Comedy is a craft. Amateurs can make people laugh. When your Uncle Kevin says that he can be funnier than the guy on television, he is not completely wrong. However, as a professional, one has to be funny more often and in more challenging circumstances. The craft is formulating punchlines and understanding the audience. This is what separates the novice from the expert. Leslie Jones knows this, and she manipulates this to change the game.
Though born in Memphis, Tennessee, the Saturday Night Live player grew up in California and New York. She and her family moved around a lot due her father being in the army. Eventually, they settled in Lynwood, California, just north of Compton. Gangs roughed up the neighborhood, but Jones’ dedication to basketball kept her away from trouble. Receiving an athletic scholarship, she attended college where she jumped from major to major. She knew she was great at basketball, and nothing else really captured her attention. Then, one day in 1987 at 19 years old, the athletic star was secretly entered by a friend into the “Funniest Person on Campus” contest. The friend waited a couple of days before the competition to reveal her entry. At first, Jones was taken aback, but she decided perform. After winning the event with no previous stand-up experience, she dropped out of college and moved back to Los Angeles to become a comedian.
About a month in, she shared the bill with Jamie Foxx who at this point was touring and established. The rookie Jones went out and bombed hard. The crowd heckled. Afterward, Foxx invited the newbie out to a Fatburger where he advised that Jones still had some life to live like heartbreak in order to write comedy. Taking this sincerely, the young comic waited six years before she took the mic again. She worked in food, sold perfume, and even officiated weddings.
During the mid-nineties, sometime after a bad breakup with a boyfriend, she made another attempt. She had things to say. About ten years from her original debut, she found a comedic voice. She scored a spot on BET’s ComicView. Recognizing her strength and will to progress further, Dave Chappelle and Mother Jones separately encouraged her to move to the Big Apple where standups go to learn comedic craft. Following their sage advice, the ambitious performer switched cites. She learned, in her words, “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.”
Jones has mentioned Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, and Whoopi Goldberg as influences. She has also made note of Don Rickles being a role model for crowd work. However, Jones’ crowd work gets very physical. She sweats on audience members. She gets in each of their faces and asks questions. Much of her act is this sort of intensity. Even when she describes PSA drug commercials, Jones is running all over the stage. She holds her tall 6 foot frame in silly postures to incite laughter. In a bit about her dad trying to convince her to play basketball instead of gymnastics, she mimes swatting the ball away and follows the gesture with an actual cartwheel. From her facial expressions to her body movements, Jones completely commits. That’s true craft.