HOLLYWOOD — As Leslie Jones walked through the Tower Bar in the Sunset Tower Hotel on a sunny Wednesday morning, sipping a Starbucks iced green tea, an elderly white woman quickly got up from her table to stop her. “I’m sorry, I just had to tell you how happy I am we have a voice out there like yours," she said, reaching out to shake Jones’ hand. "Don’t let them stop you.”
Jones initially seemed startled — which isn’t surprising considering all the negativity the comedian has endured from the public — but halfway through the unsolicited vote of confidence, she softened and thanked the woman for her support.
Later, Jones admitted that kind of thing happens to her all the time. Not only because she’s a 6-foot-tall dark-skinned black woman with a signature spiky hairstyle that only makes her taller, but also because she is one of the top comedians of the moment. And no, not just "top black female comedian" — she’s not here for all the extra labels, never has been.
"It’s not about the struggle or anything, just call me what I am."
“It’s obvious I’m black, it’s obvious I’m a female, why can’t I just be called a comedian? You don’t say a white female comic, you don’t say a white male comic, but obviously, because I’m black, you have to put that on there. We all have this problem. We gotta stop labeling shit. It’s not about the struggle or anything, just call me what I am,” Jones said from a quiet table in the corner of the restaurant. “I hate getting introduced like, ‘Oh y'all ready for a female!’ at comedy shows because it’s basically like asking, ‘Are y'all ready for a unicorn? Are you ready for this horsey to come up and start eating fire?’ Like, what the fuck? Are we freaks? We’re not.”
If you look at the pie of successful mainstream comedians, black women hold a very small slice. And Jones has managed to have the kind of career any comedian would dream of. She’s gone from BET’s stand-up show Comic View to NBC’s critically acclaimed sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live; from appearing in lower budget movies like 2010's Lottery Ticket to costarring in blockbusters like the 2016 Ghostbusters remake.
But Jones, a 49-year-old Memphis native, couldn't care less about being the comedian of the moment — she just wants to make you laugh.
“I’m so glad to get paid for it, but this is what I’d be doing either way,” said Jones, who has spent the majority of her career doing stand-up in local clubs like The Comedy Store in Hollywood and opening up for comedians like Katt Williams and Dave Chappelle. “I love making people laugh, especially making someone laugh that don’t usually laugh. Oh, I love it so much.”
That rush ignited Jones’ desire to become a comedian as a child. “I was watching Richard Pryor, and he had cracked this one joke that made me laugh so hard and made me think, Does this guy know about my life?” she said, gesturing to her heart. "It was just that feeling from laughing really, really hard and getting that tickling feeling in your stomach — it was that. I wanted to make people feel like that.”
That's what's on Jones' mind as she tackles her next big career milestone and the reason she was in LA on the first day of summer: She's this year’s BET Awards host, an honor that has been held by comedy icons like Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Monique, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Anthony Anderson. It's a role that hadn’t been given to a woman to handle solo since Monique hosted the show for her third time in 2007.
“I really want to bring comedy forward. That’s what I’m using this opportunity for: to do more stand-up. That’s what I want people to know me for,” said Jones as she widened her eyes and leaned forward with excitement. “I want Sunday’s show to be the most joyous occasion ever. I want it to be a shut-out of hate. I want people to be laughing, shoulders relaxed. I remember watching the BET Awards and watching people enjoy it — that’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
It feels like hatred toward minorities has grown stronger in the current political climate, so making people laugh feels particularly necessary to Jones, who believes the Trump administration is more of a result of America’s problems as opposed to the cause of them. “I get it, Trump is one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had. We’ve lived through bad presidents before,” she said. “The problem is this world isn’t functioning correctly because we don’t care about each other, we don’t care about ourselves. We’re hurtful, we’re mean, there’s just no joy right now. Don’t blame it all on Trump — it’s not just on him. He’s a result of our hate, of our pain, and that’s real talk.”
Jones has experienced that kind of hate firsthand since starting on SNL as a featured player in October 2014, but particularly as she geared up to promote Ghostbusters last summer. “I should be the greatest example of not being downtrodden with all the shit that’s happened to me this year and I’m still fucking walking, because that’s life, man," she said. "You have to do right when wrong is being done to you.”
"I’m still fucking walking, because that’s life, man."
"All the shit" that Jones is referring to is the online abuse she’s had to bear from internet trolls, which reached such horrific levels it called into question Twitter's harassment policies. In July 2016, Jones tweeted some of the awful messages she was receiving from men who called her everything from an ape to the source of AIDS. The situation got so bad, Jones took a Twitter hiatus for self-care, after which her supporters and friends created the #LoveForLeslieJ hashtag to call attention to the situation and to encourage the comedian. Eventually, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey reached out to Jones to help her shut down some of the accounts targeting her, and she returned to Twitter a few days later. But that didn't stop someone from hacking her website and leaking her personal information and photos.
And yet, after all of this, she's still managed to rise above.
In the beginning, Jones admitted that she would clap back when people came at her on Twitter because she is a comic after all. But eventually she learned doing so only gave her haters the platform they were looking for. “I was like, ‘Oh, let me not help them do that,’ because most times the things they’re saying are nonsense, so why pay attention to it? It’s like someone coming at you saying your shirt is blue and you’re like, 'Obviously my shirt is black,'” said Jones in the type of tone reserved for someone who has gotten on every single one of your nerves. “Why fight that? It’s dumb.”
"Bring some goddamn laughter or stop calling yourself a comic."
Now she says the only way to combat hate is to love it away, which is why she’s putting the call out to comedians to get back to making people laugh. "Because when you laugh, you’re able to let go of your troubles and you’re able to be a little bit more clear about what it is you need to do,” Jones said. “I’m so tired of comedians trying to teach people. Your job is not to teach people; it is to make them laugh. And if we can laugh about the pain, then we can get taught somewhere else. There’s no laughter in this world right now, at least not no pure laughter. And anytime any comedian steps up with the bullshit, they are making people hate us. Step up with some funny shit, don’t step up with that political controversial shit. … Bring some goddamn laughter or stop calling yourself a comic.”
Stand-up is having a resurgence, thanks to Netflix and HBO specials featuring comedians like Dave Chappelle, Jerrod Carmichael, and, of course, Kevin Hart, whose shows now play in movie theaters nationwide. But the traditionally subversive art form is having a bit of a hard time in the new social media era, where activists are ready to check every joke a comedian makes, as Chappelle experienced firsthand when his long-awaited Netflix special included transgender jokes that were not received well.
“That’s another thing we need to work on as a society is walking around offended. Jesus wept,” Jones said, quoting the shortest verse in the Bible without cracking a smile. “You will not be able to live your life if you’re constantly walking around offended. And I’ll tell you, that’s a young problem too. When I was young, I used to get offended about anything. When you get older, you have to stop being offended; because when you like yourself, you don’t get offended so fast. When someone says my feet are big, I laugh because yes, I got some big-ass feet and I’m 6 feet tall. Comedians' job is to point out what’s going on in society and make it funny.”
Jones’ ability to emerge from all of the online vitriol hurled at her still smiling, still making jokes on Late Night With Seth Meyers and on the Emmys stage, still wanting to make people laugh, is years in the making. “I’ve always been picked on, so you learn how to have a tough skin,” she said. “Also, I believe in God — I have a high spiritual level that allows me not to look at people as attackers, but as people who have a lot of pain that they need to deal with.”
In allowing herself to let go of the hate, Jones has also started to enjoy what being famous offers her, like trips to Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics, selfies with Adele (or “‘Dele” as she called her when she asked for a photo), and compliments from Beyoncé.
“She told me she was a fan. I was like, ‘But you’re Beyoncé. You Bey,’” Jones remembered with the same shocked expression any mere mortal would have over being praised by the queen. “I kept calling her Bo-niece. She finally asked me, ‘Why do you keep calling me Bo-niece?’ and I said, ‘Because you know nobody is calling you Beyoncé in Texas!’ She was like, ‘You wrong for that, you so wrong for that.’”
"I can’t explain how many realisms come to you when someone close to you dies."
Moments like that showcase why people can’t help but love Jones: She says what’s on her mind unabashedly, no matter who is listening, and will joke on you no matter how many Grammys you have. She simply gives zero fucks, from the tips of her signature hairstyle to the bottom of her big-ass feet.
And while that mindset brings her peace now, it was born from tragedy. “My brother died,” she said, pausing before adding, “I don’t want to bring the conversation down, but I can’t explain how many realisms come to you when someone close to you dies and how much stuff you don’t care about anymore.”
It was that new attitude that gave Jones the confidence to finally wear her hair the way she does now in public. "I always wore my hair like this at home because whenever I’m off, I just don’t comb my hair. I always liked the style, but I wouldn’t wear it out. Then someone called me out to do a comedy show last minute and I didn’t feel like combing my hair, so I came out and they were like, ‘Yo! That is dope, yo!’" she said, mocking the way men catcall women on any given city block. “And I was like, ‘Wait, y'all like it?’" she continued with her jaw dropped. "And I’ve been wearing my hair like that ever since."
As for what’s next for Jones — you know, after she hosts BET’s biggest night — she has another season of SNL coming this fall, when she'll be the only black woman left on the show. But Jones is not about to play Bo-niece or Michelle Obama every weekend now that Sasheer Zamata's departure has left those impersonations open. “Nothing bothers my creative process,” she stated plainly when asked if she had any concerns about Zamata’s exit affects her work on the show. "I do what I want to."
Further down the line, Jones would also love to have her own stand-up special — possible titles include Don’t Sit in the Front Row and This Bitch Is Crazy — and another feature film. “I would like to do a serious role in a movie, just because I like when comedians do serious roles, but I do know I’d probably have to be in another funny movie first,” she said.
Ultimately, she’d like to have a career like Whoopi Goldberg's. “She’s the biggest person I influence my career after,” Jones said. “She has everything, she has the EGOT [Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony]. I always used to say, 'I want to be like Whoopi, but Leslie.'” (For the record, Jones is open to doing Broadway: “If I was asked to do something there, I’d do it. That would be cool.”)
For Jones though, this is already a level of fame she only once fantasized about. "When I was doing stand-up comedy, way before SNL, I used to say, 'I want to be big, I want to be real famous,'" she said. "I used to say, 'I want to be where people come up to me who are on those tours and say, ‘Leslie Jones, we wanna take a picture with you.’"
And now, "that actually happened to me," she said with a smile. Better yet, people in LA restaurants stop her to tell her how happy they are to have a voice like hers out there. Nope, nothing can stop Leslie Jones. ●