Oct 24, 2022
Amanda Seales on bringing her full self to the stage
"Authenticity is always going to bring you the best laughs," the comic says. Her "Smart, Funny and Black" show is coming to Brooklyn
Maybe best known for her role as the bougie Tiffany DuBois on Issa Rae’s show “Insecure,” Amanda Seales is also the second Black women to ever have her own comedy special on HBO, after Wanda Sykes. That 2019 special, “I Be Knowin,” is an uncompromising and hilarious exploration of what it’s like to be a Black woman in America today, among other topics … Like cat-calling, racial politics and white fragility.
And when you talk about Seales, a lot of sentences are going to include the phrase “she is also.” As in: She is also the host of the “Small Doses” podcast, which she also turned into a book. And she is also maybe more familiar to others as Amanda Diva, the MTV2 VJ back in the day. She is also the creator of “Smart Funny and Black,” a variety comedy quiz show that is coming to Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre this weekend, October 29 and 30.
The multi-hyphenate Seales is also this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” as she prepares to bring her fiercely independent brand of comedy to the borough this weekend. Here she describes what to expect, discusses her career, talks about her upbringing, breaks down imposter syndrome and describes being a late bloomer. She also hints at a little breaking news, coming later this week.
The following transcript of this podcast episode has been edited for clarity and flow. For the full conversation, which you won’t want to miss, click play to listen above or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
You’re bringing “Smart, Funny, and Black” to Kings Theatre. Variety show, quiz show, comedy show. What can we expect here in Brooklyn?
What you’re going to expect is a really, really, really good time, which I think all of us deserve. “Smart, Funny, and Black” was created particularly because I got tired of just there being so many negative images of Black folks. And I wanted to create a space where there can be a celebration of Black culture and of Black history and of the Black experience. And I love game shows, so I was like, “Oh, let me just combine the two.”
And it’s actually just grown over time. We added a live band and we do audience interactive stuff. We actually have a moment in the show called the Black Barbecue Moment where everybody does the electric slide in the whole audience. We have two “Blacksperts,” that’s what we call our contestants, and we bring them on stage and they’re the ones who compete in the games. Our Blacksperts for this show are Tamika Mallory, who is an activist and an organizer for her nonprofit Until Freedom. And she works very closely with victims of police violence specifically, as well as with communities. And our other Blackspert is none other than the iconic, the great, the indubitable Mr. Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan.
And you are asking your attendees to come dressed as their favorite Black characters or icons. This is a Halloween show. Are you dressing up?
I’m going to dress up at least for the beginning of the show because I feel like my outfit requires a wig and it’s not going to stay on once I get into the mix. But this is not a requirement. It’s just something fun that we’re adding since we are a Halloween adjacent show. And for all of our non-Black people coming, you can also dress up as a Black character and icon without doing blackface.
That’s a tricky line to walk…
It’s a tricky line!
Can you give an example of how that might actually work? I would not touch that.
I would say my favorite example has been the Jamaican bobsled team. You got to find something where the elements make it what it is, not the Black person. There’s like elements. I remember this episode of Louis C. K’s show where his daughter dressed up as Frederick Douglass and they put her in blackface. And I was just like, that was so unnecessary.
What you’re teetering on, because you seem like a conscious person, is you’re like, “Well, I don’t want it to be appropriation.” So, you’re like, “How do I do it?” That’s the fun. White people haven’t had to do a lot of adjusting and figuring it out. So, put yourself to the test.
Your stuff is great. I love the honesty behind it. It’s uncompromising and yet it’s funny, which is another hard line to walk. You did your masters in African American studies at Columbia. I wonder how deliberate it is that you incorporate this educational or informational element into what you do. I’m assuming it’s very deliberate.
It is very deliberate. It’s just very organic. I think that’s just kind of the person I am. I’ve always been an academic and a brainy person. That was the diss that I used to get on the school yard. “You think you’re an encyclopedia.” And I’d be like, “Oh my God, thank you.” But they’re saying it like it’s supposed to be a bad thing.
So, to be able to flip that and add humor into it is something that I really cherish as a skill set. And I think it’s also incredibly necessary. I think I get the unique position to bring people joy while bringing them information. And in a nation particularly right now that is so bent on misinforming and disinforming people, it really is not something I take lightly.
And intellectualism is a slur. If you’re smart, that’s a pejorative, which is insane to me.
It’s damn near ableist. The way that it is being presented at this point is that if you have the nerve to be smart or bring up facts or be informed, it’s “How dare you?”
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I wonder how you define your audience or if you’re saying, “My work is for everyone who will listen.” There’s a bit in “I Be Knowin’” where you talk about who your shows are not for. Who are they for?
My shows are for people who need to be revitalized right now, who want to feel sane in the face of insanity. I think the biggest response I’ve been getting from the audiences is people saying, “Oh my goodness. I needed this show because I’ve just been so frustrated with the news, etc. and I needed a place to just have joy. I needed a place to just have a free two hours where I’m not stressed out.”
And for the Black folks listening, it is a place where you can be your complete whole Black self and unadulterated. And I always ask any audience members who come to the show that are not Black to please enjoy the show, but know your place. This is not a space where we’re catering to your feelings. This is not a space where we are tiptoeing around any white fragility, etc.
Right. And for non-Black people who feel in any way threatened or uncomfortable, the rest of the culture is already set up for you, so you can go somewhere else.
Yes. The fact that we even have to say that caveat because people want to be like, meep, meep, meep, meep. It’s like, “this whole shit is yours.”
And you wrote a piece in CNN to that effect in 2018. You wrote that funny isn’t just by and for white guys.
[Jerry Seinfeld] basically had made a comment that said he didn’t think that diversity had a place in comedy.
He said, “I only want you to be funny. I don’t care what your color is.”
Yeah. And I thought that was a very, “I don’t see color” type of thinking. And I’m a huge Seinfeld fan, so it’s definitely when he says things like that, I’m just like, “God damn it Jer.”
Well, it’s from a place of entitlement. He can afford to say that.
That’s what I was saying. And the truth is, it’s important to understand that different perspectives matter. And that if you don’t have a consciousness about that, we don’t live in a society that naturally brings in other perspectives. So, you have to have a consciousness about the fact that other perspectives, even if you don’t find them funny, are still valuable to many people. Like Hassan Minhaj, he has really created a space for himself that is genuinely funny, but very much towards his cultural base. I bring him up because if you don’t relate to that cultural experience, then you might say, “Well, since this isn’t for me, then it doesn’t matter.”
And that’s what a lot of white folks in these positions of power do all the time. We’ve tried to sell “Smart, Funny, and Black” as a TV show a few times. And the first time I tried to sell it, I ended up taking it back. Because the network that I had sold it to, truTV, their whole focus was, “How do we make white people feel comfortable watching this show?” And I was like…
You don’t care.
I don’t care. And when they made “Friends,” they didn’t care about me. But I watched it, every episode and I found my own lobster. So, it’s really about authenticity. That’s what really boils down to. And I think that’s what that essay was about and that’s what comedy is about. Authenticity is always going to bring you the best laughs.
But also you might learn something if it’s not something you’ve been exposed to historically. But people are afraid of learning, I guess.
I was going to say, who wants to do that?
You conclude the piece by writing, “No one’s stealing American jobs or jokes.” You say, “We’re simply saying we’re here, we’re coming and we’re making our own spaces. And if you truly care about this craft, you’ll want all the great jokes to be heard, not just the ones you can relate to.” Which is what you were just saying. And that was in 2018. And since then there’s been a proliferation of fresh voices, not a tidal wave, but maybe a percolation. You got shows like “Ramy.” You mentioned Hassan Minhaj. “This Fool,” I don’t know if you’ve seen that. “Mo,” “Abbott Elementary,” “Los Espookys.” Do you see some momentum in there? Obviously, it’s not all the way there.
I think your point is right. Momentum is a strong word. If you can name them, then no. What I’m really worried about is just the reality that these midterms are coming up. And if the country goes in the direction that it very possibly could go in, then that is also going to largely affect the way media goes. And it’s really scary to think that we could be back into another McCarthyism version of things. Where the government is really, really strongly affecting the way that entertainment is being created and who gets to create.
And what audiences they get to reach. And I think there’s also the reality that when we have all of these corporations that are merging, and these networks are merging, a lot of people who are just listeners, you don’t follow that stuff. So, you don’t maybe know. But when you have a company like Discovery Plus that [merges with] Warner, that includes HBO and TBS, etc. they’re not buying those networks in order to make those networks necessarily better. They’re just buying them as properties. And they’re going to work from a bottom-line space that doesn’t necessarily enrich those spaces.
And fewer and fewer companies have control over more and more of the pipes and the distribution and …
100 percent. It really does limit us as a consumer from being able to get unique things. Because just like you said, you have an umbrella that’s covering way more outlets. And they have to still get the approval now of these places and spaces that are not interested in what their original vision of creativity was. Which is why I’m an independent artist. And which is why it’s really necessary that folks buy tickets and come out to the show!.
Go to the Amandaverse.
Go to the Amandaverse, which is my space and place of all things Amanda. I just have been trying to work with smaller organizations and creative bases and spaces to do our thing. I’m working with this travel group called One Love Travel Club, and we’re doing a trip to Kenya at the top of the year. So, you guys can actually go to onelovetravel.club or you can go to amandaseales.com and you can register to be with me in Kenya. And we’re going to go to Safari, we’re going to go to the Mombasa beaches, we’re going to go see the Maasai. I’m just a huge pusher and proponent of travel. I think America does a really great job of keeping folks blinded to the fact that there’s a whole world. And that there’s something you really gain when you get out of here.
America itself is huge. I think there should be an exchange program within America where you have to swap someone from the rural south and make them live in New York and vice versa.
Yes. You’re so right. That’s like a big thing. Because once you start traveling like on tour, you start really seeing how people really do believe in, “you guys are Yankees. You really don’t understand here.” Or it’s like, “you’re a coastal elite.” And then you go to the Midwest. I know one of the big conversations they have in TV is always like, oh, will the flyover states relate to this character? Or will the Midwest relate? And my whole thing is like, a lot of the Midwest, they don’t want to see people that look just like them. They’re like, “Can you please bring us something else? We need to see other things.” So, I think that’s a great idea.
You also host the “Small Doses” podcast. You’ve been a co-host on “The Real.” You were Tiffany Dubouis in “Insecure.” Growing up I’m guessing there was no real template for your type of career. Or was there? And how are there enough hours in the day to do all of this?
Well, I had a lady who would come and clean the house every other week and she and I just parted ways. So, no, I don’t have the same hours because now I will be cleaning. I hate when people say like, “Oh, we all have the same 24 hours.” No, you don’t. Folks who are parents and folks who have to keep a home together, etc. that takes up a lot of time. But I will say that I did not have a blueprint for this multi-hyphenate career. I just had to go my own way. You can go your own way. I just had to really take my path and trust that it was the best way. Which was really difficult sometimes because the thing about confidence is that it’s really based in facts and proving to yourself.
And in order to do that, you got to have a certain level of fearlessness sometimes to really just say, “I’m going to just do this whether or not it logically looks like the best plan.” Most Caribbean parents would say that nothing about the arts is a logical best plan. So, I was very fortunate to have a mom who was very supportive of my venturing into the arts. I mean, I was a child actor. I was performing since I was eight. I’ve been SAG since ’94.
What do you attribute this fearlessness too?
I really honestly think it’s because when I was younger, my mom would put me in a bunch of different activities. And I was never expected to enjoy them or to be good at them. It was just like, let’s just try it. So, I feel like I early on got to skirt around the fear of failure.
Well, failure’s the best teacher too, right?
And failure’s a weird word. Because what is failure at the very least? To your point, it’s a lesson. But the thing is that it’s also disappointment a lot of times. It’s really not fear of failure, it’s fear of disappointment. Because disappointment is heavy and with disappointment comes guilt, with disappointment comes regret, with disappointment comes frustration. And if you can’t compartmentalize all those feelings, then they can be the obstacle that prevents you from doing the next thing.
So, a lot of folks will just hold back and not face those things for fear that it will prevent them. Not realizing that you’re still preventing yourself. So, it really is just the human mind is a really complex space. I’ve been really lucky though, to have also the support systems to push through those things when I have faced them. The advice I always tell people is make sure you’re surrounded by people who believe in you more than you believe in you. Because there’s going to be so many times when you have a spectrum of doubt, a spectrum of frustration. And you’re going to need those folks to remind you of why you do what you do, or what your place is in what you do.
I can’t fully remember who I was talking to, but it was on this podcast, and we talked about imposter syndrome and how everyone’s got it. And it doesn’t go away.
It doesn’t go away. And for some people in different pockets of society, it’s built in. For Black women, imposter syndrome, there’s definitely efforts that are built in to keep that thing going. And make you feel like, do you belong here? Because that’s the thing. When Barack Obama became president, it was the first time for a lot of people that they considered, “I guess a Black person can be president.” Well, if you can’t consider it, you can’t achieve it. That’s the facts.
I had some imposter syndrome last night. It was like a pasta dish. You know what I’m saying? I was just slurping it up. The good thing though is at this point I can recognize it and I have people around me that I can be like, “Can you speak some words into me real quick?”
What was happening? What was last night?
I have a project that I’m going to be announcing this week. And actually project is a generous word. It is a new life path. It is a new creative path. It is a very big fricking deal. And…
[Laughs.] Are you pregnant?
No, I am not pregnant. And that would be a whole different conversation. But it’s an adventure and it’s something that I’m really, really, really excited about and I get to announce it this week. I signed my contract on Friday. And I was having just one of those moments of like, “Oh, we’re actually doing this.”
And then you’re like, “Can I?” I was having a can I moment? And my man was just like, “Well, I think you need to remember that at this point these are all cycles. You’ve been in this position before and you got through it.” And he was like, “And that’s what you need to ask yourself. Why did you get through it? Why did you get past it? And remember those things and apply them.”
And someone saw you and you got the opportunity, whatever it was, and it was on your own merits.
You know what? I will say this. It is completely on my own merits. When you really start to get down to it, you’re like, oh yeah, I really am making this up. Because you’re like, no, I didn’t sleep my way to this position. I didn’t lie. I didn’t do anything duplicitous. I literally was just in my space being my full Amanda Seales self and got a text. I got a text. And that text has now turned into a salary. Hey!
All right. So, we’ll have to pay attention. I guess you’re not breaking any news on this podcast?
I don’t want to lose the job before … But I will say this, it is going to give me the opportunity to speak my full voice and be my full self and get to talk to folks on another level. And I think for my audience who have constantly been like, “When are you going to get your own space to do your own shit?” It’s happening.
You were talking about your mom earlier briefly. What was your family like? Is she funny? Who’s funny?
Oh, my mom is a riot. You better be careful because that tongue is a razor. Yeah, my family is very funny. It was me and my mom growing up. And my family is from Grenada and Grenadians in general are just funny. Grenada’s just a funny island. It’s part of the actual culture. When you look at the names of restaurants and stores, etc. they always have puns in the names. And people’s nicknames are always mildly or even wildly disrespectful. Don’t have two square of a jaw because you’re going to be called Horse Mouth and you’re going to like it. I was always encouraged to be funny. It wasn’t like, oh, let the grown people talk. I was very much raised to my grandmother’s chagrin to have a voice very early on. And I think part of that was just, it was me and my mom.
I’ve heard you describe yourself as a late bloomer, which comes as a surprise.
Well, you were working from the time you were 8, you’ve been in the spotlight. I consider myself a late bloomer. What have you yet to bloom into?
I was late to blooming into what I feel like I’ve landed in right now, which is the clarity of purpose around my position with Hollywood. I feel like there was just so much before me and then pressure that I put on myself to show up to Hollywood a certain way and be successful according to certain standards. And it’s taken me a very long time to establish my own unique framework outside of that. Basically, the idea that it’s not that I need to play the game, I just need to figure out how I play the game. I am so fiercely independent as a human and it’s taken quite some time to identify how to be that as an artist in a really thoughtful, strategic way. And what you realize is that audience is everything. You spend so much time trying to figure out how to make these execs care about you. Fuck them. My audience has to care about me, and that’s really all that matters. Everything else will follow.
Do you think it’s because you have no problem with saying the uncomfortable thing or the uncomfortable truth?
Yeah. And I just found that out.
Which is brave. I mean, it’s hard to do. Do you feel like you’re brave?
I mean, I think I’m brave according to the standard of filter that we have been told we have to use. A lot of people are taught to not quote unquote “not offend.” And that is the sign of being a good person or a nice person. But sometimes you have to offend. Even more benign than offending is uncomfortable. “Don’t make anyone uncomfortable.” Particularly for women, we are just taught that. And that if you’re going to do that, that there’s going to be repercussions that could be as basic as people not liking you or as severe as people wanting to harm you. I think there’s just a bravery in going outside of these social norms that are expected to keep you quiet. Does that make sense?
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