For Sherri Shepherd, being different has made all the difference

Sherri Shepherd is an actress, comedian, author and TV personality. She had recurring roles on the sitcoms “Suddenly Susan,” “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Jamie Foxx Show, “Less Than Perfect” and “30 Rock,” and co-hosted “The View.”


Sherri Shepherd has made a career out of being different — refreshing, if you will — in a sea of comedians known for being bold and commanding. In fact, it’s how she was first inspired to hit the stage.

One day, while at work as a legal secretary, she and her co-workers decided to go to the Comedy Store. After a dinner stop at Sizzler — “We had all you can eat shrimp and garlic toast,” she recalls — they sat in the audience and Shepherd entertained her group and the surrounding parties until the show started. She was always just a funny person, and tonight was no different.

Then, Andrew Dice Clay got on stage and made all of the women in the audience mad, Shepherd said.

“That’s when he was doing the ‘hickory dickory dock, I want you to suck my …’ thing,” she said. “The women got so upset and one turned around to me and said, ‘You could get up there and do that and be better.’ You never know when someone is going to plant a seed.”

The rest of the show Shepherd thought about the possibility of being a comedian, mesmerized by Eddie Griffin’s set when she “saw the crowd move at once when they laughed,” she said. When it was over she hung back as her posse left, hoping to get some words of advice from the comedians.

“Andrew and Eddie were leaning against the wall and I kept looking at Eddie,” Shepherd recalled. “I wanted advice, but he thought I wanted to sleep with him because there are always groupies. I asked them what I should do. They said to just get up on stage and do it. I said that I was scared and they said do it scared.

“That was when I started taking comedy classes.”

What were your first few years doing comedy like?

Well, I got evicted from my apartment and my car got repossessed because I was trying to go on the road and do stand-up. I was opening for people like Sheryl Underwood, broke as all get up.

I started performing everywhere and would do all the boy clubs in West Hollywood and winning contests. There was a club called the Rage and they had a gong show every week. I would win $100 and the only time I got beat was when there was a black gospel singer. You can’t compete with that. [laughs] But I needed that $100 — it was grocery money. When I saw a woman walk in who looked like she could sing, I just went home.

How did acting come into the picture?

I met Jamie Foxx — but he wasn’t Jamie Foxx [then]. He was somebody who still owes me $50 for a haircut. I met Chris Rock, but he wasn’t Chris Rock. I met Yvette Wilson who used to be on “Moesha.” I met all these people — Kym Whitley, D.L. Hughley and, on the white side of town, Chelsea Handler.

And I was going on the road but wasn't particularly comfortable, putting a chair underneath my door with promoters telling me, “We had to give away all the tickets for free so I don’t have your money.” Sheryl Underwood would tell them, “I got a gun in my purse and will blow this … !” She would get her money. Me, I tried it one time and said “I got a gun in my purse.” He said “Where’s your purse?” I had left it at the hotel. It never worked with me. That wasn’t my brand.

I didn’t like doing the road, so I auditioned for “In Living Color” with Jamie Foxx and had a lot of callbacks but didn’t get it. I loved acting and going to acting class because I liked becoming a person that I was not.

There was a time where if I didn’t see the word sassy, I thought they wanted somebody white.

— Sherri Shepherd

Sherri Shepherd, second from right, with her co-hosts on “The View” and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. (Steve Fenn / ABC)

What type of roles most often came your way?

I had this talk with Niecy Nash, Kym Whitley and Yvette Nicole Brown. It’s always the sassy girl, and Niecy has perfected her “What? Hunh?!” [laughs]. We all do sassy and have different forms of how we do it, and the best friend that tells it like it is. There was a time where if I didn’t see the word sassy, I thought they wanted somebody white.

It was always the same people in the room: Niecy, Loni [Love], Kim Coles. And the casting director would come out and ask us to keep it down because it was all of us trying to figure out who could roll their neck a little better.

Has it changed over the years?

A little bit, yeah, but I’m speaking from a perspective of an established person. I get more opportunity to do different types of roles. My show [NBC’s] “Trial & Error,” there is nothing sassy [about my character]. She’s a woman with multiple disorders: facial blindness, born with no tear ducts and short-term memory loss. She laughs at inappropriate situations, faints when she sees beautiful artwork and speaks in a British accent when she gets her flu shot. Sassy is nowhere in there. Matter of fact, if I played it with the attitude, it wouldn’t work. So when they thought of me and brought me in, it was very different than what I do. But being in the business as long as I have, people trust me with more. I've proven myself.

What advice do you have for young black women coming behind you?

If they’re stand-up comics, don’t sleep with the comics because it takes you 10 years to get your reputation back … and mine is stellar! [laughs] I don’t care if he had pictures. Ten years! If you want a long-lasting career, keep your legs closed ... and give it to the plumber.

I would also say you have to figure out what makes you unique. Sit in a room full of people you trust. Let them tell you all the things they love about you that make you who you are. Use that when you go in for an audition. Luenell and Niecy and I can go in for the same audition and do the same neck roll, but each of us does it differently. I bring a sweetness and smile to mine so you won’t think I’m going to cut you. Luenell, you believe is going to whoop yo’ damn ass. And when Niecy does it, you believe you might have sex when she’s done. You have to figure out what makes you unique or you'll go into these rooms with all these other acts and wonder what makes you different. But you are.

Luenell Campbell, known professionally as Luenell, and Sherri Shepherd laugh together during a photo shoot with the L.A. Times. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

And if you’re a stand-up, don’t go for the obvious jokes. That’s why people don’t like to go see women onstage because they think all we’re going to do is talk about “men ain't … ” and be bitter. Find something that makes you you. I got a sitcom, “Sherri,” because I got onstage and talked about how my husband cheated on me with a white girl and had a baby while my son was a child and how we had to make this blended family work. But it all happened because no one else could get on the stage and tell the story about me wanting to kill my ex husband with a lamp from Target, but I couldn't bash his skull in because the lamp was too cheap — that’s why people buy antique lamps, because it's easier to bash his skull. No one could do that on stage, because that's my story.

If you look at comics who are successful — the Chris Rocks and Wanda Sykes — they tell their truth. “Penis in your booty” always gets a laugh because it's funny, but when you tell something personal to you, chances are 20 other people have gone through the same thing.

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