With ‘Girls Trip’ and a comedy special, Tiffany Haddish’s ‘calling card’ is open for the taking

Comedian and actress Tiffany Haddish is photographed at home in Los Angeles.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Tiffany Haddish is legitimately having a moment.

After a hilariously memorable role as a series regular on the recently canceled “The Carmichael Show,” opposite legends David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine, she stars in “Girls Trip,” in theaters Friday, opposite industry vets Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Regina Hall. Based on her performance, she’s on her way to household-name status.

Such a trajectory, looking to get an additional boost from her first stand-up special “Tiffany Haddish: She Ready! From the Hood to Hollywood” premiering on Showtime Aug. 18, is almost magical for funny black women in Hollywood.

But what else would you expect from “the last black unicorn?”

How did you get into comedy?

My social worker. [laughs] I was living in South Central L.A. and was being bused to Woodland Hills. I was getting in trouble because I was not sure how to make friends. So I made this imaginary friend up because I thought I was at the Nickelodeon Awards — I had never been around this many white people. I thought I was at the Nickelodeon Awards every day so I thought I needed to be all creative and entertaining because I thought white people lived in TV — my concept of people was really messed up.

I remember going to court and seeing the judge. I thought he was the judge from “People's Court.” [laughs] By the time I got to 10th grade, it was bothering my social worker that she was getting called to the school every week. I was getting sent to the dean's office for being racist because I had this bird named Cracker. It was this imaginary bird, and I would be like, "Cracker want a Polly?" And I would take actual crackers and break them up on my shoulder. Kids would laugh and stuff. We’d be taking a test and I would be like, "What's the answer to number seven Cracker?" And they'd be like, "Go to the dean's office!"

So my social worker was like, "You have two choices this time. You can go to Laugh Factory Academy Camp or you can go to psychiatric therapy. Which one you want to do this summer?" I was like, "Which one got drugs?" and I went to comedy camp. It was the first time a man ever told me I was beautiful and I didn't feel like I was going to be hurt in some kind of way. They taught me confidence, communication skills, how to write, how to have stage presence.

Tiffany Haddish, center, with Queen Latifah, left, and Jada Pinkett Smith, in the film "Girls Trip." (Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures)
(Michele K. Short / Universal Pictures)

What’s your greatest memory from camp?

I’ll never forget that Richard Pryor rolled up in class one day. This is 1997. He rolled up in a wheelchair and I was onstage, telling my jokes. He stopped me and was like, "Stop, stop, stop! What are you doing?" I said, "I'm telling jokes." He goes, "No, you're not." ... I said, "Well, what am I doing then?" He said, "You're getting on my … nerves. That's what you're doing." I'm clutching my palms. Then he said that people don't come to comedy shows because they want to hear about your problems or politics or religion or what's going on in the world. They come to comedy shows to have fun. So when you're on stage, you need to be having fun. I took that philosophy with me and I do that in everything that I do. No matter what the situation, I try to have fun. I get pulled over by the police, I'm like, "Oh, this going to be the best arrest ever." [laughs] And I end up making friends with these police officers.

Well, it’s a long way to go from foster care to landing an Essence cover for “Girls Trip.”

When I first saw the cover, I cried so hard. Like, snot, tears everything. They were tears of joy because I remember being that little girl wishing to be on that cover, wishing to be able to do something that would empower women. To be worthy enough to be on that cover … Essence is huge.

Now I got to get Ebony and JET Beauty of the Week. [laughs]

Who are your comedic inspirations?

Definitely Richard Pryor. Bill Cosby — I still want to work with Bill Cosby, I don't care, I'll drink the juice. I'll drink the juice. I'll take a nap. I don't give a damn. [laughs] But seriously, I would love for him to play my grandfather in something. Lenny Bruce is one of my people that I look up to. And Carol Burnett, Moms Mabley, even Mo’Nique's crazy ass. I like her boldness and her truth. But there's so many women ... Regina Hall. Regina is a comedic genius and I love that I got the opportunity to work with her and to watch her and to be able to learn from her. Now, I already have [comedic] timing, but her time is so on time that I want my time to get even better.

While you’re on this rise to the top, we know that it’s difficult for black women to truly become comedic superstars. Do you think of that as you’re navigating the industry?

No. The only thing I think of when I'm doing my job of being funny or working on these shows is, "How can I deliver my message in a way that will stick with people?" Every teacher that I've ever had, that I still remember their name, made me laugh. I feel like comedy is the best instrument to teach.

My special is coming out in August and to me it is a calling card, but also a learning tool. To me, when I do what I do, I'm just wondering, what am I teaching right now? What is the message right now? And how can it inspire?

Do you foresee more dramatic roles in your future?

People always tell me, "You should do drama. You should do drama." Even when I first got an agent they were like, "We want to send you out to be dramatic." And I'm like, "No. I'm a comedian. I'm funny. I want to do funny stuff." Yeah, I could do drama very well. I'm very good at it. I'll probably get an Oscar. I probably will have an Oscar but it will come from some dope-ass comedy that happens to make your heart open up. That's the goal.

On all of your social media you always say you’re “the last black unicorn.” Where does that come from?

When I was younger, I had this thing growing on my forehead and I thought it was just an ugly mole, but it turns out it was a wart. It was like a horn, directly on the center of my forehead. Kids used to be like, "Oh Tiffany, you're a dirty ass unicorn." And then I had moles [all over my face] and they used to be like, "Oh, you got flies on you. You're a unicorn with flies. You're a black unicorn,” trying to hurt my feelings. But I started thinking that unicorns are beautiful. Unicorns are magical. And they're right, I am a unicorn. I'm the last black unicorn! I started internally saying it and never really saying it out loud because I didn't want people to think I was crazy. [laughs] But as I got older, I'm like, "Forget that. I'm a unicorn and I'm going to say it out loud. I'm going to tag it on everything that I post.” I'm a magical creature.

I’ve also got a book coming out in December and it's called “The Last Black Unicorn” and it's about my life, starting from when I was 19.

What are your words of advice for young black women who are coming up behind you in comedy?

Write every day for at least 10 minutes. Stay focused, stay focused, stay focused. There will always be detours. There will always be somebody telling you, “you can't.” There will always be some person saying, "You know what, you don't have to do that. I'll take care of you. I'll do this for you." And hey, maybe they can do it and let them, but stay focused on your goal. I don't care if you have 15 babies, if you want to be a stand-up comic you can still be a stand-up comic with all your babies.

I say that to say, always find time to get on stage. That's important because that's how you flex your muscles. That's how you get strong. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't become Mr. Universe because he went to the gym every now and then. He did it on a regular basis. It’s the same thing with comedy. I try to perform seven nights a week.

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