Photo credit: Elton Anderson
Women have made significant strides in the stand-up comedy arena as evidenced in network specials, award nominations and major film and television roles; however, despite these achievements and accolades, they are still largely under-recognized and, in some cases, not respected in the world of comedy.
And for black women in the game, the challenges are even greater.
Amanda Seales moves through those hurdles in a seamlessly effortless and “blackity-black” fashion; this multi-talented comedienne, who earlier this year released her first special “I Be Knowin’” and is also known for her role as Tiffany on “Insecure” (both on HBO), is a great example of the saying “if you can make ‘em laugh, you can make ‘em learn.”
We spoke with Seales in advance of her game show, “Smart, Funny & Black,” which hits town later this month. Here, she spoke about the show, social media challenges and the comedy-friendliness of Chicago.
Chicago Defender: This year began with your HBO comedy special “I Be Knowin’” which you’ve often referred to as your “baby”. Why was this special a “birth” for you?
Amanda Seales: It wasn’t just that it was my first special, but it was also the first time that I was putting out something that I created wholly by myself on a major, global platform. Your first [comedy] special is the gestation period for your whole life; it is coming from everything that you’ve ever experienced and putting that all into something that means a lot to you. That’s why I call it my baby.
CD: These days, stand-up comedy is facing a lot of scrutiny and pressure to be more politically correct; additionally, with black women in the industry already facing their own unique challenges, you don’t appear to have any difficulty navigating the terrain. How do you keep it moving?
AS: Oh, I think that is definitely a misperception. I think I have difficulty; I just don’t show it on my Instagram where people are so used to me showing everything else. One of my biggest struggles has just been my life; maybe it doesn’t happen so much with my comedy, but even with just my thoughts, I am misunderstood on a daily basis on the internet, whether it’s on “The Shade Room,” my comments or my DMs.
CD: The internet has indeed become a very tough space for comedians…
AS: I definitely struggle with that in the sense of feeling like I have to continuously explain myself because I don’t want to be misunderstood, and for comedians that’s a big thing with us. We want to be understood because we want you to get the jokes but when it comes to my commentary, it’s not about a joke, it’s about the concept and the nugget of knowledge that I feel I can feed and grow us.
CD: You are unmistakably and unapologetically clear about black women being your target audience; for those on the periphery who might question why your material isn’t for everybody, what would you say to them?
AS: To be fair, I honestly haven’t even gotten any of that. You know what I get? I get sistas who come for me with “You don’t talk enough about your light-skinned privilege” or “You think you’re smarter than everybody” or “You are not really black because your mother is from Grenada.” That’s what really trips me out. I’ve pointed out sh** within myself and I point out things about others and I point out things with black women and black men, too. What really gets me is that the individuals that I feel most connected to attempt to ostracize me based on things that are not accurate or are harmful to them.
CD: Music, television, stand-up, and podcasting comprise your background; when you’re conceptualizing or creating projects, how does this diverse collective shape your performances?
AS: I really try to keep all the gates open and not confine myself to one medium and I have to almost make a concerted effort to not shut down anything that happens to pop into my brain. At this point, I come to the table with all the doors open.
CD: Speaking of podcasting, your “Small Doses” podcast has paved the way for your upcoming book “Small Doses: Potent Truths for Everyday Use,”which you’ve described as the podcast’s literature accompaniment. You’ve also said the book is “the scariest thing you’ve ever done.” What frightened you so?
AS: [It frightened me] because I respect the medium of literature so much; well, I respect every creative medium, especially ones that I’ve stepped into. For example, when I was a DJ, I would DJ a party and then I would just leave; but when you write a book, there ain’t no leaving! That book is there! Books have a life span that extends far beyond even the things we read on the web and you take them in differently than when you read an op-ed or a blog. Now I don’t know what the psychosomatic reasoning is behind that but for me, I just hold books in a certain esteem.
CD: Let’s talk about “Smart, Funny & Black,” your game show coming soon to Chicago that is exclusively for and about black culture. Were you a fan of game shows growing up?
AS: I don’t even really feel that I was. I’m a 90s kid, so I watched “Carmen San Diego” and “Double Dare” but it wasn’t like I was fascinated by any means. I think what it really came down to was that I wanted to discuss black culture and the black experience in a format that was palatable and respected, and make it into a game versus an entire theatrical performance. This also allows for improv as well as fluidity in terms of the topics and moving in and out of that format as a writer and as the creator serves multiple positive purposes.
CD: Black culture and the black experience really sounds like ingredients for a good competition!
AS: People love watching competition and competition raises the stakes of any type of game, so I wanted to create a space where what we were competing for was black excellence, and over time, in developing the show, it went from “Oh, we’re playing a game in my living room” to “We’re playing a game within the halls of black academia.”
CD: This year marks a return to Chicago; why is it a “must-stop” city for the “Smart, Funny & Black” tour?
AS: Chicago is a great city for me and my work, it makes great comics and it supports great comedy. When we did “Smart, Funny & Black” last year at Thalia Hall, the response was incredible and it was really the first moment that I truly understood the measure of the show. It just let us know that we always gotta come back to Chicago! Last year when I did “Smart, Funny & Black” in Chicago, it was National Women’s Day. I invited a bunch of brothas on stage, passed the mic around and had each of them say why they love black women. It was such an inspiring and uplifting moment and it seems like Chicago is always down for that. And, in spite of all of the negative things that are said about Chicago, there’s still a fight and a positivity about the city that just keeps rolling along.
CD: This year, former Chicago Bears player and social media superstar Anthony “Spice” Adams is part of the show. Tell us about his role.
AS: We have a different set up for the show in Chicago; we tried this in Atlanta and it went so well that we’re going to try it out in Chicago. We’ll have one “blackspert,” Spice Adams, who is a hilarious content creator on Instagram and he’s also somebody who does a great job of displaying black comedy. Instead of having a second “blackspert,” we are opening the floor to have a hometown hero.
CD: How is the hometown hero chosen?
AS: At the show, we will open the floor and ask for whoever wants to have a shot at being the hometown hero and compete against Spice Adams to raise their hand. We’ll pick three people in the audience who will come on stage and they’ll play a game. The winner of that game will stay on stage and finish out the show as the hometown hero and we’ll see if they can become the master blackspert at the end of the night. We’re really just trying to find ways to continuously involve our audience and elevate the experience for people. When we did it this way in Atlanta, it went so well and the audience was so invested that we said we’re going to try this again with another city that really takes pride in their blackness. And Chicago is definitely that.
CD: 2019 has definitely been busy for you; what does 2020 look like for Amanda Seales?
AS: Girl, let me get through 2019! There will always be a desire for elevation and growth and then there are projects that I’m putting out there that I don’t want to speak on yet, but 2020 will just be a continued momentum of expansion of my “Smart, Funny & Black” brand and my comedy and even getting into different spaces that are outside of entertainment. But I really just want to continue to create on a high level and find people to do that with. That’s just my basic goal.
Catch “Smart, Funny & Black” with Amanda Seales at 8 p.m., Saturday, September 28, at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State Street. Visit smartfunnyandblack.com for more information.
LaShawn Williams is a lifelong Chicagoan and arts and entertainment enthusiast.