Netflix recently aired the Def Jam 25th Anniversary Special and there was a clip of my appearance on the show. Has it really been 25 years? It felt like yesterday. And by yesterday I mean I taped the show in November 1995 at the Academy Theatre in New York City.
The day of the taping I was exhausted. I’d just flown back home to New York from a gig in Vegas and I was sick with a 102-degree fever. Medication and makeup work wonders.
And I was so nervous. I’d been invited to audition at Caroline’s Comedy Club for Def Comedy Jam’s Talent Coordinator, Bob Sumner. Honestly, I was confused by the invitation, thinking: “Um, really? Have you seen me?” I was not then, nor am I now what you’d call a Def Jam-style comic. I didn’t think I was a good fit for the show but I was not one to turn my nose up at an opportunity.
Although it was scary, I’m glad I did it. Wait, let me rephrase that: I’m glad that I did the show my way. I just tried to be myself: smart, funny, and rather political. Looking back I’m a bit horrified at how young and opinionated I was. It’s like watching a baby bird learn how to fly: awkward and painful. But how else do we learn how to soar?
The fan emails I’ve received over the years have confirmed that I made the right choice. One email in particular really touched me:
“Leighann, My name is Lakeenya, and I just recently watched you perform on Def Comedy Jam. I think you bring a sense of intelligence and sophistication to the stage. Most audiences expect the demeaning and (profane) language that is easy to acquire in one’s material. Which is why you surpass all others. Not only do you not lower your pride or intellect by taking the lazy and easy way, you also leave the audience with something to think about. You provide the world with an overview of a strong intelligent black woman. The ironic thing is, after watching you and the others, not only could I not remember what the other acts were about, I could recite yours line by line. That’s when you know that you have seen a really great performance.”
I continue to be inspired by the people who saw me and feel some kind of way about my appearance on Def Jam. I’m hearing words like beautiful, classic, great, legendary … and I am truly humbled by the regard. Especially since it’s Def Jam’s 25th anniversary and mine.
While I was deep in the struggle of trying to figure out what to do with my life, I went to a live taping of a hot new HBO comedy show called Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam. I sat in the balcony and watched comedian, Michael Colyar, tell a Rodney King joke. He said, and I’m paraphrasing:
“I turned on the TV and saw Rodney King getting his ass beat, and I got mad. I called my agent and said, ‘How come I didn’t get to audition for that Timex commercial?’”
The audience was completely silent for a moment as we made the connection with Timex’s slogan: “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.” When we got it, the power and force of our response ripped through the theatre like a tidal wave. I can still feel it.
What was truly magical for me was watching Michael wait. He put the joke out there and waited for the audience to get it. He was patient and confident. And when we got it, he absorbed the roar of our appreciation with a calm and cool majesty. And I thought: “I. Want. To. Do. THAT.”
I’ll never forget when I finally got up the courage to tell my Dad that I wanted to be a stand-up comic. He smiled and said, “What took you so long?”
It’s one thing to have people in your corner but to have them in your corner, waiting for you to show up? Well, my friends, it doesn’t get any better than that. And for the past 25 years, My Parents have supported my career even on days when I wasn’t so sure.
So what is most precious to me now, in the twilight of our time together, is that My Parents were there in the audience on the night when I taped Def Comedy Jam. And to me, that is the very definition of Def.