Don’t underestimate Tiffany Haddish.
It’s something people have been doing for way too long. Whether it’s been fellow comediennes who thought she was just a pretty face trying to use her looks to get ahead (that’s what Leslie Jones thought before they became buddies), an agent who told her she would never be anything (“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gon’ be something. Even if it’s a rich man’s baby mama, I’m going to be something”), or reporters like myself who didn’t understand how she paid the bills with a short-lived role on Tyler Perry’s If Loving You is Wrong (“Yes, I do drama! Haddish exclaimed over lunch with reporters at the 20th Century Fox lot), Haddish has been underestimated time and again. But after leaving our meal together, I realized one wondrous thing about her: Haddish is a hustler, and after years of hustling her way through poverty and the foster care system, she’s using her talents to obtain the success she deserves.
It hasn’t been an easy road for The Carmichael Show star, not by a longshot. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, her mother suffered from mental illness. Haddish and her siblings were eventually placed in the foster care system. She said it was those rough years that taught her to make other people laugh. By doing so, she was able to find a sense of peace, a “safe place.” She was able to learn most from and connect most with those who also had a sense of humor.
“The stage is my home. It’s my safe place,” Haddish said. “Someone might shoot me up here, but they’re not going to come up here with a belt and whoop me in front of everybody. Nobody’s going to let that happen to me. And I feel like, I’m more apt to do things for people that make me laugh, that bring me joy. I’ve learned more from people who make me laugh. The teachers I remember, in my life, are all people who made me laugh. Most people that are damaged and hurt, which is most comedians because we’re all pretty crazy and messed up in some kind of way, gravitate to comedy because it’s healing. It’s straight medicine to be able to get up on stage and speak your ideas and people laugh–either in agreement or disagreement or shock or whatever. But to be able to invoke emotion in a room full of strangers is a powerful thing.”
That ability also helped her get through school. Haddish spent a majority of her young life not knowing how to read. It wasn’t until her drama teacher found out when she was 15 and forced her to come practice reading during lunch and nutrition classes that Haddish gradually caught up. Knowing how to read “is the thing I’m most proud of.” But before she was caught, she was relying on her colleagues. By making her classmates laugh and building connections, she was finally able to keep people from bullying her for being poor, but she was also able to get them to help her pass from grade to grade.
“I was excellent at making people laugh and getting people to do things for me,” Haddish said. “All I knew were my ABCs and like three-letter words and McDonald’s. Things you see every day. So I was a professional cheater. I saw this movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and that movie is the basis of my existence. I was getting beat up in school, picked on and all of that. And when that detective said to the rabbit, ‘Why are people doing these things for you?’ He said, ‘Because I make ’em laugh, Eddie. If you make ’em laugh, they’ll do anything for you.’ And I was like, ‘That’s what I’m gonna do! I’m going to make the smart kids laugh, and they’ll let me copy their homework. Maybe someone can teach me to do this and that.’ I fit into every circle because I needed to copy [laughs].”
After high school, Haddish struggled because while she was accepted into drama programs and different schools, she couldn’t afford to pay her way through such institutions.
“I was like, ‘Where do you get tuition from?'”
Feeling depressed about her circumstances, Haddish did customer service work, was employed at an airline, and did what she could to pay bills. After finding herself in a slump, depressed, she was encouraged by a mentor to get back into doing comedy. So she did. She entertained patrons at coffee shops and performed at The Laugh Factory before she was offered her first paid gig. Not surprisingly, there’s a funny story behind it.
“It was at the Renaissance Hotel. It was a lesbian convention of some sort–I didn’t know, though,” Haddish said. “I just thought it was a lot of women just having a dinner [laughs]. I get up on stage, and I tell my jokes. At that time, all my jokes was about my boyfriend. They started heckling me and stuff. They were like, ‘Do you know where you are little girl?!’ And I’m like, ‘I’m at the Renaissance Hotel telling jokes!’ And they were like, ‘You’re at the Gay, Lesbian blah blah blah.’ I was like, ‘Oooooh.’ The booker didn’t tell me, but I did 10 minutes, and they gave me $50. I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life!’ Ten minutes and $50 bucks?!”
So after working all kinds of jobs in between gigs (including teaching dance, stand-up and improv at youth centers, and even doing hundreds of stand-up routines at bar mitzvahs), Haddish started to focus solely on acting and comedy. Doors began to open–and then kind of close.
It was just a few years ago that she was one of a few comediennes talking to TMZ about what it was like to audition for Saturday Night Live after Kenan Thompson said many of the Black comics who try out for the sketch comedy show “weren’t ready” to land such a gig.
She now says opening her mouth about it to the press wasn’t a good idea, claiming the TMZ reporter twisted her words. But she doesn’t regret what she had to say about that entire process and controversy, or the impact it had on her career.
“They asked me how I felt about it, and I was like, ‘Well I was a little upset because I didn’t know that the audition was actually a show people were buying tickets to,” Haddish said. “I get paid! I get paid when I do a show people buy tickets to. I was just told to come down at 10 o’ clock and audition. So I thought it was going to be two guys and a camera. I’m going to do my impersonations and then go home. But it was a full theater full of people that bought tickets. Nobody told me. I could have had my fans come out and watch me. That part had me mad. Now you’re making money off of me.”
She continued,”I feel like this. I’ve produced projects before. And when I produce something, I know who I want. Now, if they don’t get back to me fast enough, I’m going to start holding auditions. But I feel like, personally, if you already know in your mind you’ve been following somebody for two or three years, and you’re trying to get them to be on your thing, then you get that person. Don’t have 50, 70, 800 Black women come and audition for something you know you don’t want to hire any of them for. Now you’re wasting my gas money and my time. I could have been creating my own stuff!”
But Haddish admitted that such a setback only made her more determined. She continued to audition and hustle with bit roles here and there, including work on Real Husbands of Hollywood. Finally, after losing her gig on Tyler Perry’s If Loving You is Wrong as Jackie and not getting Meagan Good’s role on the short-lived comedy, Mr. Robinson, she was offered the role of Nekeisha on NBC’s The Carmichael Show as a series regular. And she is also starring in the upcoming comedy, Keanu, with comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Things are looking up for the talented and resolute comedienne who still also does stand-up comedy (for big bucks) and still resides in South Central (because she wants to–for now). So much so that some of the same people who used to bully her in school and underestimated her for so long are trying to get on her good side. Like an old ruffian named Chauncey, she ran into recently while he was doing his work as a security guard.
“He was like, ‘Tiffany! I’ve been seeing you everywhere. You’re really out here! You’re everywhere.'”
“I looked at him,” she said, “And I was like, ‘Why yes. Yes, I am.’ It felt so good! [laughs]”
Check out Haddish on The Carmichael Show on Sunday nights (9 p.m. EST) on NBC, and in Keanu when it comes out on April 29 in theaters.