Leighann Lord © 2007
Mr. Elon James White has kindly asked me to write a blog for The Black Comedy Project about my experience in the business as a Black comic. While I'm very flattered by his request I'm not entirely sure I'm qualified to share my thoughts on the subject. Yes I'm Black, I'm a comic, and I've been in the business for a while, but it's not that simple. It never is.
I started my career with the absurdly naive notion that I just wanted to be a comic; not a Black comic, but a funny comic. I wanted to be myself with all the complexities that implies. Why only tell jokes from just one facet of my experience when I'm blessed with so many? We all are. There's color, culture, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, education, political stance, mental and physical health, height, weight, favorite color. Is any one these influences more important, valid or defining than the other? I guess it depends on who you talk to.
A club owner/manager/booker once said to me, "Leighann you're very funny, but can you be a little bit more black?" He wasn't suggesting I get a tan. He was telling me he'd be more comfortable with his stereotypical image of who a black person should be, rather than who I really am. I don't know what image of blackness he had in mind. Perhaps I should have asked him to give me an example. It would have been interesting to see what influences shaped his expert opinion. Did he watch music videos? Take a black literature or history class in college? Perhaps some of his best friends were Black.
I wonder how many Jewish comics he suggested be more Jewish, or if he told male comics to be more masculine.
To sweeten the pot, this happened at a comedy club in New York City: The capital of the world; the cross roads of culture where diversity is embraced, celebrated and encouraged. As you can see I have a healthy fantasy life. I dream. That's what artists do. I know we're not there yet as a species, but I hope someday we can be. Perhaps when science is finally able to unlock the 90% of our brains that we're clearly not using.
I thought one of the goals of the civil rights movement was for African Americans to be seen as human beings. I don't see how playing to a stereotype serves that end. That's a game I'm not sure you can win. I call it the "How Black are You?" game. It puts Blackness on a quantifiable scale and how you rate depends on which faction you’re trying to appease, be it the ever vigilant "Soul Patrol" or pale pop culture enthusiasts who fancy themselves on the cutting edge of cool. They judge you on how well you "keep it real," whatever that is. In this context it is subtly implied that being "Cosby Show Black" is somehow less authentic than being "Good Times Black." I can not be both urban and urbane. One is a betrayal of the other.
Some would say I have been naive and foolish. Being yourself is a sweet ideal, but if I had any true business sense at all I’d see that stereotypes sell. Why not simply embrace my Blackness for creative expediency and financial gain? I don’t know. Sex sells too, but I have been equally reluctant to stroll the boulevard. I don’t wear my culture on my sleeve. Color really is only skin deep. These things are an important part of who I am as a person and as an artist, but again they’re not the only part.
So I’m not sure I rate high enough on the Barometer of Blackness to write this blog, but for Elon, I’ll try. Because as my experience with the club owner clearly demonstrates, while I see myself as a multifaceted human being, many do not or can not. Some of these folks work in the industry. This makes my job and how I choose to do it even more important. Every time I get on stage and inspire an audience to see past the obvious, and laugh, I win. If all you see at the end of my show is the color of my skin, then I haven't done my job right. Kumbya. Power to the people.