As interesting as the tone and style of Amanda Seales’s stand-up is how she came to stand-up in the first place. For years, Seales has been known as a poet, VJ, musician, rapper, actress, podcast producer, and host of the live game show Smart Funny & Black. It wasn’t until she was 33 that she transformed bits of solo shows and cheeky lectures into bonafide stand-up. She’s 38 now, and she’s learned a lot in five years.
With her first HBO special I Be Knowin’, Seales capitalizes on her many credits to deliver a set that blends music, social commentary, and self-help into the jokes. The atmosphere of community and camaraderie in the audience is palpable, and is something few stand-ups can (or would even want to) pull off.
For this episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, the Insecure actress — who is currently on tour — talks about turning a viral moment about catcalling into comedy, the joys of clapter, and why she doesn’t want to make everyone laugh. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
What’s your writing process? Do you sit down with a pen?
When I put pen to paper it’s immediately not going to be funny. I have to come up with it onstage, like Jay-Z, off the top of my head. Once I knew I was doing the special, I got a little bit more deliberate about how I was going to write these things. I started getting clearer about, I need to stick to this being this way every time. I actually sat down and wrote out certain jokes I knew I wanted to find a new ending to. I also learned that I am not a surgical comic. I was trying to force myself into, Okay, you’re going to perfect every word. You’re going to Seinfeld this. And Stan Lathan, who directed my special, was like, “Nah, that’s just not you. Let it breathe. You know how to think with edits in mind. We’ll figure it out.”
Your bit about catcalling really started after an appearance on CNN, and a subsequent lecture called “Side-Eye Seminar.” How did you move from a serious event to something you can joke about?
I’ll start out from a serious place because I’m a serious person, but it’ll always end up goofy because I’m also a goofball. The lecture was always going to have a humorous tone to it because I already understood that anything I do needs to be funny. I just hadn’t committed to being a stand-up.
So how did stand-up become the vehicle for what you wanted to say?
Stand-up was what made my life make sense. Wow, I never said it like that before. Until stand-up, I was this person that had all these multi-hyphenate skills and people would be like, “It’s almost like you do everything but nothing at all.” Stand-up came into the mix, and all of a sudden being a writer, a host, a singer, a performer became requisites versus distractions from each other. That just made everything make sense for everyone, including myself.
Your Instagram bio says, “I’m not for everyone.” And in the intro clip for I Be Knowin’, you really delineate for whom you are and are not making the special. What do you make of that conventional stand-up wisdom that says, “A good comedian can make everyone laugh?”
That’s bullshit. I’m not interested in making everybody laugh. I’m more interested in making everyone learn. I want some people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to shift in their seats. I want to make some people cry. There’s some people I’m like, “You need to go look in the mirror and smear your lipstick and listen to Sarah McLachlan and think about yourself.”
Some people say, “Good comics should change people’s minds.” Beyond just laughing, how do you hope an audience will react?
I want the majority of the audience to be laughing, but I didn’t do my job if some of them aren’t uncomfortable or pensive or offended. That’s the beauty of comedy. You see certain comics for different purposes. Just like music. I’m not going to a Band of Horses show expecting Migos.
You’ve mentioned that you think of your stand-up as a TED Talk with jokes. There’s a part in this joke where you get claps because you said something the audience agrees with, and there’s no joke. What is your defense of this sense of TED Talkery?
We are in an era where information and truth are so under fire that comedians oftentimes are the last bastion of truth and reality. Comedians are the last folks that aren’t being run by a network, and our voices are not being curated by some outside force. If you’re a truth-teller, it’s only natural that you’re going to tell truths that make people laugh, and some that just make people be like, Yes, I agree with that.
Around the time the special came out, you compared it to a milestone like getting married or having a kid. How did the process or the release of the product give you a sense of what’s coming next?
The special was the first time I’ve ever had to wait that long to see something come to fruition. It’s what I imagine doing a sensory deprivation chamber would be like. I had to trust it. And when you come out the other side, it empowers you because now you really are like, I do know what I’m talking about. I can trust myself in a whole new way. That gives you a bit more of a safety net to take bigger risks. Certain dreams have started to feel more like goals: writing a film and really getting my production company going. It gave me a certain level of confidence and insight and access and resources to bring those dreams to a more reachable level.