Comedienne Luenell testifies to the oppression, perseverance, and resilience of black women in comedy.
The church choir is a familiar gateway to entertainment for many musicians. One would not commonly associate the pulpit with standup comedy but nonetheless, it is the venue 25-year stand-up comedy veteran Luenell. She has developed a cult like following as a result of her standup performances in Katt Williams’ American Hustle and Snoop Dog’s Bad Girls of Comedy, the latter which cites as her first entryway into the genre.
“You have to crawl before you walk, so I think I started in church choir and that's sort of like having a rehearsal on a Wednesday and doing a show on a Sunday. I started in choir and then I got into theater, and I did a lot of theater and musical theater.”
The scheduling is but one amongst several analogies between Sunday service and Luenell’s comic routine, to attend one of her shows is to be “taken to church” to hear the gospel of quotidian black politics often overlooked by comics purportedly more palatable to mainstream audiences. From the moment Luenell hits the stage, clutching a goblet full of what she deems the most important invention of our era (the apple variation of Crown Royal whiskey) her demeanor and rapport prompt an immediate sense of comfort for the audience. The fourth wall removed, we become family, laughing in unison about prosaic oddities of the kinfolk kind.
Admirable triumphs in the realm of standup comedy have led Luenell to several memorable film and television roles, such as the girlfriend of lead character Borat in the eponymous 2006 film, the voice of the shrunken head in the Adam Sandler film franchise Hotel Transylvania (2015), and various television appearances, most recently BET’s The Real Husbands of Hollywood and Adult Swim's Black Jesus.
Despite her increasing success, Luenell’s humble beginnings are in no way lost on her. She's being inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed upon Sheryl Underwood and Maya Angelou before her. On this she says, “I'll get to go to the governor's mansion and have a few family members come with me… The family's pretty proud and I'm trying to stay humble about it because, it's not the Emmys or anything, but it’s big to my family and to us from Arkansas. It’s a pretty big old deal for a girl born not even in a hospital, born in my grandfather's house in the bed with a midwife.”
Luenell was born in Arkansas but raised in Oakland, California where she first realized she wanted to be a performer, “I went to a play and a friend of mine was in the play and it was opening night. I think it was either South Pacific (Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949) or Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death (Melvin Van Peebles, 1972). Then after the play, we got to go to the opening night reception. We got to go backstage, and I saw the lights, and I saw the ropes, and the curtains, and the costumes. Then we went to the reception where everybody was drinking champagne, and eating little finger foods, and signing autographs, and taking pictures, and there was just a buzz and electricity about that, [I said] ‘Oh, I want this. Whatever this is, I want to do this.’ I never had another thought about what I wanted to do with my life.”
Although Luenell has been performing comedy for 24 years, she only relocated to Los Angeles 14 years ago, spending the formative portion of her career establishing her talent in the Bay Area “I used to host on a television station in Oakland. It was on a black cable station called Soul Beat, which was like the BET before there was a BET. It was local cable.” After a decade of development in her secondary hometown, Luenell made her way to Los Angeles, Long Beach specifically, where her foray into standup comedy occurred by happenstance:
"My roommate was dating a comedian and he would be at the house all the time and I would be at the house talking trash to them all the time. He said, 'You know, you’re really, really funny. You crack me up. I run this club in Long Beach, it’s called Miss Whiz and if you ever want to do stand-up, if you ever come down there, I’ll put you on...' I said, 'I don't want to do no stand-up. I want to be a back-up singer. I want to sing background for Luther.' He [said], 'Okay, well if you ever change your mind.” I thought about what he said and then one day me and my girls piled in the car and we went down there, and sure enough when I went in he put me up.'
Her first night performing standup, Luenell met the late, great comedian Robin Harris who invited her to perform at The Comedy Act Theater. The pair developed a profound friendship until Harris’ untimely passing in 1990 just prior to what may have become the breakout role of his career, hosting HBO’s new all black sketch comedy series Def Comedy Jam, to this day Luenell maintains a close relationship with Harris’ wife Exetta and son Robin Jr.
"He gave me his card, which I still have laminated and [on the back] I wrote down the address of the club where he performed every week… He told me to come down there and I did. I went there and I met a young D.L. Hughley and we started hanging out… and it just sort of snowballed.
"When we started, of course it was before there was a Comic View, or a Def Comedy Jam, or anything so there was no such thing as these $50-70,000 paydays for any comic anywhere. It was before any comedy movies had come out, before House Party (1990) or Talking Dirty After Dark (1991). The best you could afford to get… was like $25 and maybe a cocktail.
As television series such as Def Comedy Jam and Comic View gained popularity, very few women were granted access to the stage. Though Luenell was a rare exception, she and other black comediennes permitted admission to such televisual opportunities were forced to submit to a chauvinistic, male dominated environment.
“We [would] have to keep our mouths shut about the infidelities that we’d see, or we wouldn’t work with the men. We’d have to not screw them; if you met a guy that you liked you’d better not fuck him. Next thing you know, your pussy’s onstage. You had to keep your professionalism and you had to be damn funny.”
In addition, black comediennes often took the stage following male performers who disparaged black women via misogynistic, colorist, and body shaming jokes. Through anecdotes centered on shifting the chauvinistic power dynamics regarding sex—“I know that a lot of y’all think you be fuckin’ the shit out your woman ‘cause you hit the back, ‘Nigga I be hittin’ that back,’ I got a surprise for you, that ain’t the back”—and body acceptance—“I don’t have to suck my stomach in, I just let the shit hang”—Luenell works to combat misogyny with her material.
"I try to empower our thick women, our dark women, our short women, our not-so-cosmetically-systematically attractive women. I want us to hold our heads up. The time has passed when we'd have to hold our heads down in shame because we don't look like everybody else. The minds of our men have gotten twisted and skewed in what beauty is but [now] we know who the queens and kings that we were born to be [are]. I try to instill that in my show.
"I also want people to think about… how much harder it is for a woman to be in this man’s game and be out here. When daddy’s out on the road there's a woman at home taking care of those children, somewhere. If their kid is sick, hopefully there’s a grandma, a wife, a side chick, a mama, a somebody who’s tucking that child in bed and giving them some Robitussin at night.
In Luenell’s case, the duality of being both a mother (to daughter Da’Nelle) and traveling entertainer is often discounted in the patriarchal performance industry.
"When you’re the mom and you have to literally fly away from your sick child and you cry yourself to sleep many a night and you don’t know if the cover is up on your baby, and Facetime doesn’t get it all the time, and you’re not there to hug them. It’s very, very, very, very hard for a woman to be in this business and nobody knows about it, nobody speaks about it."
Urban black comedy faced notoriously harsh criticism in the mid- to late '90s, not only for its jokes about women but also its penchant for homophobic and transphobic material, a practice Luenell says she never has and never will subscribe to.
"I absolutely do not and will not ever talk about transgender groups or people in my act because I have transgender friends and people in my audience… I’m in this for all women. I have transgender people who come to my shows. They want to laugh as well. I'm just not trying to go there, that's just not my thing."
In fact, when prompted about her unwillingness to address Caitlyn Jenner (whom several comics have adopted in their routines as a segue to express trans-misogynistic positions) Luenell declares that she is more frustrated about Jenner’s privilege than her personal life.
"I don't talk about Caitlyn Jenner, and I have plenty to say about Caitlyn Jenner… I'm very offended that she's the flavor of the month and got away with murder, literally. Hit somebody with a car, murdered them, and is not getting charged with anything. I find offense to that, but I'm not trying to start an uproar at my comedy show behind that. "
Luenell is so passionate about the importance of equality in comedy that, when asked about her favorite comedians, she separates her response by sex.
"In the male genre it's Paul Mooney, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison, George Carlin, and maybe I love George Lopez as well, and of course, Richard [Pryor], the king. As far as females go, Joan Rivers, LaWanda Page, Lucille Ball, comedic actress, Roseanne Barr, Whoopi Goldberg, and of course, Laura Hayes, and Wanda Sykes, and Judy Gold."
There's something special about Luenell’s unwillingness to submit to a politics of respectability that would seek to confine a woman of her race and age to parlor jokes and gimmicks. There's no wig tossing or aimless gyrating to be found in Luenell’s performances, only witty, well-thought-out humor. Luenell takes her audience on a journey through her life, complete with run-ins with the law, shameless promiscuity, and recollections of festivities not for the faint of heart.
Part biography, part confessional, Luenell’s ability to weave political matters into her routine is nothing short of splendid. Whereas a less seasoned comic might separate comic and political matters, Luenell imbeds austere subjects within the joke, a disguise of sorts that prompts a slightly delayed “a-ha” moment. This skillset is typically found exclusively amongst comedy’s highest grossing acts, a category Luenell and other black comediennes are perpetually excluded from.
"The fight that I'm fighting now is the fight for all women. I'm not fighting this fight to be the number one black female stand-up for myself. I really just want to show the women that somebody can do it. I want to achieve the same status as a Kevin Hart or a Katt Williams, just to show that a female can do it.
"We’re not afforded to get that high in the game. They don’t let a woman get that high in the game. The closest we’ve come has been like the Queens of Comedy, who have all petered out [due to a lack of industry support]. They didn’t continue to blossom. Mo’Nique won the Oscar, which was great, not for her stand-up but for her acting. Then, of course, with the Oscar curse, we haven't heard much from her since.
"Then Sommore, of course, is still amazing on stage, not doing a whole lot in film and television. Adele Givens went on to work a lot with Tracy Ullman on HBO, but we don’t hear a lot about generating a lot of heat and fire. Then Ms. Laura Hayes doesn't even do stand-up anymore and she's strictly doing acting. Women don't get the machine behind them that a Kat or a Kevin does. I want to break through that and I want to make sure that happens.
"Roseanne Barr is a great mentor of mine because they told her she was older, she was fat, she was not that attractive, she had a bunch of kids, she was already middle-aged, but she was undeniably the funniest woman out there. Somebody finally said yes and let her [have creative freedom], wrote a show with her in mind [and] let her use her own voice, and she ended up becoming the highest paid female comedian since Lucille Ball.
"I want to reach that status because we have to show that women deserve to have endorsement deals, as well. I can sell a Denali truck just as easily as [a male performer]. Women can sell trucks because we have groceries and children. We can sell a truck just as easily as a man can sell a truck. We can sell more things than face cream and tampons, and we deserve the right to have those endorsement deals and monies afforded to us.
"It’s funny that they always say, 'Oh, they’re an overnight success.' Yeah, most overnight successes happen when you're in your doggone 50s, and they’re very lucky when you’re in your 30s to be able to get it. That’s because you have a whole machine behind you that's doing all your promotion… Every fight that I fight, every plane that I’ve taken, every joke that I tell, I'm telling them for the sisters, not just for myself."
Indeed, Luenell is committed to working with women, noting her partnerships with various female comics and deeming Wendy Williams’ request to employ her as a comedy coach while Williams began her own foray into standup comedy “an honor”. The gender aperture between black comics, Luenell finds, has as much to do with the unwillingness of entertainment industry machines to aid black comediennes in gaining traction as it does indifference on the part of audiences.
"Nobody cares. [People] know 99 percent of the men in comedy’s names, they know two percent of the women in comedy’s names. They’ll say, 'Oh that girl that, oh, you mean that blonde girl? Oh, you mean that girl that looks like that? Oh, you mean the girl who looks like that,' but they’ll look at the men and say, 'Oh, Bill Bellamy. Oh, Rod Man. Oh, Gabriel Iglesias. Oh, George Lopez'” They know their names. They don't know the women's names. We are the afterthought; we are the invisible entertainers of this business."
When queried as to what audiences, the every day ticketholders, can do to create more spaces for black comediennes Luenell responds:
"You’re the ticket buyer. You have the power to write, tweet, Facebook, picket, boycott, or whatever. If you have a comedy show that has five men on it, you have the right to [ask] why is there not a single female on [the] show… I love all those guys. You have Eddie Griffin, Charley Murphy, Cedric the Entertainer, George Lopez, DL Hughley… You mean to tell me out of all those men, out of all the comedians in the world, there's not one woman that deserves to be on that show?
"Out of all the millions of tickets that are sold nobody in the audience stopped to think, 'Hey, why don't we have a woman on this show?' The women who are buying the tickets, 75 percent of the ticket goers… are women. Women don't even think of women, their own selves in comedy. If they did they’d say, 'We want a woman on this show. We want somebody to speak for us,' but we're not thought of, we’re the invisible afterthought. Women buy the tickets and if you walk down the street and you ask twenty-five people who their top favorite five comics are, nobody will say a woman's name. Nobody. "
It becomes clearer as our conversation progresses that Luenell’s humble beginning in the church choir was not simply a starting point for her career, it was, and continues to be, the inspiration for her artistic demeanor. She preaches the gospel of black women’s oppression through the lens of comedy and, despite her frustration with audiences often indifferent to her cause, she opts to continue to develop an intimate relationship with them as opposed to abnegating by appealing to mainstream (predominantly non black) audiences—the chosen method of many comics before her.
For example, at the close of each show, Luenell intentionally leaves 15 minutes for a question and answer session with her audience. At a recent show in Washington, DC, she emptied the tote bag she carried on stage (bedazzled with colorful beads aligned to reflect Luenell’s signature short blonde hair, long red painted nails, and radiant smile) in order to sell it to an audience member who inquired about purchasing one (Luenell did not have any on hand for purchase). Her love for her fans is not only apparent, it's sincere.
Much like a pastor presiding over her congregation on Easter Sunday—speaking before an audience clad in the season’s finest attire—Luenell ensures that her audience knows that she stands above them on stage because they will it. As the popular church saying “We are all God’s children” imbues a spiritual resonance, so too does the environment Luenell creates during and after her set, she not only jokes from a space born of black oppression, she refuses to distance herself from it.
"I was an audience member way before I was an entertainer. I know what it is to be a black audience member. We talk about it for two weeks, we plan for it, 'what am I going to wear, I got to get gas, I got to get the car washed, da da da da da, girl, cause we going to the show tomorrow night. We going to the show. We going to the show.' It’s a happening. It’s an event. They didn’t just pop into the seats. These people had to get babysitters, and they had to maybe get off work early, they had to go to the shop, and I got to get my nails done today because I ain’t going to have time tomorrow because I'm going to the show.
"In their mind, they're part of the experience. These people had to prepare to come see you, so you owe it to them to say, 'Thank you. I appreciate you.'"
It becomes increasingly clear as Luenell performs that the audience recognizes her as extended family. Even when she tells a seemingly familiar joke from a performance past, it doesn't seem to be redundant—the stuff of silent audiences and cricket chirps—but instead, it feels akin to seeing your favorite band play a song you have heard a thousand times, live. Despite hearing the song time and again, there's something magical about the live experience, and the crowd’s laughter is evidence of this. This skill, transforming an audience full of strangers into a makeshift clan over the course of an hour is, Luenell states, the result of laughing through decades of pain in various forms to include sexual assault, addiction, and violence. Luenell is more than a survivor; she is a triumph.
"I am a testimony. I have not always done the right thing, many years I was doing the real, real, real, real wrong thing. People can teach you how to sing, but can't nobody teach you how to sing. People can teach you how to act, but nobody can teach you how to be a great actor. People can teach you how to do comedy, but nobody can teach you how to be a great comedian. I think great comedians are born, just like Richard [Pryor].
"Even through all the men, and the drugs, and the liquor, and the incarceration, and the this, and the that, and the runaways, and incest, and the rapes, and all that stuff, comedy has been the one thing that's been consistent in my life, [and] it will [continue to] be.
"Even at my mother's funeral I found something hilarious to crack up at. People thought I was crying, but I wasn’t, I was cracking the fuck up because my mother [was] laying in the casket four feet away from me, and her best friend wanted to fucking sing. That's great, but the bitch can’t sing. We’re at the fucking funeral and this bitch is going to sing a song that’s like five verses long. I’m like, 'God, lay me down in the casket with my mother. This bitch is going to kill me. When the fuck is this over already?'
"I was sitting up in the front row cracking up, just like, 'Kill me, just kill me.' I'm cracking the fuck up, people thought I was crying but I was laughing.