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Leslie Jones on the Craft of Comedy

Showtime special Problem Child now available on DVD

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Born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised on the streets of Los Angeles comedian Leslie Jones has always been on the road and in control of her career dating back to her days as a scholarship athlete at Colorado State University. After a friend signed her up for a comedy contest on campus without her knowing,  Jones won the contest and hastily left school and returned to Los Angeles where she began her conquest to become the next Eddie Murphy. Jones gradually honed her act over the years and had great performances at both the Just For Laughs and Aspen Comedy Festivals. She’s gone on to appear in such films and TV shows as Chelsea Lately, Mind of MenciaNational Security and her first one-hour special, Problem Child aired on Showtime last year and is currently available on DVD.

SanDiego.com had a chance to talk with Leslie from her home in Los Angeles and discussed the first time she ever did stand-up and the worst heckle she ever received.

Do you remember the first time you did stand-up?
Leslie Jones: Yes, it was in Colorado. I was playing basketball. I was on a scholarship actually. One of my friends signed me up for a contest and didn’t tell me until a couple of days before the contest. She was like, ‘I think you’re really funny and I signed you up for this contest.’ And I was like, ‘Are you crazy!?’ She’s like. ‘No, I think you can do it. I think you’re really funny, just go up there and talk like you talk to us.’ And I did, and won the contest and have been a comedian ever since.

Were you initially upset when you discovered she had signed you up without your consent?
LJ: I was initially upset, but I was more like, ‘Really?’ I always liked comedy; I always liked being funny but I never thought of myself as a comedian until someone else said it. I was like, ‘Oh really? I’m funny?’ I loved comedy at the time, I love Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, anything with Buster Keaton in it and Lucille Ball, Carol Burnet; I loved those people but I never thought I could be a comic. I was kind of upset at first but not really.

What year was this?
LJ: 1987.

What were you planning on doing after college?
LJ: I think I finally found a major when I got to Colorado. It started off with electronic engineering, then I wanted to be a lawyer; because I really didn’t know what I wanted to be. I just knew that I could play basketball really good and there’s a possibility that I could maybe go overseas and play. I didn’t actually know what I was going to do.

After your first set when you won that contest how often would you perform?
LJ: When I did it that first time, I quit basketball, I quit the scholarship and I left Colorado, came back to California, moved in with my boyfriend and started pursuing comedy. When I walked off that stage I had all the intentions of being the next Eddie Murphy. I’m a very big advocate of the craft. I believe in the craft itself as an entity itself. Comedy to me is very important, because people don’t understand that comedy, music, art; that type of stuff is always going to be here even when we‘re dead and gone and we need to respect it as a craft. I really go beyond anything that I could do to produce laughter. I really believe in the tickle. I believe that people really love to laugh and I believe that when you laugh there’s this feeling inside of you that’s in the core of your whole body that tickles when you laugh really, really hard. That’s why people love to laugh. That is what I’m always in pursuit of, the tickle.

I saw you last year at The Comedy Store in La Jolla and you did a lot of crowd work and had an aggressive stage presence. Were you always like that or did it take you awhile to develop that persona?
LJ: I’m gonna be honest, and me and Erik (Marino) still talk about that show, is that I did all crowd work that show, I didn’t do any jokes. I remember that the crowd was one of those types of crowds where I had to do crowd work. They were very rowdy and very talkative, so when you do that type of crowd you can try to do jokes, but you’re gonna stop every five minutes to address somebody that has something to say. So when you go into crowd work you really do shut the crowd down. They’ll try to talk to you but if you hit them a couple of times them motherfuckers will start shutting up, because they don’t want to get talked about.

Has crowd work always been a facet of you act?
LJ: No, that was when I really first started experimenting with crowd work. I love Don Rickles, if you’re going to do crowd work do Don Rickles-type crowd work – just shit em’ down. I was ally more of a joke person, and when I started doing The Comedy Store the crowd work stuff started really coming in. I started getting really good at it and I finding that whenever I’m talking to people I can create jokes and certain things. I started experimenting with it last year. Now I really like it. I don’t do it the whole act, I do it maybe, the last couple of minutes of it.