by Shoba Viswanathan
Comedy fans should give a shout out to a friend of Leslie Jones’ – the one who secretly entered Jones in the ‘Funniest Person on Campus’ Contest while they were at Colorado State University. Jones was 19 years old then, and, looking back she says, “As soon as I touched the mic I knew that’s what I would do for the rest of my life.” From that point to when she signed with “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) in 2014 at the age of 47, Jones’s professional life is a story of persistence.
Jones, who says she was 6-feet tall in 6th grade, started out as a basketball player—probably persuaded by her father, who was a fan of the sport—even went to college on a basketball scholarship. She went first to Chapman University in Orange, California, and then transferred when her coach moved to Colorado State. There was no thought of her becoming a comedian at that time. So, but for her friend’s push to perform, we may have never seen Leslie Jones the Performer.
After college, Jones moved to Los Angeles and tried establishing herself as a stand-up while doing other jobs to pay the bills. These were not easy years, and she did get booed more than once, including when she did an opening act for Jamie Foxx. In an interview with People Magazine she credits Foxx with having given her some very valuable advice: “You’re like 18. You don’t have anything to talk about. Go get a job, go get fired, go get your heart broken and go break some hearts.”
Jones took the advice and continued to live life and gather material. She worked at UPS and remembers being turned down for a job at the now-defunct Blockbuster, because the manager there had seen her perform and thought her too talented to last long there! Through her years of performing Jones showed a determination to define herself on her own terms. She consciously pushed against being pigeon-holed in Black comedy clubs. She sought out varied venues. In a 2013 podcast when Jones was being introduced by the host as “One of the funniest women in the game,” she interrupted to say, “Funniest comedian in the game. Not just woman. I hate that shit.” While there’s no question that Leslie Jones is a strikingly funny African American woman, she insists, justifiably, on her comic identity being seen as uniquely hers.
It took time to get the world to accept this unique persona and for her to receive recognition. It took so long that she thought, “Alright, this comedy shit just ain’t working out. And not just when I was twenty-five. Like, when I was forty-five.” In an interview with the New Yorker, she talks of how every Black comedian in the country knew her, yet she still didn’t see a big break coming her way. It must have taken a bone-deep conviction about her career path for Jones to persist through these periods.
And then in 2013 SNL started their search for a Black woman cast member. There was controversy around it, as SNL regular Kenan Thompson had said earlier that they have not been able to find Black women “who are ready” to be cast members. Jones did not originally audition for the position, since her background was in stand-up and not in writing or sketch comedy. However, Chris Rock, who knew her work and thought very highly of her, stepped in and asked Lorne Michaels to meet with her. She was initially not picked to be a cast member, but Michaels asked her to come in as a writer. A few months later, Jones became a member of the cast. Michaels told the New Yorker, “I tell Leslie all the time, ‘You’re everything we weren’t looking for.’ When someone’s funny, they’re funny. She was fully formed as a stand-up. I knew she’d have to learn the sketch thing, the technique part, but with some people you go, ‘Let’s just get them in the building.”
In the story of Jones finding her place in SNL, we see an encouraging narrative of an artist’s life experience matching a mainstream show’s need to expand the scope of experiences it reflects. It is to Jones’s immense credit that she has been powerful in communicating the authenticity of her lived experience in the medium of her choice – comedy.
With SNL, Jones arrived in the big leagues. She went on to act in the girl-power remake of Ghostbusters and has a very faithful social media following. The social media engagements have sometimes been hostile; she has also dealt with hacking of her website and horrendous violation of privacy. Leslie Jones has handled all of this with a no-holds-barred attitude and with a head-on courage that has come to seem typical of her. She speaks about this in this segment with Seth Meyers.
In Leslie Jones’s comedy and performance we see a seamless blend of the political and the personal. In her famous Weekend Update segment about the movie Hidden Figures, she sinks in a few shots about Black History Month.
And her version of how she sees herself is a rallying cry of its own!
In April 2017, Jones made the list of Time Magazine’s Most Influential 100 of 2017. For that feature, actor Russell Crowe wrote that he admires her for her kindness, thoughtfulness, and “the way she owns all of who she is….All the absurdity and pathos of being human. All the joy of having a heart that big. She’s going to be the person who says out loud what you were thinking, when you didn’t even realize you thought like that.” Jones has straddled the line between representing and redefining, and it is inspiring to see her succeed at this very difficult task.
Leslie Jones is going to be hosting the 2017 BET Awards on June 25th, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. When this announcement was made, Jones said, “BET was the first place I ever did comedy on TV, so it’s a full-circle moment of coming home where I started. I went out in the world and did what I needed to do and now I can come home to my people and say, ‘Yo! Look what I did!’”
And so we stand and applaud with pleasure as we see what she’s doing!
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. Her long-standing philosophy of understanding the Other Side, has developed a new urgency these days. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.
Homepage image via US Magazine / Getty Images Image Bank (Lloyd Bishop)