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By Cait Rohan Kelly | February 10, 2017 | People
It’s in the most divisive times when we need comedy and laughter the most. No one knows this better than Candice Thompson, a black female comedian who thinks comedy shouldn’t hold anything back. We caught up with Thompson to chat about being African-American and female in her industry, why jokes can’t be subject to censorship or political correctness, what she did to prep for her recent stint on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and how Dave Chapelle inspired her career.
You’re a female African-American comedian—what has that meant in the comedy industry, and have you seen any changes in what that’s meant in the past few months and even weeks?
CANDICE THOMPSON: Comedy in itself is a male-dominated industry—it’s also, I would even say, a white, male-dominated industry. So to be a woman and to also be a black woman on top of it, it’s an ongoing struggle. [Did I] notice anything in the past few weeks? No, I think it’s an ongoing thing that we’re going to have to continue to fight for; just like the rest of the justices that we all have to fight for in the world. Hopefully, the things that I’m working on right now are helping to pave the way for other black women that are coming up.
There’s also been an increased emphasis on being politically correct, but where do you think comedy draws the line or why do you think it’s all right for comedy to cross those lines?
CT: I think that comedy has to cross those lines. The point of comedy is to get people to laugh at things that aren’t even necessarily normally considered funny. That’s where the therapy comes in. I find myself laughing at things through comedy, and laughing at things with my peers that I wouldn’t have even considered funny 20 years ago—I would’ve been like, “Oh my goodness we’re not allowed to laugh at that.” But living through this and being a comic now, I see that’s where the therapy is. So when we start censoring what comics can and can’t say, we’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity to heal and to also lighten the mood. I mean, that’s what comedy is.
Do you think there’s a line that you have to draw where you’re like, “Ok, this is way too serious or inappropriate to ever joke about,” and how do you determine what that is?
CT: I honestly can’t say that there’s anything that’s crossing the line. I could’ve said a long time ago that joking about sexual assaults isn’t funny. But I’m a woman who’s actually survived sexual assault and I find myself laughing at jokes that people say about sexual assault now and again—that for me is a healing moment. It’s like, “I’m growing from this and I’m moving past the pain of it to the point where this is not affecting me anymore”—which is what we all want. There are certain things that I probably wouldn’t touch personally just because it’s not for me, but who’s to say that someone else brilliant can’t come up with something that’s funny off of cancer or something like AIDS? Honestly, I don’t think anything should be off limits.
A big part of being a personality in any industry right now is using social media. How have you used your social media to grow your own personal brand?
CT: Twitter is probably the one that I feel speaks to me the most because I’m a comedian, so telling jokes on there in written form, that one makes the most sense for me, but I’ve also forced myself to do the visuals with Instagram. I know people don’t read too much anymore, so using visuals is something that I needed to get used to doing, and also taking selfies and being self-absorbed and all that other stuff that as an artist you need to be.
How do you decide what you want to share on social media? Your social media is a good mix of what you’re saying and retweets from other people on a lot of different issues.
CT: I try to be a little bit particular about what I share because it represents me. If it’s my friends doing things that I think other people need to know about, then of course I’m going to share that. Right now, I feel so consumed with Trump and everything that is happening, so that’s been kind of monopolizing my feeds. I’m not trying to go down that rabbit hole because that is a deep rabbit hole, but I feel as an artist and a person who uses a microphone to be heard on a regular basis, I feel like I have things that I need to say, and the things that I’ve been sharing recently are probably more political things, and trying to fight our demagogue of a president. I wake up every day and I cringe and I have my stomach in knots, but hopefully through comedy I’ll be able to—I don’t know about changing anybody’s mind about it—but, again, comedy is a way that I think people can heal with whatever is happening in this country right now.
Thompson performs on The Tonight Show.
Switching it up a little. What was it like to hear you’ve been chosen to be on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon?
CT: Wow. That was kind of a surreal moment. My manager called me, and I was in the middle of working. I screamed and I was like “WHAT!” The Tonight Show is such a huge platform for stand-up comedians and I know that they don’t have a lot of comedians on there right now. Working with Jimmy Fallon was amazing, and the rest of the week was very testing because I had so much going on and then I wanted to make sure the set for The Tonight Show was going to be on point and perfect. So, running that set over and over again on top of doing everything else that I was trying to get accomplished that week leading up to it was very stressful, but at the same time I knew that it was for a good cause. I didn’t sleep that much, but it was completely worth it.
Tell us about the upcoming show you’re writing for, TruTV’s Smart, Funny & Black. How did it come about, and what exactly is it about?
CT: It’s created by one of my friends, a very funny comedian, Amanda Seales. It’s a show that’s basically celebrating all things from black culture to black history. It’s in a game-show format, where they have comedians or writers or just people in the industry competing. We met over a year ago and we immediately realized that we had very similar comedic sensibilities and also similar passions when it comes to black culture, being a black woman, and being a black woman in comedy. So, we have a lot in common, we have similar backgrounds, and we just meshed.
Are there any comedians you look up to?
CT: My all-time favorite is Dave Chappelle—he is my comedic idol. His stand-up back in 2000, Killin' Them Softly, I remember watching that thinking “that’s brilliant.” I loved his point of view, his perspective, and, again, he was taking such harsh topics and making me laugh. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that but I knew I was a comedy fan and I knew that somehow comedy was going to end up in my world. Chris Rock is also amazing, Jerry Seinfeld has definitely been someone that I looked up to, [and] as a sitcom it’s still hands-down one of my favorite shows. Kathleen Madigan, I think is brilliant, and Wanda Sykes, I love her, too.
Did you decide to get started in comedy because of Dave Chappelle or was it something else?
CT: I’ve always been a funny person—I knew that I loved laughing and I wanted to somehow get into comedy, but I didn’t know it was going to be through stand-up. I didn’t start stand-up until after I moved out to California and I had a friend of a friend who did stand-up who was like, “You’re funny you should come do open mic with me.” That’s I got started in stand-up—it was kind of just a fluke.
Photo by Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images (The Tonight Show)
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