“This is gonna be kind of a hot one,” Ali LeRoi said.
“I’ve been waiting to sit her ass down for a minute,” Owen Smith said. “One of the funniest women in the game.”
“Funniest comedian in the game,” Jones interrupted. “Not just woman. I hate that shit.” End of introduction.
Comedians are combatants: they “kill,” they “bomb,” they “destroy.” Such bluster can mask insecurity, and Jones had good reason to feel defensive. She was forty-six, and had been a standup comedian for more than a quarter century; her peers respected her, but that respect rarely translated into high-paying gigs. “I remember some nights where I was, like, ‘All right, this comedy shit just ain’t working out,’ ” she told me recently. “And not just when I was twenty-five. Like, when I was forty-five.” She was a woman in a field dominated by men, and an African-American in an industry that remained disturbingly segregated.
Although she had opened for Katt Williams and Dave Chappelle, acted in movies alongside Ice Cube and Martin Lawrence, recorded a standup special for Showtime, and made several appearances on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” and BET’s “ComicView,” she worried that the gatekeepers of mainstream comedy—bookers for the “Tonight Show,” casting directors of big-budget films—had never heard her name. “Every black comedian in the country knew what I could do,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean everyone else is paying attention.” Chris Rock, who met Jones when they were both road comics in the late eighties, told me, “Black women have the hardest gig in show business. You hear Jennifer Lawrence complaining about getting paid less because she’s a woman—if she was black, she’d really have something to complain about.”
Jones spent much of her career performing in what she calls “shitty chitlin-circuit-ass rooms, where you’re just hoping the promoter pays you.” She told me that, around 2010, “I stopped only doing black clubs. I stopped doing what I call ‘nigger nights’—the Chocolate Sundays, the Mo’ Better Mondays. I knew how to relate to that audience, and I was winning where I was, but I wasn’t moving forward.” She lived in Los Angeles at the time, and she began asking for spots at the Comedy Store, where David Letterman and Robin Williams got their starts. A comedian named Erik Marino, who befriended her there, said, “She felt very strongly that she was being pigeonholed as a black comic—a BET comic.”
For a while, Jones performed at the Store at odd hours. Then, she said, “I went to the booker and I threw the race card at him. ‘Why you won’t let me go up at ten on a Friday? ’Cause I’m black?’ ” The booker gave her a prime-time slot. “She destroyed, obviously,” Marino said. “Bookers are the ones who care about black rooms versus white rooms. To us comedians, it’s, like, if you know what you’re doing and you can connect with an audience, they’re gonna laugh.”
Rock saw Jones perform at the Store in 2012. After her set, he told her, “You were always funny, but you’re at a new level now.”
“You’re right,” she responded. “But I’m not gonna really make it unless someone like you puts me on.” Rock took out his iPhone and added her name to a list labelled “Funny people.”
Jones has big eyes and a round, rubbery face. She is six feet tall, and often exaggerates her stature by wearing high heels and gelling her hair upward, fright-wig style. “I know I’m fly—don’t get me wrong,” she told me. “But I don’t look, like, standard Hollywood. As a comedian, it’s something you learn to use.”
Some paunchy male comics, such as Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan, occasionally refer to their looks; others seem oblivious of their appearance. Women don’t have this luxury. Jones often begins her standup sets by “taking away their bullets”—neutralizing anything that might distract an audience, so that “they can stop looking at my outfit, stop worrying about whether I think I’m sexy, and just listen.” Her Showtime special, “Problem Child,” which aired in 2010, began that way:
I know y’all already noticed that I’m a big bitch. . . . When I walk in a Payless, it gets quiet than a motherfucker. . . . I swear, men, if you can get past my big-ass feet and how tall I am, I’m a great fucking catch. . . . I’m fine. I can fuck. I can fight. Oh, I ain’t no damsel in distress, motherfucker. You can go get the car, baby, while I handle these three thug motherfuckers.
The final line devolves into shadowboxing—Jones bobbing and weaving like a mean-mugging Buster Keaton.
One bullet that this opening takes away is speculation about Jones’s sexuality. She has never been married and has no children; much of her act these days is about trying to find a man. “I speak for the lonely bitches,” she said. She was born in Memphis and raised in a churchgoing family. At one point, she told me, “It’s too bad I’m not gay, ’cause I’d get the flyest bitches.”
The opening of her special also allows her to pivot quickly to pantomime, one of her greatest comedic skills. Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, likes to say that an anchor should be interesting even with the TV on mute. Jones has similar thoughts about comedy. “People get hung up on writing smart shit,” she said. “To me, it’s more about performance. Lucille Ball and Moms Mabley, they had face. Before they even said a word, they made you crack up.” Paul Feig, the director of “Bridesmaids” and other comedies, compared Jones to Will Ferrell and Chris Farley: “They all have the ability to take a larger-than-life persona and present it in a real, accessible way.”
Some self-consciously hip venues foster an arch, hyperverbal style of standup that is sometimes called alt comedy. A Jones show is more like a semi-improvised concert. “She has a presence, when you see her live, that is extremely rare,” the comedian Marc Maron said. “And, honestly, it has very little to do with what she’s saying. The first time I saw her, I was blown away, and yet I couldn’t tell you a single one of her jokes.”
Michael Che, a writer and a performer on “Saturday Night Live” who also does standup, told me, “A black audience—we expect our performers to actually perform. And Leslie comes out of that tradition.” Bernie Mac’s first appearance on “Def Comedy Jam,” in 1992, became canonical not because of his punch lines but because of a defiant refrain that he directed at the audience: “I ain’t scared of you motherfuckers.” Che continued, “It’s not that Leslie yells and screams and jumps around. It’s that she’s brutally honest, and she knows how to sell material more convincingly than anyone I can think of. As soon as she walks onstage, you know she’s the boss.”
Near the end of her Showtime special, Jones takes a deep breath and wipes her face with a small towel printed with the word “Leslie.” “This is my favorite part of the show,” she says. Then she wades into the audience with a cordless microphone. She crouches over a black woman in the front row who is wearing a shiny headband. “Is that a goddam antenna?” Jones says. “I bet you get all the DirecTV channels.” By this point, Jones is practically lying on top of the woman, whispering directly into her ear (and into the microphone). Nearby, audience members laugh so hard that they fall out of their seats. Comedians have always used personalized insults to establish dominance over a crowd; Jones literally gets in her audience’s face.
A few rows back, she clambers over several audience members to get to a light-skinned black woman wearing blue contact lenses. “Yeah, I saw your pretty ass, you fuckin’ pretty bitch,” she says. She asks the woman many variations of the same question: “Are you sucking dick?” The woman, unfazed, shakes her head no. “Do you even like dick?” Jones asks. Again, the woman shakes her head. “Wow,” Jones says, wide-eyed. First, she leans toward the woman. Then she backs away. “Don’t you bitches be trying to flirt with me,” she says. Under her breath, almost to herself, she adds, “I’m not going to Hell, Lord, like that.”
Jones surveys her audience before picking targets. She told me, “I can look into a person’s eyes for one second and go, ‘Don’t fuck with him—that’s somebody who won’t get over what you’re about to say. Talk about that other guy instead.’ ” When I saw her perform at Carolines on Broadway, a comedy club near Times Square, she got only ninety seconds into her set before turning to a white man with a vintage vest and sculpted facial hair. “That goatee is bullshit,” she said. “And your girl is pissed that you wore that shit.” Pause. “Her family fuckin’ hates you. It’s cool to be in New York with your goatee and your vest. In South Dakota, that’s some bullshit! ” Mocking a goatee is not trenchant observational humor, but Jones’s swagger, and the specificity of her language, made the bit feel charged, like a knife trick performed at close range.
She ended the set by singling out a young white woman in the audience and contriving a reason to bury her face in the woman’s hair—less a joke than a performance of trampled social mores. As the houselights came up, the woman said, with a dazed smile, “Her sweat is all over me! What just happened?”
On the “Alias Smith and LeRoi” podcast, which was recorded in late 2013, Jones returned often to the topic of sexism. “You guys gotta support us,” she said. “You have somebody like the dude from ‘S.N.L.’ say that black women are not funny? People listen to that shit.”
LeRoi corrected her: “He didn’t say ‘funny.’ He said ‘ready.’ ”
They were referring to a recent TV Guide article noting that “S.N.L.” had just hired six new cast members, five of them white men. The reporter asked Kenan Thompson, one of two black males on the show, why there hadn’t been a black female cast member since 2007, when Maya Rudolph left. “In auditions, they just never find ones that are ready,” he said.
Soon after the article was published, Thompson was denounced online. (In a reaction video on YouTube, a woman named Dawn Melissa said, “Seriously, get it together. Because there’s no joke funnier than the one your mom made when she had you.”) Around this time, Jones was at an L.A. comedy club called Inside Jokes, waiting to go onstage, when someone told her about Thompson’s comment. “He should come battle me,” Jones said. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll ruin his life.” That night, she had a strong set. After her closing joke, she said, “And they say we ain’t funny, huh?,” dropped the mike, and walked off to a standing ovation.
On the podcast, Jones said of Thompson’s remark, “They’re not ‘ready’? That’s bullshit. ’Cause I know I’m ready.”
LeRoi, who has worked as a producer on several comedy shows, said, “ ‘Ready’ is not just the can-you-be-on-camera part. When you say ‘ready,’ it’s, like, ‘Yeah, bitch, you might have four impersonations, but can you write a fucking sketch? Yes—can you get ten sketches turned down and write an eleventh sketch?’ ”
Jones tried to speak.
“No, no, no—keep listening,” LeRoi said.
She exhaled audibly, but let him finish mansplaining. “I have never said I would want to be on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” she responded. “I don’t do impressions. I don’t know if I could write sketch. So, no, I would never put myself into that circle. Even if they asked me to come and audition, I’d really be, like, ‘Eh, I don’t know if I can do that.’ But I do know women who can.” Pounding a hand on the table, she added, “There’s motherfuckin’ three bitches I can call right now, goddammit, that will fill that spot. . . . Just because you don’t know them, that don’t mean that they don’t fucking exist. That’s like saying Italy does not exist. Motherfucker, yes, it does. I’ve been there.”
That November, before the podcast with Jones came out, Kerry Washington hosted “Saturday Night Live.” During the opening sketch, an announcer apologized for “the number of black women” Washington was being asked to play, “both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because ‘S.N.L.’ does not currently have a black woman in the cast.” It got laughs, but it was a comedic response to a serious problem.
Meanwhile, the show was secretly planning auditions for black women. The producers looked at more than a hundred women, most of them associated with the troika of traditional “S.N.L.” feeder troupes: Second City, in Chicago; the Groundlings, in L.A.; and Upright Citizens Brigade, in New York. Jones was not among them.
A dozen women were selected for callback auditions, which took place in December, on the “S.N.L.” stage, at 30 Rockefeller Center. A few days before the callbacks, Chris Rock had dinner with Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “S.N.L.” “You should look at Leslie Jones,” Rock said. “She’s the funniest woman I know.” Michaels agreed to give her a chance.
An “S.N.L.” audition is notoriously tough: the studio is dark and cavernous, and the producers sit silently near the back. Jones recalled, “I got onstage, took the mike out of the stand, and went, ‘Nope. Y’all are gonna have to move up to where I can see you.’ And Lorne got his ass up and moved.”
She did not attempt impersonations or funny voices; she did her act. She opened with an autobiographical anecdote about being a gangly ten-year-old who longed to be a petite gymnast. “I wrote it in 1987,” she told me. “It’s the closest I’ve come to a perfect joke, but it took years before I was talented enough to perform it.” The joke is an allegory about defying parental and societal expectations, and it includes two cartwheels. I saw her perform it at Carolines three nights in a row, and it earned an applause break every time.
After the “S.N.L.” audition, Jones flew back to L.A. and waited. A week later, she heard the news: the job had gone to Sasheer Zamata, a twenty-seven-year-old improviser and sketch performer at U.C.B., who is Disney-princess pretty. Jones said, “I understood why they gave it to her—she’d been doing sketch for a long time, she’s a natural fit—but at the same time I was fucking pissed.” The next day, she got a call from Michaels, who asked if she would take a job as a writer. “I went, ‘You know I have no fucking idea how to do that, right?’ ” Still, she accepted the offer and moved to Harlem.
“I’d spent a while in the real world,” she told me. “I’d seen some shit.” Most of the other “S.N.L.” writers had graduated from élite colleges within the past decade. “But one thing I learned—they’re not racist. They’re just white. They don’t know certain things.” During her first week on staff, Drake was the host. Some of the writers wanted to do a sketch about “The Glass Menagerie.” Jones told me, “Now, I know what it is. I’ve been to college. But I went, ‘People in Compton smoking a joint, they’re changing the channel when this comes on. It doesn’t matter if Drake is in the sketch. They don’t care what a fucking menagerie is. They think it’s “The Glass Ménage à Trois.” ’ ” The sketch bombed at the dress rehearsal and was cut. “Leslie is a pretty good litmus test for what America will think is funny,” Zamata told me.
When Jones met Kenan Thompson, she confronted him about his TV Guide interview. “I came at him, like, ‘I heard what you said, motherfucker.’ He said, ‘Come in, close the door, let’s talk.’ ” Thompson told me, “What I said was that the show hadn’t found the right people. That was true. And at the end of the day Leslie and Sasheer both got jobs, so I’m happy.” These days, Jones said, “Kenan is possibly my best friend on the show.”
“S.N.L.” often hires good-looking young comics—Chevy Chase, Adam Sandler, Jason Sudeikis—who go on to become leading men in Hollywood. In the eighties, Al Franken, then a producer on the show, recommended a pudgy nebbish named Jon Lovitz. Franken told Michaels, “He’s everything we’re not looking for in one person.” Lovitz was hired, and he became a key cast member for five seasons.
“I tell Leslie all the time, ‘You’re everything we weren’t looking for,’ ” Michaels said. “When someone’s funny, they’re funny. She was fully formed as a standup. I knew she’d have to learn the sketch thing, the technique part, but with some people you go, ‘Let’s just get them in the building.’ ” After a few months, Jones was added to the cast.
Rock said, “I mentioned her to several managers and agents over the years. Everybody passed. Lorne, because he’s the best at what he does, is the one who saw it. I don’t think he’d hired a cast member her age in a long time.” In fact, Jones was the oldest cast member “S.N.L.” had ever hired.
Despite the name, about a quarter of “Saturday Night Live” is pre-taped, usually on the Thursday or Friday before the broadcast. In April, Jones spent a misty Thursday in Bayside, Queens, shooting a “Game of Thrones”-meets-“Boyz n the Hood” sketch that required her to ride a horse for the first time. “I definitely spent the morning in bed with a sore ass,” she told me. “I hope people get it. Do kids even know who John Singleton is anymore?”
Jones performed a few takes. She made the line sound better than it was, infusing the word “space” with hip-hop bravado, but she used the wrong number of syllables. Rich stopped her and said, “I think, actually—are there maybe not enough ‘ta’s?”
Jones said nothing.
Rich, smiling solicitously, played the song on her phone. “You see how many ‘ta’s there are?” she said.
“You gon’ kill me on the ‘ta’s, bitch?” Jones said, enunciating each word for effect. It could have been the punch line in a standup bit, except that no one seemed to know if she was joking. “Why am I even listening to a white girl on this?” she said.
Rich’s smile dimmed, and she looked around anxiously. The only person to meet her eye was Natasha Rothwell, a black writer, who gave Rich a subtle, reassuring nod. The shooting continued. In the final cut of the sketch, Jones delivered a different lyric from the same song.
“I’ve perfected the art of busting on people,” Jones told me later. “That’s how comedians show each other love.” “Top Five,” a 2014 comedy written and directed by Chris Rock, features a long, largely ad-libbed scene in which an ensemble of comedians—including Rock, Jones, and Tracy Morgan—trade admiration-tinged insults. “That was the best scene in the movie, and Leslie was the best part of it,” Rock said. “Whenever I showed the movie to other directors—Ben Stiller, P. T. Anderson, Judd Apatow—their first reaction was always pointing at Leslie and going, ‘Who is that?’ ” Apatow was so impressed that he and Amy Schumer created a part for Jones in “Trainwreck.” When Schumer’s character finds herself on a stopped subway train, she turns to Jones for help. “Do I look like I work for M.T.A.?” Jones says, her eyes lighting up with contempt. “What, I got MetroCards in my fucking purse now?”
Jones’s ability to wring laughs from almost nothing—a raised eyebrow, a drawn-out pause—allows her to transmute a screenwriter’s B-minus joke into an A. But, in her standup, this gift has an unfortunate consequence: she is so reliably successful with sets that consist of crowd work and time-tested jokes that she feels little pressure to write new material, like a chef who can make a gourmet meal out of whatever happens to be in the fridge. “As Leslie gets really famous, it’ll be harder for her to repeat stuff,” Rock said. “Until then, you do what works.”
One night, I had dinner with Jones at Buddakan, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Chelsea that looks like it could serve as a set for “The King and I.” “The dan-dan noodles here are fucking insane,” she said. After dinner, dessert, and a couple of rounds of Patrón, we took a cab to the Comedy Cellar, in Greenwich Village. The booker, Estee Adoram, greeted Jones with a hug and implored her to perform, but she preferred to socialize. She walked past the comedian Judah Friedlander—he grabbed her arm and said, “Keep kicking ass”—and took a seat next to Larry Wilmore. At one point, the reactionary pundit Ann Coulter stopped by their table. Wilmore was courteous, but Jones leaned across the table and stage-whispered, “What the fuck is this frightening bitch doing here?” Coulter’s face froze in a rictus, and she soon backed away from the table.
We then took a taxi to the Comic Strip, on the Upper East Side, where a friend of Jones’s was hosting a standup show. On the way, she predicted, “Either he’s gonna make me perform or he’s gonna make me smoke weed with him.” The friend, standing outside the club between sets, saw Jones getting out of the cab and immediately started ribbing her: “I’ve been texting you. You too famous for me now?” They slipped away and returned a few minutes later, looking more relaxed. In the lobby, someone gestured at a TV mounted near the ceiling. It was a rerun of “S.N.L.” Jones was performing on the show’s fake-news segment, “Weekend Update.” Her mouth was an emotional roulette wheel: withering glower, self-assured sneer, toothy smile. The TV was inaudible, and a bartender scrambled for a remote, but people in the lobby were already laughing.
Jones hung up. “I have a couple of ideas I might try on Louis,” she said. “There’s one called ‘Jungle Fever,’ where he’s never had sex with a black girl and she’s never had sex with a white guy, and they’re asking each other questions. But Kenan said, ‘You gotta stop making everything about race, because sometimes it’s scary to people.’ So I’m figuring out how to rewrite it.”
Jay Pharoah, who became a cast member in 2010, at the age of twenty-three, stopped by Jones’s office. “Remember the guy who tries to steal intangible stuff?” he said, referring to an old sketch idea.
“ ‘Yo, let me get that confidence off you,’ ” Jones said.
“ ‘Let me get your appetite, son. I like the way you be eating things,’ ” Pharoah said.
“That’s funny, Jay,” Jones said. “You should write that, and put me in it.”
Pharoah continued down the hall. “He’s been messing around with that all year, but he never sits down and writes it,” Jones said. “I love Jay to death, but he’s like a toddler, man.”
Later that night, Pharoah and a writer, Mikey Day, put together a draft of the sketch. It got laughs at the table read, and the producers decided to pre-tape it. So on Friday morning C.K., Pharoah, Jones, and four other cast members gathered at a warehouse in an industrial part of Brooklyn. The sketch was set at a rooftop cookout, and the warehouse’s roof was crammed with camera equipment and about fifty extras. Jones, wearing a red wig and hoop earrings, stood behind a grill, flipping burgers. Every few takes, a P.A. collected them and fed them to the crew.
Pharoah wore a red Yankees cap and a cornrow wig. “Yo, lemme get that confident smile off you,” he said. The other actors, playing his neighbors, rolled their eyes.
While the crew reset the cameras, Jones went inside to rest. She was in a bad mood. “I know this is a good job, but, honestly, it’s brutal sometimes,” she said. She had woken up before five, to get picked up in Harlem and driven to Brooklyn. “I sometimes wonder what this would have been like if I was in my twenties,” she said. “Right now, I can’t wait for Sunday, so I can fall the fuck asleep.”
Zamata and Bobby Moynihan, another cast member, napped on leather couches nearby; C.K. and Thompson groggily refilled their coffee cups. Only Pharoah was indefatigable. He stayed on the roof, keeping the extras entertained. (To a white couple: “Let me get that comfort with being two of the only Caucasians here off you.”)
The cast ran through the sketch a few more times. Between takes, C.K. pulled Pharoah and Thompson aside and said, “My voice in this—I’m not sounding, like, too black, am I?”
“You’re good,” Thompson said.
“Because we’re also gonna do the Sprint-store thing,” C.K. said. In that sketch, he played a cell-phone salesman who switched into exaggerated street slang whenever his boss, played by Jones, was in the room. “I’m just imagining articles coming out on Sunday morning about me doing racist voices.”
“Just be funny, man,” Thompson said. “Don’t worry about the blog stuff.” This led to a riff about how various iconic comedians would have responded to online scrutiny. (Pharoah, doing a Richard Pryor impression: “The thing that be botherin’ me about Bossip is . . .”) When standups perform, their jokes include exposition, to keep the audience from getting lost; but comedians among their own kind are like chess players executing a quick flurry of moves.
Jones, flipping burgers, continued to sulk. Between takes, Pharoah turned to her and said, “Les, you look like you’re about to slice somebody’s head off with that spatula.”
“I am,” she said.
“Yo, let me get that ability to stay angry in front of all these people that’s paying you,” Pharoah said.
C.K. joined in: “Let me get that unalterable edge of anger impervious to success off you.”
Pharoah and C.K. were, in their way, expressing concern, and Jones seemed appreciative. Nevertheless, she played up her frustration for laughs. “I’ve been standing here all day inhaling smoke from this stank-ass grill,” she said. Pharoah and C.K. smiled, giving her space to keep going. “I hate the sun on my face,” she continued. “I hate this horrible-ass neighborhood.” She peered out over the rooftop, selecting objects for ridicule. “I hate these dingy-ass auto shops. I hate this nasty graffiti everywhere. Can’t even get it together to have some nice graffiti.”
Gradually, she lightened up. In the next take, C.K. slipped into a stilted locution. Jones grinned and said, “Did someone tell you this was Shakespeare?”
Like many standups, Jones generates most of her material in performance, discovering funny phrases and gestures onstage. When she became a writer for “S.N.L.,” she barely knew how to use a word-processing program. “I’m old school,” she said. “I wouldn’t even buy a cell phone until a few years ago.” Zamata told me, “I remember sitting in Leslie’s office and watching her go, ‘How do I get the ideas out of my head and onto the page?’ ”
“My sense was that, before she came here, she wasn’t a regular viewer,” Lorne Michaels said. Jones confirmed this. “I watched ‘S.N.L.’ the way most black people watched it: I watched Eddie. Then I stopped.”
During her first few months as a writer, Jones submitted a variety of sketches, most of them adapted from her act, including one in which Lena Dunham played Jesus’ personal assistant, and one about the types of women in a night-club posse (the designated driver, the alcoholic, the slut). None made it to air. “As a comedian, it’s, like, ‘I’m bombing. What am I doing wrong?’ ” she said. “At least they still paid me.”
It was her first regular paycheck. When Jones was born, her father, an electrical engineer, worked as a studio technician at WDIA, in Memphis, which is often called “the nation’s first all-black radio station.” In 1979, Stevie Wonder bought KJLH, an R. & B. station with offices in Compton, and hired Jones’s father. The family moved to Lynwood, which borders Compton to the north.
After a while, Jones’s father left KJLH and the family moved to a rougher part of Lynwood. “I remember my brother and them always having to run home from school, so the gangsters wouldn’t beat them up,” Jones said. “It was easier for me. People would see me walking and be, like, ‘You’re going straight home, right?’ I was a basketball player, and they knew I was serious about success, not getting pregnant. I didn’t know what I was gonna be yet, but I knew I was gonna get the fuck out of there.” Crack came to Lynwood in the eighties. “That fucked everybody up. My brother started selling, and you’d see the most unexpected people coming to the window. The dude I used to have a crush on—he’s a crackhead now? My high-school teacher—it got her, too?”
She went to Chapman University, a Christian college in Orange County, on a basketball scholarship. College, she said, was her “hippie phase”: “no shoes, no underwear, sex with strange people—good times.” Before her sophomore year, her basketball coach got a job at Colorado State, and Jones transferred there. “They weren’t really my people in Colorado,” she said. “A lot of white girls with ponytails.” A friend signed her up for a comedy competition, and Jones won without having prepared an act. “I went, ‘Fuck college, fuck basketball, I’m funny,’ and I dropped out. The next week, I was back in California.” She was nineteen.
A month later, she was on a bill with Jamie Foxx, who was then a touring comic. “I was doing jokes about white churches versus black churches, and imitating my uncle’s stutter. I was terrible.” The audience booed her off the stage. Then Foxx performed. “It was, like, a religious feeling, watching him,” Jones said. “I had never seen a real comedian before, at least not in person.”
After the show, Foxx took her to a Fatburger. “You could be good, but you don’t have shit to talk about yet,” he told her. “You need to get your heart broken, have some bad jobs—live life for a while.”
Jones took this advice so seriously that she did not perform for six years. She worked as a cook, a cashier, and a waitress; she sold perfume at a mall; she became a justice of the peace and officiated at weddings. When she started performing again, in the mid-nineties, she kept working part time; a spot on BET’s “ComicView” paid only a hundred and fifty dollars. “I was the funniest waitress Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles ever had,” she said. “Customers would be, like, ‘Didn’t I just see you on BET?’ I’d be, like, ‘Yep. Breast and a wing or leg and a thigh?’ ” She and her long-term boyfriend broke up, which renewed her drive to make money, and also inspired jokes about the single woman’s plight. (“I be walking up to men in the club, like, ‘Can you lend me some dick till I get on my feet?’ ”) By her estimation, it took ten years before she found her comedic voice.
One night, after a bad date, she came home alone, smoked a joint, and turned on the TV. She told me, “A slave movie was on and, out of bitterness, this ridiculous idea popped into my head: during slave times, I never would have been single.” She wrote a joke based on the premise, but felt it was too personal to perform. “It wasn’t a commentary on slavery,” she said. “It was about my pain—about how hard it is, as a black woman, to get black dudes to date you. The first time I told it”—to a mostly black audience in L.A.—“it massacred to the point where I went, ‘There’s something real here.’ ” She told it several more times, in clubs and on TV.
For her first appearance on “S.N.L.,” she repeated the joke, almost unchanged, from behind the “Weekend Update” desk. “I do not want to be a slave,” she said. “Hell, I don’t like working for you white people right now, and y’all pay me. I’m just saying . . . I would be the No. 1 Slave Draft Pick. All of the plantations would want me. I’d be on television, like LeBron, announcing which plantation I was gonna go to. I would be, like, ‘I would like to take my talents to South Carolina.’ ” The joke sparked outrage online—Jamilah Lemieux, in Ebony, called it “a grossly offensive skit about slave rape”—but it also demonstrated Jones’s obvious talent as a performer. “Live from New York!,” a recent documentary about “S.N.L.,” devoted several minutes to the joke, the backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, including a comment from Jones: “Not only did I take something of pain and make it funny, motherfucker—it was brilliant.”
The next time Jones appeared on “Weekend Update,” four months later, the director Paul Feig was watching at home. “I don’t normally like when actors are big and loud,” he said. “But she was able to do it with this grounded, relatable sort of energy. Before her segment was over, I said to my wife, ‘I think she’s one of our ghostbusters.’ ”
Feig and I were speaking in a hangarlike space in Norwood, Massachusetts, outside Boston. It was September—the sixty-ninth day of a seventy-two-day shoot. Feig’s reboot of “Ghostbusters,” to be released next summer, will star Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Jones. In it—unlike in “Trainwreck”—Jones will play an M.T.A. employee. The movie was still officially untitled, but on-set swag was labelled “Ghostbusters 2016.”
Most of the on-location filming took place on the streets of Boston, camouflaged as New York. Interior shots were captured in the Norwood building, a former Reebok warehouse, which contained green screens and a handful of lifelike sets: a Chinese restaurant’s colorful façade, a two-story Art Deco hotel lobby. Jones’s character, Patty Tolan, is a station agent turned—spoiler alert—ghostbuster.
The original movie and its sequel featured four ghostbusters, but the substantive roles went to the three white stars—Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray. Ernie Hudson, an African-American graduate of the Yale School of Drama, played Winston Zeddemore, the Zeppo of the bunch. Hudson recently wrote in Entertainment Weekly that, when he first read the script, “It was a bigger part, and Winston was there all the way through the movie.” In the final script, the part had eroded.
Feig said that, compared with Winston, “Patty’s a bigger part. I definitely wanted four equal team members.” Jones told me, “He made it completely equal. It was like a superhero team, where each one has her own skill but can’t use it without the others.”
I hadn’t seen Jones in several weeks, and when I found her in her trailer she greeted me with “You can tell I lost weight, right?” She cheerfully humble-bragged about stunts she had been asked to do: “These motherfuckers don’t understand I’m a comedian. They’ve got me doing all this Van Damme shit.” The previous day, she told me, she had used one of her “Ghostbusters” checks to pay off the last of her credit-card loans. For the first time in her adult life, she was debt-free.
She texted several times a minute with McKinnon, who had returned to New York the previous night. They knew each other from “S.N.L.,” where McKinnon is also a cast member, but their friendship had deepened on the set. “She had me walking everywhere—all around Boston, looking at old-fashioned doors and shit,” Jones said. “I hated it at first, but then I really got into it.” Though McKinnon had a girlfriend, she and Jones referred to each other as “my movie wife,” “my movie husband,” or simply “my bitch.” “I learned a lot from watching her timing,” Jones said. “She is a beast.”
When her makeup and hair were in place, Jones walked through the warehouse to a replica of a New York subway station, with working turnstiles and dirt-streaked tile walls. She entered a fake ticket booth and inspected the props on the desk, which included a paperback about the Constitutional Convention. The cover depicted several Founding Fathers in tricornes. “Paul, does this look like some shit I would read?” she said. “Do you see any black people on this cover, Paul?”
Feig chuckled, sat behind a monitor, and called, “Action!” Neil Casey, a U.C.B. alumnus who plays the movie’s villain, walked up to the booth.
“Can I help you?” Jones said, impatiently.
“Leslie, keep it positive at first,” Feig said. “That way, he gets crazier and crazier, and you have somewhere to go.”
“Cool,” Jones said. In the next take, she started out with a dimpled smile, which melted away as Casey grew more menacing.
“Cut,” Feig said. “Much better.”
Jones, holding up the book, said, “Actually, I did find a black dude in here.”
They walked across the warehouse to shoot another scene, set at a concert. In a gag reminiscent of one in “School of Rock,” Jones’s character had attempted to stage-dive, but the crowd had failed to catch her. In this shot, fans helped her to her feet. The line in the script was “I can’t believe you let me fall!”
“Play around,” Feig said. “We’ll do a few.”
“What is wrong with y’all? Pick my ass up!”
“I don’t know if that was a race thing or a lady thing, but I’m mad as hell.”
“Nice. Give me one last one—dealer’s choice.”
“Oh, you ain’t gonna be able to use my dealer’s choice,” Jones said.
“Try me,” Feig said.
Action. “I can’t believe you let a bitch fall like that!” she said to one of the men. “I was gonna go out with you, too.”
Feig laughed. When Jones was done with all her scenes, he led her toward the middle of the warehouse, where a group formed a circle around her.
“Folks, this is a Boston wrap on the lovely Ms. Leslie Jones,” he said. Everyone clapped. Someone handed her flowers. Wiig stepped into the circle, hugged Jones, and said, “You did it, girl!,” while doing a self-conscious wiggle dance. It all seemed a bit forced, but as Jones walked away from the set I noticed that she was crying.
In her trailer, she sat quietly for a moment, waiting for a hairdresser to remove her wig. “I think I’m scared to leave this place,” she said. It took a long time to remove the wig—it was glued to her hairline—and we kept talking as the sun went down outside her trailer window. She was in a reflective mood. Though she still has extended family in Memphis, her mother, father, and brother all died within the past few years. “When death touches you that close, you say to yourself, ‘It’s time to start liking who the fuck you are,’ ” she said. “I’m not perfect, but I’m starting to get comfortable, like a sweater you want to wear all the time.”
Her head was tilted back in a washbowl, her eyes closed, but her voice still controlled the room. “I’m glad this whole success thing is happening now,” she said. “I can’t even imagine a twenty-three-year-old Leslie in this position. They would have kicked me off the set after two days. I would have fucked half the dudes in the crew.” She sat up and wrapped a towel around her head. “I was a less confident person back then. And damn sure not as funny.”