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“I love stand-up,” declares Tiffany Haddish, as she reflects on her 25-year career. “That’s where my heart is.” While Haddish’s acting star has been on the ascendant ever since she lit up the screen in her big-screen breakthrough, Girls Trip, in 2017, she knows she’d always be most comfortable in front of a live audience. “Somebody said to me, ‘What if you were told you could never act again?’ I’d say, ‘As long as I can do stand-up, I’m fine with that.’”
And if she was told she couldn’t do that? “I’d be like, ‘I will fight you, and I’m going to find a way.’ If I have to go to barbershops to tell jokes, if I have to go to the grocery store, to the mall, wherever I got to go to tell jokes, I will make it work.”
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It’s that same determination that got Haddish to the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp, where her career started to take shape and where she earned her first paycheck. But the Los Angeles native started her journey even earlier. “I used to win drama festivals for Shakespearean comedy monologues,” she says. The festivals were put on by the the LA Unified School District, and Haddish was attracted to take part by that most tempting of carrots on sticks: “I got into it because there was a boy I liked. He was the only Black guy in drama, in a predominantly white high school. I figured, if I get into drama, they’d be bound to put us together, and then we’re going to have to kiss, right?”
It didn’t work out, laughs Haddish, “Because my drama teacher was open-minded and forward-thinking.” Still, she caught the bug. “I fell in love with drama, and with being able to get the direct laugh without being sent to the Dean’s office,” she says.
After a challenging upbringing, it was her time at Laugh Factory, where she was mentored by comedians like Richard Pryor and the Wayans brothers, that crystalised her drive to build a career from comedy. She plied her trade wherever she could, at comedy clubs and bar mitzvahs and by doing extra and stand-in work. When she finally got an agent, they told her, “You’re not going to be able to make it as a stand-up if you’re not on TV. You got to be able to put asses in seats.” So, she scrimped and saved to take acting classes—even if it meant being unable to pay rent and living rough.
Haddish acknowledges the popular perception that Girls Trip made her a household name, but it was her time on The Arsenio Hall Show that really turned things around for her, she says. “That’s when I feel like my career took off. Tyler Perry’s calling me, people of color that got some power, they’re calling and saying, ‘Hey, I want to see if you could do this thing for me.’ It was only white people who didn’t know who I was until Girls Trip came out and made $140 million. It’s sad, but that’s how it works. Then they’re like, ‘Breakout star Tiffany Haddish.’ I’d done 25 projects before that. I’d done a lot.”
Anyone who thinks they can tell Tiffany Haddish what she can or cannot do obviously isn’t paying attention. In addition to her 2021 Grammy win for her comedy album Black Mitzvah, Haddish most recently stars in the Apple TV+ murder mystery comedy The Afterparty, created and directed by Chris Miller. “The way he directed us is he would say, ‘Ok, we’re going to stick to the script on this one, then play on the next one,’” Haddish says. “He would let us stretch and really dig into those characters, which was so refreshing and so much fun, and a testament to his comedy genius.”
The Afterparty digs into the details of a high-profile murder following a high school reunion, when pop star Xavier (Dave Franco) turns up dead in his beachside villa. Haddish plays Detective Danner, who arrives on the scene and interviews everyone to get their version of the night. Everybody’s story, or “mind movies” as Danner calls them, is told in the style of a different film genre.
“My character had it way easier than everybody else, I think, because I was just in police mode the whole time,” Haddish says. She relished watching her co-stars flit between the various genres. “John Early is one of the funniest. And then Ben [Schwartz], oh my gosh. Ben is so hilarious, and Ike [Barinholtz] and Sam [Richardson]… I mean, those guys had me dying laughing. And then Ilana [Glazer]… I learned so much working with her.”
While Haddish wasn’t in most of the flashbacks herself, she couldn’t help but appreciate the work that needed to be put into every aspect of the show. “They had to do so much because you have to light it differently for different genres,” Haddish says. “Everybody’s episode, except for mine, was at that high-school gym, so every single one had to be lit a little different for the style. That hallway was different each time. They had to bring in rain. They had to bring in every single detail, and that’s a lot of work.”
In the penultimate episode of the season, Haddish had her own flashback episode in the style of an older cop drama. “Some of my favorite shows growing up were CHiPs and New York Undercover,” she says. “These were my shows, so when they said, ‘OK, this is what you’re going to do,’ I was like, ‘Got it. Know how I’m going to do this.’ I watch NYPD Blue, and I know a lot of police officers that try their best to do good but get side-swiped by the system, so I loved playing that. I love the working stuff out and how my colleague is getting at me. I got to be serious, which I’m good at, but I love to laugh.”
Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection
Indeed, Haddish has always had a knack for playing the serious character in comedies, bringing out the humor by pointing out the absurd. It’s a skill she learned from the hardships she has faced, which she detailed in her 2017 memoir Tiffany Haddish, The Last Black Unicorn. It was a collection of personal essays recounting her beginnings in comedy, and how she found it to be her saving grace. “I was a sad, lonely child,” she says. “I’ve been through a lot of abuse. And I want to laugh; I don’t want to cry all the time. Doesn’t it make you feel good to laugh?”
Haddish figured out that it made her feel even better when she could make others laugh as well. “I love to hear people’s laughter,” she says. “I love to see people smiling. It’s my drug of choice. It’s also healing. It massages all your organs every time you laugh. Your whole body moves, I mean all the way from your root chakra to your crown chakra. You can feel it through your heart. But one of those good laughs where you pass gas, that’s kind of hilarious to me. That’s my favorite.”
This is elemental for Haddish. Her career has been about capturing those gas-passing moments of wonder, not making a name for herself and buying a bigger house. “I just wanted to bring joy to people,” she insists. “It’s so funny, people are like, ‘Oh, are you so happy that you’re famous? You’re so lucky to be famous.’ Famous is not what I came for. I came for the joy. I couldn’t care less if nobody knew who I was, but people were still laughing because of the thoughts that come out of my head.”
Haddish has a follow-up book coming out later this year, I Curse You with Joy, and has even adapted her first book into a children’s book called Layla, The Last Black Unicorn, which she is promoting now. As busy as she is, Haddish says she is excited to start working on the second season of The Afterparty. “Most of the stuff doesn’t happen when my character’s there,” she teases, “but I show up. Detective Danner is ready to do her thing, solve the case.”
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