creative bullshit, like “when I get on stage I just flow.” That’s when most of the time you’re bombing. That’s when your ass is bombing because your not organized.

People pay $10 to $20 a ticket and have to pay for two drinks, and you’re going to go up there and flow on these people’s money? I’m very serious about the stage. If it’s a work-out room, then fine. But if this is a room where people are coming to see you perform, perform please. Because that’s your fu**ing job. Your job isn’t to make a statement. It’s to make people laugh, because that’s what you’re called – a comedian.

Back in the day, people were jesters and they didn’t have a fu**ing opinion. If they had an opinion, they got killed. So that’s where we need to get back to.

And comedians now think they’re stronger than the craft, and that’s why comedy is so fu**ed up now. We should realize when we’re dead and gone, comedy is still here, you know, jumping around and having fun. You realize comedy is stronger than you. It created you, so you’re not stronger than them.

(Audio may be NSFW.)

What’s in the future?

I used to tell people I wanted to be Whoopie Goldberg but better. I thought she did her thing. She came to the business and went by her own rules, and she was funny.

But Whoopie doesn’t just do comedy. Like other comedians such as Robin Williams, she’s also done dramatic roles. Have you considered doing drama?

Yes, and you know what’s funny? Now, don’t laugh, okay? I don’t know why, but I see myself playing Pearl Bailey or Bessie Smith. I don’t know why, but I just see myself doing that.

When I met Rich Little, and we were doing “Comic Relief” together, and he said, “God, you remind me so much of Pearl Bailey.”

And I was like, “Is that because she was the only black person you knew?” And he started laughing.

What would you tell someone thinking about becoming a comedian?

I think somebody said it the other day, that when you become a great psychologist or doctor or anything, you study the greats. I’ve talked to some comedians who don’t even know who Paul Mooney is or Richard Pryor or Moms Mabley. How do not know this and you’re a comedian?

I feel the best advice I can give them is to decide this is what you want to do. Once you decide that, you need to be just as serious as if you were a heart surgeon. You need to take it seriously.

Don’t bullshit. Don’t do it just to be on TV or become famous. This is serious for some people. Some people look forward to laughing. Some people go, “Damn, I’ve had a hard day. I sure hope this comedian is funny.”

Some people are dependent on you to do your fu**ing job. Take it seriously.

Closing thoughts? Something you’ve wanted to say but no one asks the right question?

The only way I can tell you is through a story. Say there’s this island and these villagers on the island. They don’t have a doctor.

Now we go back to America where there’s a medical school. And these medical students get licensed. They’re not the greatest. They get, maybe Cs, maybe average in the class, but they still got their shit.

Now they go to this village, and the villagers just fu**ing love them because they never had a doctor before. These doctors are doing mediocre work but the villagers don’t know that.

Now, over in America, a graduate that was the best in his class – he went to the best hospital and every thing – he just lost his job and he gets hired by these villagers.

So he goes to the island and he does stuff that the villagers or the other doctors haven’t seen before.

That’s what I feel like is going to happen in comedy. All the stuff you’ve been seeing up to now is mediocre. I feel like once you get to us real comics, the Tony Roberts to J.B. Smoove, the Mike Britts – once you get to us, it’s going to be like “Damn! All these other people weren’t even doing what they were supposed to be doing. I just feel like these last 10 to 15 years have been bullshit.”

And the next 15 years?

I think it’s just like the way we voted as far as Obama. We’re ready for a change. I think that the people who actually watch comedy – the villagers – are starting to want some better comedians. I think it’s time. I want to laugh again. Nobody laughs anymore.

For more Leslie Jones, click here to order her DVD – “Problem Child” – from Amazon and click here for the Leslie Jones Web site.