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How comic Leslie Jones went from funniest person on campus to 'SNL' star

Leslie Jones says she was 19 when Jamie Foxx told her she needed to live life — get hired, get fired, fall in love — in order to be truly funny.
Jen Rosenstein
Leslie Jones says she was 19 when Jamie Foxx told her she needed to live life — get hired, get fired, fall in love — in order to be truly funny.

Saturday Night Live alum Leslie Jones was a college freshman when a friend signed her up for the funniest person on campus contest. It was the first time she'd ever done stand-up, but Jones says grabbing the mic felt like putting on a shirt that fit perfectly.

"It was just so natural," she says. "It was like I had already been doing it, and didn't know I had been doing it."

Jones won the college comedy contest, but struggled for years to make it as a professional comic. When she was 19, Jones met Jamie Foxx at a comedy club, and he told her she was too young and inexperienced to be funny. Instead, he advised her to go out and live: Get hired. Get fired. Break hearts. Have her heart broken. Only, then, Foxx said, would she have something to talk about on stage.

The advice resonated with Jones. She took a string of odd jobs, including performing wedding services as a justice of the peace and working for a construction company owned by Scientologists.

"I went to go live," Jones remembers. "But, I'm telling you, at the root of every job I would get, everything I would be assigned to ... I was like, 'I'm going to be a comic. This is just until I'm a comic.'"

In her new memoir, Leslie F*cking Jones, she reflects on growing up as a military brat, performing in comedy clubs in a male-dominated field and joining the cast of SNL in 2014, when she was 47 years old. When it comes to getting laughs, Jones is committed to physical comedy — even if it sometimes results in injury.

"I done fell off stages. I done fell off tables. I fell off chairs," she says. "Like I always tell everybody, don't try to reinvent comedy. Comedy is all its own entity. ... Slipping on a banana will be one of the funniest physical jokes."

Interview highlights

/ Hachette Books
Hachette Books

On feeling pressure to be cute onstage

When I first started comedy, I thought I had to be sexy. I used to wear heels on stage. ... But this is what happens: We walk on stage. The first thing that happens is women look at you and they go, "Oh, does she think she's cute?" And then they look at their man and they go, "Does my man think she cute?" All that's happened while you're trying to open up. So I always say in your first couple of years: T-shirt, jeans, tennis shoes. If you can make it lovely and cute, do that. Because you don't have to prove you're a woman. And listen, you could do whatever you want!

On losing her parents when she was a young adult

We take advantage of our parents. We do not love them as much as we need to love them. We complain more than we love them. I used to fuss at [my mom] because she would come over to the campus and clean out my room when I wasn't there. Like, she would just do stuff like that. And I remember her talking to one of my basketball teammates and they were like, "She's so good." ... It is a very, very, very scary world without your parents, especially ones that loved you. And I know they don't always get it right, but at some point you have to give them some grace.

On having to do stand-up right after her parents died

[My mom] passed away six months after my dad passed away. ... I hadn't made it yet. And they did not die with life insurance. So I didn't go to either one of their funerals because I was working to pay for them. ...

I was helpless. Helpless in everything. I wasn't rich [enough] to send them money. ... I think that might have been the first experience of me trying to perform under such pain. ... I was awful that first night, but the promoter was like, "Man, the fact that you performed," he was like, "You're definitely getting paid." And I told him I was like, "I promise it won't be like this, you know, tomorrow night."

On feeling like she was given limited roles on SNL

SNL, they take that one [trope] and they wring it. They wring it because that's the machine. So whatever it is that I'm giving that they're so happy about, they feel like it's got to be that all the time or something like that. So it was like a caricature of myself. ... Either I'm trying to love on the white boys or beat up on the white boys, or I'm doing something loud. ...

I was talking to another cast member that retired and they said "But in fairness, that's how they do all of them. Not just the Black ones." I look back and I was like, "Oh, that's right, Taran Killam!" Taran wanted to do so much other stuff, but they would only have Taran in those very masculine [roles] and singing and stuff and I said, "Oh! This is a machine."

I used to always be like, [executive producer Lorne Michaels is] the puppet master. So he has to make the cast happy, has to make the writers happy, he has to make the WGA happy, he has to make NBC happy. Then he has to make a family in Omaha, Neb., who's watching the show happy. Imagine the strings that have to go out to him. So it's a machine that has to work.

Lauren Krenzel and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.