ESSENCE Festival of Culture’s Film Festival brought together Black creators from in front of and behind the screen to showcase their work and discuss the creative process. On Friday July 1, ESSENCE Senior Entertainment Editor Brande Victorian kicked the festival off by hosting a conversation with some of the Black women making big waves in television comedy.
Sam Jay (creator and star of PAUSE with Sam Jay and Bust Down), Kim Fields (star, The Upshaws), Zainab Johnson (standup comedienne, star of Upload), and Cocoa Brown (standup comedienne, star of 911), weighed in on the state of Black women in comedy and their individual journeys to the top of the game.
Speaking about their beginnings in the comedy lane, both Johnson and Jay said pushing past their complacency into something new showed them their purpose as professional funny ladies.
“I personally believe that I can be good at most things, because I can learn a lot,” Johnson said, admitting that she was unsure of her path for quite some time. “And I was good at a lot of stuff. But the first time I did stand up, it felt different. It was like ‘oh…this is THE THING.’ So I kept going.”
“I was at kind of a crossroads in life, and felt that I wasn’t living to my full potential. I was trying to figure out how I was going to break out of the rut I was in,” Jay said of her journey into standup and comedy writing. “I always wanted to do it, but I was kind of afraid of it. But I was in a place of ‘you’ve got to face your fears head-on,’ and the thing you’re afraid of is probably the thing you need to walk toward. So I made the decision to back the fear down and see where it would take me.”
A veteran in the industry, Brown noted that things have changed in the industry so rapidly that no one truly has to “start at the bottom” anymore.
“The advice that I would have given a young comic ten years ago no longer applies,” she said. “I would tell any comic right now, yes, get on stage, yes, learn the craft, yes, learn your voice, but in the meantime, build your social media presence, because they don’t care how funny you are unless you’ve got the right amount of commas after that number. And that’s real talk. I’ve seen people that just popped up yesterday skip over people that have been in this game for 25 years and get a whole show.”
But Jay, who never felt social media was her tool of choice, highlighted that while Instagram may get you far, there are other routes to comedic success. But you may have to be more assertive when taking them.
“I kind of went the festival route, I went the more alt-comedy route, and that allowed me to come in on another side of it, because I was interested in creating and developing.”
“I do think a lot of these places though, especially when you’re Black, they put a lot of pressure on your social media numbers,” Jay continued. “But they’re not doing that to these white boys. They’re not doing that to these white girls. They’re not allotting it in the same way or making space for you to develop your lane and your craft. So you have to be demanding in that way, and not allow them to bend you to that formula.”
Each of the ladies noted the importance of tapping into allyship with fellow comedians, and also staying the course. Fields, having been in the industry since the age of 7, had wise words to impart on weathering the ups and downs of the industry.
“I’ve never had that moment, even when I’ve felt betrayed, heartbroken, disappointed by my industry, where I’ve felt that I wanted to quit it,” she admitted. “Even when I’ve had to pause, maybe take a deep breath and restrategize. Redirect. Water somebody else’s garden while I’m waiting on my thing to pop off. But, my Mama did say to always have a backup plan. That’s why I started directing, writing, producing. There’s all sorts of other tentacles to our business.”