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'Dirty' comedian Tiffany Haddish searches for meaning on 'The Carmichael Show'

'Dirty' comedian Tiffany Haddish searches for meaning on 'The Carmichael Show'
Actress Tiffany Haddish is photographed on the set of the NBC sitcom, "The Carmichael Show." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

To say comedian Tiffany Haddish is living her dreams as a co-star on NBC's "The Carmichael Show" would be a lie. Truth is, as a former foster care child from South Los Angeles turned Beverly Hills vagabond sleeping in her Geo Metro, being an actress was once unimaginable.

"It's been a lot of times where I thought this wasn't going to happen," Haddish said about her now 11-year career in entertainment. "I thought I needed to just go on back to the airlines or go and be a babysitter. I'm not smart enough to be a teacher, but I'm not stupid enough to do customer service. [laughs] So, to be here and walk out on that soundstage, this is a dream I didn't know I had come true."

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In the show, Haddish, 36, plays Nekeisha the ex-wife to Jerrod Carmichael's brother Bobby (Lil Rel Howery). David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine play the middle class, North Carolinian family's parents as the group tackles a number of taboo topics television often doesn't breach.

The first season addressed transgender issues, organized religion and the #BlackLivesMatter protests. For its second season, airing Sundays at 9 p.m., the Carmichaels take on gentrification, the now-tarnished legacy of Bill Cosby and the morning-after pill. Haddish's character is often pulls some of the biggest laughs from the show's live audience when said conversations are had.

"She's hilarious and really knows how to deliver a line," said Carmichael who, in addition to playing himself, is the show's creator and executive producer.

The Times spoke with Haddish following a recent day of rehearsals on the 20th Century Fox studio lot in Century City about the show, doing "something that means something" and her thoughts on being labeled a "dirty" comedian.

You got your start as a standup comic. Did you always want to do comedy or be on TV?

No. I was so stupid as a kid. [laughs] I said I wanted to be a horse farmer. I just wanted to raise horses and I wanted to own a beef jerky factory because I love beef jerky. I wanted to have a Snicker factory because I wanted to know how to make them and I wanted to have a pantyhose company because I wanted to learn how to fix runs in stockings. [laughs]

A lot of your jokes are considered "adult-only" or "dirty." Was that a conscious choice you made?

When I first started, I was doing really goofy things. I wasn't doing dirt at first -- [laughs] -- but the PG humor I was doing, I didn't find it entertaining or funny. But I was doing bar mitzvahs -- like over 500 bar mitzvahs -- and they thought I was funny. But after a while, I decided I wanted to talk about things that nobody is talking about, things that girls aren't talking about. My humor, it depends on where I'm at. I can walk into a room full of Orthodox jews and kill it. I've done shows for Jehovah's witnesses and tore the house down!

Your first television gig was the comic competition "Bill Bellamy's Who's Got Jokes?" and now you're here. How does it feel?

To go from "Who's Got Jokes?" where they didn't pay you and they gave you a whole bunch of rules…I always knew in my heart that I was going to do something. I tell Jerrod all the time that I want to do something that means something. It has to have some sort of significance or importance. Yeah, I might be labeled as a "dirty" comic or whatever, but everything I say means something and helps somebody. To you it might be dirty, but to this girl I might have helped her realize she isn't the only one going through something.

You had a role on Tyler Perry's "If Loving You is Wrong" on OWN. Was it difficult making the transition to "The Carmichael Show?"

No, because on "If Loving You is Wrong," I was still being myself. The thing I feel so lucky about, in this business, is that I get to always play myself, and play myself in different tones. On "If Loving You is Wrong," I was playing Jackie, but really I was playing Tiffany in a lower vibration. Here, I get to be Nekeisha which is turnt up Tiff.

You've had the opportunity to work with legends on OWN and now Grier and Devine. People would kill for that chance.

When I walked into the table read with Loretta Devine and David Alan Grier I wanted to just cry. I remember seeing Loretta Devine in "Waiting to Exhale" and being like, "I wish she was my mom." And watching David Alan Grier -- in foster care all I had was TV, that was my escape -- he used to make me laugh so hard on "In Living Color." I just wanted to be his friend and laugh all the time with him. Now, I just feel like "Wow." This is the stuff I dreamed about, not exactly, but I wanted her to be my mom and now she's my mother-in-law [on the show].

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Show creator Jerrod Carmichael said the goal of the show is the have "honest conversations." You said you wanted to do things that mean something. Does this show meet that goal?

It definitely means something because it's given us our voice back, I feel. When [The Cosby Show] was on, he addressed things in such a [surprising] way that would have us all talking about it. "A Different World" would come on and we'd talk about college and relationships. I learned from that, put together in my mind how life was supposed to be because of these shows. Now, kids are seeing a lot of things on [social media] and maybe their parents aren't having the conversation about them, but they can turn to "The Carmichael Show" and see why this is happening, have an understanding. Children are being babysat by the TV. As much as we don't want to admit it, it's very much happening. So, I feel like as an entertainer, it's our responsibility to be informative.

Do you ever get a script and are surprised are the topic for the week?

When we got the transgender episode one, I was like "Woah. We goin in! I got some jokes for this." [laughs] Because my cousin is [a transgender man] and it is so hard for me to [use male pronouns]. When he first told us, I thought it was just a phase. Then, when he started taking the hormones and dating women, I didn't know how to handle it. Even though it's been 15 years, I catch myself still saying "girl" because as a child, that's what I knew him as. So, for that episode, I thought it was so dope because it's going to open up people's minds. The conversation to be had is so deep.

Tell me about the Cosby episode. How did it feel addressing it in the context of the show?

It felt really good, and I like how we addressed the allegations of sexual assault, but also highlighted all the things he did to change people's lives. He really did put a stamp on this country. There are so many black people who went to school because of him. I wanted to go to college because of him -- I didn't, but I wanted to. [laughs] So, it's like, yeah, he might have done some of these bad things, but he did a lot of great.

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George Washington had slaves and all kind of [expletive], but ain't' nobody trying to take him off the money. I'm just saying. [Thomas] Jefferson was all over the place, but ain't nobody taking him off the money.

What do you think separates "The Carmichael Show" from everything else on television?

Not only do we have comedic geniuses on this show who have excellent timing, but we are very genuine. We stay real to the content, to what's going on. We dig in enough to where when you're at home, you can dig in even more. We give you a morsel and you can take it and run with it.

What's next for you?

I'm in "Keanu" which comes out April 29 and I see myself with a gang of more episodes of "The Carmichael Show." I want to do 80 movies before I turn 45. I also started my own production company, She Ready Productions, and I want to be able to produce content that reaches out to youth and makes them laugh and teaches them. I want to also do my life story, called "Tiff Happens," like [expletive] happens.

"The Carmichael Show" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on NBC. 

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.

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