So why don’t aspiring black performers go elsewhere? Why don’t they just head to the North Side of Chicago, which boasts several standup clubs along with two of the most influential comedy theaters and training centers in the country, The Second City and iO Theater? Well, they do. In fact, black performers, like Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, have been performing at these venues for some time. The Second City boasts new fellowship and outreach programming, like the NBC Universal-sponsored Bob Curry Fellowship, designed to attract performers from underrepresented groups.
Haddish herself got her start at a Laugh Factory comedy-camp program tailored to young performers from underprivileged backgrounds. She was mentored by stars like Richard Pryor and Dane Cook, and she has said the camp boosted her confidence and set her on the path to stardom. As Haddish explained in an interview with People, “Going to that comedy camp and having all those men tell me, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re smart. You’re talented.’ Like, for somebody to tell me that, even if they didn’t believe it or mean it, it was enough. It was enough to light a fire.”
But even when one barrier to entry is removed, performers of color and economically disadvantaged comics still face serious obstacles to professional development. Whether in standup or sketch, comedians who have money to fall back on have a much better chance of lasting in the business than those who come from backgrounds like Haddish’s. The comedy camp didn’t rescue Haddish from poverty; she lived in her car during the early years of her career.
Even beyond the cost factor, the experiences of people of color, women, and women of color at these theaters differ dramatically from those of their white, male counterparts. They learn in predominantly white classes with predominantly white instructors and perform for predominantly white audiences. Scenes in sketch and improv comedy can also sometimes veer toward racial stereotyping that puts comedians of color in a difficult bind.
The Second City veteran, improv instructor, and cultural critic Ali Barthwell recounted an example of this treatment for my book. She was at an improv audition where she played an adventurer exploring a deep hole in the ground. One of the other improv players saw the hole and said to Barthwell, “I don’t want to go down there. It’s scary and black. No offense.” Passive-aggressive racism like this is doubly poisonous for comedians from underrepresented groups because they’re expected to shrug off their discomfort, sometimes in order to prove their true commitment to comedy. If black women react with justified frustration, they become more vulnerable to the “angry black woman” stereotype. In general, comedians of color aren’t expected to push back when they feel certain jokes cross the line. The former director of digital content at The Onion and best-selling author Baratunde Thurston told me:
People just think you’re superhuman and they can just say anything to you and you have to take it as a joke. And if you’re doing comedy and race, people want to like test you, and be like, “Wussup my niggaaaah!” I’m a human being still. I have feelings, I have standards, and I have a sense of self respect.
Conventional thinking holds that comedians from marginalized groups will have more opportunities if gatekeepers and audiences simply take a colorblind approach to producing and consuming comedy. Comedians themselves often buy into this notion and strive for universalism and “funny is funny” meritocracy; Jerry Seinfeld has made such arguments repeatedly over the past few years. But as Barthwell and Thurston describe, comedy isn’t colorblind, and insisting on neutrality often means demanding that black comics adapt to white norms—and preserve the status quo. Neutrality keeps inequality in place, often yielding stale and unimaginative comedy that alienates and excludes performers of color. But the fact that the critically acclaimed Girls Trip is the most successful live-action comedy of the year, with $126 million and counting at the box office, demonstrates that good art, good business, and diversity are indeed compatible.
Haddish’s career took a rather traditional route, from doing standup at major clubs, to landing a sitcom role on a major network, to starring in a movie from a major studio. Ultimately, however, Haddish’s future and the future of black women in comedy may lie elsewhere. Digital production and distribution, as well as social media, have wrested some power from television and film studios and placed it in the hands of artists. Issa Rae started Awkward Black Girl as a YouTube web series before getting a deal with HBO to make her show Insecure. Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams are following in Rae’s footsteps, and the co-hosts of the WNYC 2 Dope Queens podcast will take their act to HBO as well. As Robinson explained, becoming a content producer, rather than just a performer, means, “You can be more in charge of your destiny, rather than, ‘I hope someone will cast me as something.’” This approach allows artists to cultivate a following and demonstrate their worth without first needing a major investment from a film company.