It's December 30th and my fiancee and I are filing into the MGM Garden Arena for the John Mayer/Dave Chappelle show. The energy in the room is vibrant. John comes out, plays some songs, and speaks on music with an expertise that made me fall in love with him as an artist all over again. Then Dave comes out. You can taste it in the air. Everyone in that room knows that someday they'll be telling their children about this experience. Dave tells 25 minutes of jokes then brings up the Netflix pay scandal. And he says to a sold out arena that "Mo'Nique is a legend.". After this weekend, I don't see how anyone can disagree with him.
I have been a fan of comedy my whole life. I have quite a few influences, but very few female ones. One of the biggest reasons I could even picture myself doing stand-up at all was Mo’Nique. When my friend found out what Mo'Nique meant to me he got me a ticket to see her new residency at the SLS.
Some of you are reading this confused because you don't know what she means to this metal music loving, comic book collecting, video game playing, raw comedian. If you can’t really wrap your head around it, it probably means you have never seen Mo'Nique LIVE in her element. And shame on you for having preconceived notions about me.
When I was in my early 20's I was in a bad way. I had lost all self worth, was gambling in excess, and had garnered myself an opiate addiction. I was in a relationship that had me so down on myself, had me believing I was so worthless, I had begun to live my life as such. I stole Vicodin from wherever I could find it just so I could numb myself to the fact that I couldn’t find anything to love in the mirror anymore. I was adrift and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I loved comedy. I would watch hours of stand-up comedy and it would be my reprieve from the constant barrage of negative inner thoughts.
I had been telling stories with my girlfriends one night, doing my best to make them laugh, and my oldest and dearest friend interrupted me. Her tone of voice would have made a lightbulb spontaneously appear over her head if we had been in a cartoon she sounded so revelatory. She pointed at me and said: “You should do stand-up comedy!”. And it clicked. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Once I figured out how to make people laugh, I was always chasing the next punchline way before I even recognized what I was doing. I wasn’t ever the pretty girl or the popular girl. I was the smart girl. I hated being the smart girl. People just want to cheat off your paper and they only want to be your friend in class in case there’s a group project. And no one especially wanted to dry hump the smart girl, and that’s all I wanted out of a Friday night at 17. I knew that people that made me laugh made me want to dry hump. I knew that people who made me laugh made me feel butterflies. I also knew the feeling of making people laugh was like being dry humped by the whole offensive line on Homecoming night.
I wanted people to see me and say I was the funniest girl they knew, but I was horrendously shy outside of my extra-curricular theater activities. Although I wanted to be clever and tell stories and make everyone laugh, my severe lack of confidence meant I only showed that side of myself to my closest friends. Add a unibrow and some very poor fashion choices to that mix and I wasn’t exactly screaming anything but “dork”.
My friends loved me though. My family loved me. There was always someone around who would laugh at whatever commentary I was spewing or story I was re-enacting. So when my dearest friend, my most practical and level-headed friend, looked me right in my eyeballs and said: “You should do stand-up comedy.”. My heart exploded. The gears in my head all felt like they clicked into place. Not only had someone validated me as funny verbally for one of the first times in my life, but someone had also presented an idea so out of the realm of my reality that was exactly what I wanted out of life. Make people laugh every night onstage for my job? Um, YES PLEASE. Where do I submit my resume?
Unfortunately in stand-up, there is no application. It is a sea of possibilities of ways to start and each one is more daunting than the next. So I decided to present this new dream to my boyfriend at the time. We had an extremely unhealthy relationship due to him being too young to take responsibility for the fact that he pressured me into a relationship he didn’t actually want to be in anymore, and I didn’t want to look myself in the mirror and admit just how wrong we were for each other. I had allowed myself to come to a place where one man had torn me down emotionally so severely that I didn’t even realize how abusive it was until I relayed the stories to people who loved me later. Now, don’t jump to crucify him. We were young, and everything about our relationship was wrong from jump. But that’s a story for another day.
I remember looking across the table of a BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery at him. This was someone I thought I loved, and I was still so naive and young to think that people will behave the way they’re supposed to and not the way they are going to. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized these are two very different things. I pushed my fries around on my plate and finally worked up the courage to say it. I couldn’t really bring myself to look at his face. I knew in my heart of hearts that whatever came out of his mouth following whatever I had to say would hurt me, because after a year together, I was finally starting to realize the difference between “supposed to” and “going to”. I faked nonchalance and spoke as if it was a silly idea I was presenting for conversation’s sake. “I’m thinking of trying stand-up comedy.”, and I laughed nervously waving my fork around to punctuate “stand-up comedy”. He didn’t even look up from his food. His body didn’t react. He only shoved another forkful of food into his mouth and said through a twice baked potato: “Why? You’re not funny.”. And then I thought to myself: “Well he must be right. He’s spent everyday with you for a year. Surely, if you were funny he’d be the one to know.”, and I moved on with my life.
I moved on right up until I came across a comedy special called “I Coulda Been Your Cellmate” from the star of one of my favorite movies: “Phat Girlz”. The concept of this comedy special alone shook me to my core. Mo’Nique doing stand-up for hundreds of inmates inside of a women’s prison. How could someone make people laugh in that situation? It seemed impossible.
Then the special started, and she could have done a funny sketch or just launched right into the jokes. However, as I have since learned, this is not her style. She spent the first part of this comedy special giving a voice to these women who will spend most of their natural lives behind bars. Mo’Nique took her time in the spotlight right then to highlight what is broken about prison and the so-called rehabilitation system. At one point an inmate asks her why she came there, and what she said next forever changed the way I looked at our prison system. It also forced me to confront my own inner prejudices against those who’ve been or are incarcerated. I hadn’t opened my heart to their humanity. Growing up in a conservative small town, I had only thought of them as less than decent people, and hadn’t considered how they got there. What tragedy had befallen their lives to drive them to where they were today? My heart ached with a newfound sympathy. Her statement was so profound to me I haven’t forgotten it in ten years: “We live in a society that threw you away, and they said you weren’t worthy and you weren’t valuable and that you were trash. I don’t believe that.”
Soon the shot transitions to a stage built outdoors and a crowd of female inmates all wearing different colors to designate their danger or security threat. Mo’Nique then came onstage and took control. She would bring you right to the point of a real “a-ha” moment about us and our society. Then she would hit you with a punchline so funny and so unexpected, I was snort laughing by myself in my living room. Slapping my leg and cackling like an old prospector who just found Gold and couldn’t believe his luck.
Now, I could write a massive amount on this special alone, but I’m here to talk about the NOW. I took this trip down memory lane to paint a picture of who I was when Mo’Nique’s stand-up got inside my craw. Because shortly after seeing this, I packed my bags and left. She had said right into that camera that she had been told she wasn’t good enough over and over, and yet here she stood more than good enough. There she stood, a success in her own right. So I loaded myself and my dog onto a plane bound somewhere far away from the man who told me I wasn’t good enough both in life and in my ambition.
Fast forward a few years and I move to Las Vegas, Nevada. My first friend (and still to this day friend) was none other than Bobby Wayne Stauts. He introduced me to a world of amateur stand-up that I didn’t even know existed. I wanted to be a part of it so badly, that I spent three weeks just going out to shows and open mics and befriending comics. Some of my friends who are reading this are like, “Jozalyn, you SURE did ‘befriend’ some of those comics.” and to them I say: Go Befriend Yourself. Then a friend put me on stage one night for 3 minutes and the rest is, as they say, history.
Now, let’s jump ahead in the timeline one last time to last week. My friend takes me to see Mo’Nique at her new residency at the SLS. I’m euphoric at the thought of seeing the woman who taught me how to clap back at bullies in “Phat Girlz” and inspired me to shut out the people saying I wasn’t going to be good at stand-up. Her opener Correy Bell had me laughing so hard I almost lost a strip of eyelashes because I was crying. Then, Mo’Nique came out. Gorgeous and statuesque, her smile lit up the whole room, she danced her way to that microphone and before we knew it we were all on our feet dancing with her. Just sharing in a moment of pure joy. No judgement, no pretensions, just everyone in a room feeling unbridled joy at exactly the same moment.
She did exactly what I fell in love with her for from the beginning. She made us laugh, she made us cry, and she made us think. She challenged her own belief systems, she challenged our belief systems, and she challenged how we treat each other. She told stories so raw and so real, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her because her pure vulnerability was beautiful.
Then the meet and greet comes. I am sweating and nervous. You don’t often get to meet personal heroes, but I can tell you when I do I want to vomit. Did I do that? No I just cried uncontrollably while standing in a line full of people drinking and dancing. I realize now that Mo’Nique being the thing that pulled me out of traumatic experience also meant that she would take me back there for a moment. And the tears that flooded down my face, the same tears that threaten to fall as I write this, were tears of gratitude. This woman inspired me to chase my dreams in a very real way. It comes my turn and she hugs me deeply and says some things into my ear that I will keep with me forever. I will to write them here, or anywhere because they are mine. When she speaks to you, you just know some things are for you and that moment. Then she pulls away and lets me tell her my story. I walked away knowing I’d never forget this experience.
As lucky as I felt then, I then am lucky enough to be invited to do a guest set a few days later. She sends for me when I arrive. I walk into her dressing room and she smiles at me. She squeezes my hand and says “Hello, baby.” and I remind myself that if I cry in front of Mo’Nique again she’s gonna think I’m a crazy person. So I choke back those tears and smile and say hello back. Her energy is palpable. I feel so positive and comfortable, I just know the night is going to be fun. And it was. It was one of my favorite performing experiences to date. I got to watch her bring the house down and I went home that night giving a middle finger to all those people who said “Never meet your heroes.”.
I will save a lot of the memories of that night for me. They are special to me and I don’t believe everything is meant to be shared. I believe some things are meant to be cherished and don’t need repeating. However, there are some things from that night that made me think that a lot of comics, not just female comics, I know could take a page out of the Mo’Nique handbook. Here’s what I took away from this experience:
Don’t be afraid to be real. She showed us her heart and it made those laughs feel so very good. It felt like laughing with your favorite cousin who you only get to see once a year for the holidays. It felt like laughing with that person in your life who you laugh so hard with every time you hang out and only you guys think each other is funny. It felt so very good. A pure laugh that sits in your belly and came from your heart.
Be good to people. All of her messages can be summed up in one message: “Be better to each other”.
And love those who love you. She spent real genuine time with each of her fans that stayed for the meet and greet. She hugged us like she lost us in the grocery store and thought we got snatched up. She didn’t fade. She gave every one of those people 110% of her right up until the moment she walked offstage. Hell, for all I know she was back there hugging the staff and giving them all those positive vibes she seems to be made of.
The fourth thing that I took away was how much she cared that the experience was good for me. She check on me FOUR times before my set. She even apologized for interrupting me while I was reading my notes. She checked on me and made me laugh and showed me love before I even touched the microphone. She didn’t need me to prove that I was funny before she treated me with kindness and love. She did it because I was, as she says, her “Sister in Comedy”.
Comics can so often can ascribe their personal feeling on a comic’s “talent” to how they feel about a person. Deigning them to be “hack” or an “open micer” or “not funny” somehow making them less worthy of kindness it seems. How many of us check on someone we’ve never seen go up even once before they do a guest set on our show? And no I’m not counting you saying “Tight five. Be funny and I'll light you at four.” as checking on them.
And finally, the last thing that I will hold with me for as long as I am in this crazy industry was what she said when I thanked her for the opportunity. I will hold onto this as a principle in my life. It is the kind of person we should all aspire to be. She took my hand and said: “Just promise me that when you’re where I’m at, you’ll reach your hand out to the next little girl trying to make her way and help her up.”.