The Jokes On You: Black Women Are Making Comedy Their Own
Yamaneika Saunders (Photo courtesy of Yamaneika Saunders )
Comedy may be a profession based on laughs, but for comediennes, the professional climb can be anything but funny. It is, in fact, a long hard road to success, especially for Black women. But as of late, there is a rush of new Black female talent making waves in the comedy biz.
“It took decades after stand-up legend Moms Mabley had to make do with the Chitlin’ Circuit and variety-show guest spots for Whoopi Goldberg to become a bonafide comedic movie star in the ’80s. Since then, the number of black women considered bankable comedic leads by mainstream studios is limited to one: Queen Latifah. And even her reign was inexplicably short-lived,” reported The Los Angeles Times. Today, there’s a much longer list of Black female comediennes — Wanda Sykes, Tracee Ellis Ross, Aisha Tyler, Sherri Shepherd, Leslie Jones, Jessica Williams, and “Girls Trip” breakout star Tiffany Haddish — who are on the come-up, though they still aren’t raking in the same big bucks as their male counterparts.
But comedy isn’t just a profession; it’s a calling of sorts. For Onika McLean, it was a lifelong dream, and three years ago, her dream came true.
“Well, I’ve been a fool my entire life,” McLean joked. “And I always wanted to become an actor. I would do anything to make people laugh. I know that laughter is a wonderful drug. When you are laughing you aren’t worried and it feels like a ministry. When my children got older and I realized that I needed to put myself first, comedy was the one thing that made me most fearful. So, in hood fashion, I took the biggest and baddest bully in the school yard (which was comedy for me) and I started to punch her in the face. And I said I’m not going to let her go while the other girls, aka fears, watch in disbelief. I’m knocking my fears down one punch at a time.”
McLean, who is a business coach and president/founder of Lexington Development Group, is like many women who have a day job to pay the bills and a side hustle to fulfill their dreams. “I haven’t fully switched yet, I have a problem with struggling. I have a bad Marshals shopping problem as well so I still have my 9-5 and I do comedy at night and weekends,” McLean joked.
Yamaneika Saunders has loved comedy for most of her life, thanks to a little push from her mother. “Comedy came crashing into my life when I was 16 years old. I was a theater student at the Los Angeles County HS for the Arts (LACSA) and my mother started taking stand-up classes with [comedian] Judy Carter around that time,” Saunders recalled. “Eventually, my mother thought it would be a good idea for me to take up stand up as well. Also, around that time they offered stand up as a subdiscipline at LACSA, so I made a pact with my mom that I would audition, but in the event that I was accepted, I would never go because stand up was beneath me. Needless to say, things didn’t go the way I planned.
Since then, the Baltimore native has been performing comedy across the country. She was also a semi-finalist on “Last Comic Standing,” one of the stars of “Funny Girls” on Oxygen, and a panelist on “The Meredith Vieira Show.”
So why comedy? “Initially, I felt like comedy was a great outlet for me to showcase my acting talents. There are very few roles written for Black women in theater that don’t require you to be the maid, nanny, bed wench, or some sub-character. Over time, I realized it was a way for me to release all the noise in my head,” Sanders said.
For both Sanders and McLean, though they share a love of comedy, making it a full-time career is a whole other thing. “Getting paid?” McLean laughed. Comedy for the comic is a dream come true. And amidst managing the stage fright, working on your material, and becoming comfortable on stage and relatable, getting paid can be the last thing on your mind — until the bill collectors come a knocking.”
McLean said her biggest challenge on the financial side was the choice to stop doing what’s called “bringers” in the business. “There are more seasoned comics that host ‘bringer shows,’ which is when the newer comic needs to bring a certain about of people (spending money) to get on the stage. Seven people for seven minutes. If the comic isn’t able to bring the agreed upon amount of people, they aren’t allowed to hit the stage, and the comic doesn’t get paid. With comedy, like any business, you must work on your craft and develop an entrepreneurial mindset. If you don’t set your price, you aren’t going to get your money. So develop the business mindset or keep comedy as a hobby.”
Self-promotion is key for comedians, especially Black female comics who have fewer gig opportunities. “I host my own show, Cosmic Comedy, and I promote on social media. I do shows with other comics; people see me and they book me,” McLean explained.
Similarly, Sanders hosts a podcast called “Rantin and Ravin‘,” which, she said, “incorporates a lot of politics and common sense.”
Besides the challenge of making money, there’s another major obstacle for women of color in comedy, Sanders said: validation. “There is a standard that the best comedy comes from white men, and the template they set in comedy is the norm. The antithesis of a white man is a Black woman, so if they are the standard, we are the ‘what not to do.'”
With so few opportunities also comes the well-known struggle of crabs in a barrel syndrome. “I understand it, I used to be a participant in that game,” Sanders admitted. “As I’ve gotten older and more spiritual, I realize that my race is against myself and what’s for me is for me.”
And with the influx of funny Black women on both the small and big screen, aspiring comics are starting to feel like there are much fewer limits on what’s possible for them. “First BET said ‘We Rock’ and Black women started to believe it. Then they said ‘We were Magic’ and that sunk in. With so many positive women in the media now–which balances out the bull–women are starting to really live out their dreams, and so am I,” McLean stated.
Sanders, whose half-hour Comedy Central special airs at midnight tonight, feels the same way. “There was a time that you could only get one Black woman on at a time. Now we are busting the doors open, or trying very hard to bust the doors open. I think Black women have been left on our own for so long that we learned to survive. We’ve learned how to build. We learned to lift ourselves up. We just kept doing our thing, no matter what and now people are looking over at us and saying ‘hey, did you see that village over there? Let’s see what it has to offer.”
Despite the uphill battles, Sanders and McLean said they wouldn’t be in any other profession. “I’ve quit like a million times, but only for like a day or two at a time. It’s exciting having something to say and getting on stage and sharing those thoughts with other living beings and then witnessing them getting it and loving it,” McLean said. “Everyday is a new adventure and new challenge. The audience is our co-workers and every day our co-workers change, so you don’t get bored.”