The Gospel of Yamaneika Saunders

Growing up in the church, Yamaneika Saunders was told by others that she had a calling. “When I was growing up people would single me out and say that I would be a preacher. I had no idea how to be a preacher, nor did I want to be. Maybe the gift that they saw wasn’t so much me preaching, but me doing standup.” The similarities between preaching and standup aren’t lost on Saunders. She approaches the stage with a personal message, a soul-searching, honest examination of the Gospel of Yamaneika. That’s not to say that her act would sit well with certain, more conservative crowds. “The thing I have to overcome is that my humor, to put it nicely, can be unapologetic. There’s a number of things that people think when I get onstage: I’m a woman, I’m black, I’m big, and I’m going to do what I’m going to do.” Tonight at 12:30 Saunders gets a half hour to do what she does on her episode of Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents. I sat down with her the day before she taped the special to discuss growing up, God, and getting real.

Did you start comedy in New York?

Actually I started in Los Angeles. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 15 and a half. I got into the LA County High School for the Arts and studied theater. My mother was in television and radio, but she was behind the scenes, meaning she was an audio/visual engineer, things of that nature. She decided she wanted to do standup. I don’t know why, but she started doing standup and thought that I should get into standup. I wasn’t down for it. I thought it was ignorant. I didn’t want to be bothered with anything. They offered standup my senior year in high school because you had to have a discipline other than just theater and regular high school classes. A lot of kids were taking makeup, film, directing, costumes. I was supposed to continue on to theater management because that’s what I was going to go to college for. When they offered the standup class I decided to take it just to shut my mother up. I got addicted. I did my first comedy set at 16 years old and now I’m 101. I’m Methuselah’s girlfriend.

When you get a big opportunity like this how do you prepare? Do you have a ritual? Are you superstitious at all?

I won’t say that I’m going to kill. I think that’s foolish. I pray a lot, surprisingly, because I talk about penis a great bit. My goal is to have fun and make sure everybody else has fun. At this level people debate about whether somebody is funny or not. Everybody has their opinion of funny. When you get to this level it’s a given that you’re funny, but can you have fun with the audience? You want to feel that energy.

You seem to really enjoy crowd work.

I do. It can be tricky, because for television you kind of want to do your shit. But for me, when you’re dealing with someone in the audience it can deviate into something that is very spur-of-the-moment and can take you to all these different places. Your set is supposed to be about kittens, but it winds up being about cactus instead. You never know. But that’s the good thing about standup and seeing live comedy. When you can translate that into a show on television and get that live comedy feel it feels great.

How long have you been running your half hour to prepare for this?

I think I ran it into the ground. I had to stop because people were looking at me like, “Oh, what happened to your joy?” I was doing four or five shows a night running it and I ran it into the ground. I took a break and said, “Whatever will happen will happen.” I think when you perform you have a set or a joke that will be magical, which is how you get things into your act. Then you keep trying to recreate that moment, that moment where you were like, “Fuck, I wish this was taped so that it can live forever somewhere.” That’s a pressure that I feel. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to match that. Some things are just in the moment.

How did you feel when you found out you’d been selected to do a half hour this year?

I don’t want to sound cheesy, but when I found out everything went slow. I was like, “Alright, now we’ve got to execute this thing.” My joy will come when it’s over. The process is incredible and you feel a sense of accomplishment. You’re really grateful to have all of these things going on. A lot of comics that I started with got out of comedy and did other things because it didn’t work. When you get to a place like this, you really feel blessed. But I have a lot of nerves. You don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know this crowd. And then we got the news about Lashonda passing. I was really excited to hang out with her here. It really put into perspective, you know, don’t wait, be grateful, don’t waste the opportunity to appreciate, and enjoy the blessing… I’m really glad I found comedy. I don’t think anybody thinks when they’re a child that they’re going to be a standup comic. You don’t even understand how that all goes. To get into a career like this is incredible.

You talk about blessings and prayer a lot. Do you consider yourself to be a religious person?

Yeah, I’m a Christian.

Do you go to church and everything?

Absolutely. I go to church. I call my family before every flight and we pray. If they don’t pick up the phone I get nervous. My grandma, before she got really sick, would send me holy oil. I ask God when somebody’s going through something to let me be a vessel. I always look at myself like I’m building to a better person. A lot of the stuff I’m visiting now with this half hour is stuff I talked about years ago. There’s sort of a lot of naivete to it and just understanding what it means to be a person who grew up one way. My grandparents owned a nightclub, so I grew up very secularly. Then they got into the church. Then I got back into the secular world. I went in and out. It’s all coming of age and trying to find a balance between being honest and still being a good person.

You alluded to the fact that some people might not believe that you are religious because you also talk about dick on stage. It’s crazy to me how sometimes people can’t recognize the full spectrum of somebody’s individuality and humanity. Other believers can be especially judgmental. It’s like, if you believe in God, God has already seen everything and heard everything. Nothing you say or do is going to be shocking to God.

That’s exactly what I was telling someone earlier. I had a conversation with Mike Yard. I had literally just said something about kicking a dick out of my mouth. He said, “So you go up and say this kind of stuff and…” When I first started doing comedy I would go up and be like, “Oh, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and it wasn’t connecting. My grandmother said, “You have to be careful because you’re a black woman and you’re big and people are going to think you’re just a fool. Don’t let people think you’re a fool.” So I always try to hold up this integrity that my grandmother made me hold up. Integrity is fine, but if I’m not saying things because I’m afraid that people are going to view me a certain way, that’s a problem. So I let all that go.

I mean, I got booed on Apollo, so I really had to let it go. I told my grandmother I can’t do it anymore because there are things I really want to say. A few years passed and I really started becoming this person that I am now. When I had to go on Last Comic Standing the cat was going to come out of the bag because they were going to see it. Even though it was tame I said, “Listen, here are some things…” My family was really supportive. My mother and grandmother said, “God knows your heart. Go out there and do what you’ve got to do. Give people the truth.”

Everything that I talk about is something I’ve thought and prayed about. I’ve said to myself, “Why do I like to suck dick so much?” That’s the truth. That’s honest. People say women always want to talk about sex and stuff, but for me, I didn’t have sex until I was 27. Now I’m trying to grapple with all this stuff as an adult. People tell me I’m not supposed to do certain things because it’s in the Bible, but I know I like to do certain things. Do you think I’m not having that conversation with God? That’s the conflict I have and it’s the same thing I’m saying onstage. What I’m saying onstage is not where it lays. I’m asking people to give me help. People need to lighten up when it comes to people saying stuff onstage because we’re all still figuring it out.

The Gospel of Yamaneika Saunders