In 2016, the Emmy-award winning writer and correspondent for the TBS hit show was hired with no television chops after quitting a performance-studies Ph.D. program at Chicago’s Northwestern University — in her fourth year — to pursue comedy. Black talked frankly about her experience as a curvy woman in comedy — and a road to success that was filled with bumps.
“A producer sent someone to tell me one day that I should quit comedy until I lose some weight, because the image I was presenting was never going to be one that would succeed,” she said.
While Black sarcastically remarked that she told the producer off and kept on moving, she struck a more serious tone about how it was “one of the most embarrassing moments” in her life.
“I cried for two weeks, I considered quitting comedy for three months,” she admitted. “When I reached out to my family for support, I got back gym recommendations.”
While she was initially hesitant to share the story, Black said she wanted to open up to a group of people who could relate, “because a lot of people don’t really want big girls to have self-esteem.”
Black’s decision to quit her education threw her family into a tailspin.
“They were skeptical about my plans, even after I got the job at Full Frontal. My parents said, ‘As a kid, you were never funny,’” Black tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There are also not many examples of ‘success’ in comedy and entertainment for people who look like me. They wanted me to get tenure, and comedy was a risk.”
Black describes herself as a “day-dreamy child” who loved telling stories about her make-believe worlds, a habit that she realized later laid the groundwork for a career in improv. Initially, Black was interested in acting, an aspiration she says stemmed from a lack of self-awareness. “I wanted these dramatic roles, but there was only the comic relief or the ‘hoochie mama,’” she says.
Black attended college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studied theater arts, then dove into her Ph.D. program, which included a thesis on minstrelsy, the 19th-century song-and-dance routines that played on racial stereotypes.
“Academia wasn’t for me — I hated it from the jump,” she says. “My body was rejecting it, and I was sick. Then I started doing sketch comedy, getting creative, and working as a team. I realized that adult life doesn’t have to be miserable.”
Studying improvisation (that is, unscripted, spontaneous dialogue) at Chicago’s world-famous Second City, a theatre troupe that trained such comedians as Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Murray, was life-changing for Black. “Improv teaches you to listen and be present,” she says. “That’s invaluable in any business. So often, people will explain what they need from you, but if you’re really listening, there’s a lot more going on.”
However, the comedy world was challenging: “I was told to lose weight to make it onstage and that I didn’t dress ‘right,’ even though I dressed like everyone else,” she reflects. “Then I got this amazing opportunity that had nothing to do with my appearance.”
In late 2015, a friend of Black’s suggested she try for a job on a new show called Full Frontal, headlined by Samantha Bee, a veteran comic who worked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. At that point, Black was working a string of jobs — a comedy gig on a cruise ship, teaching performance and writing at Second City — and she wasn’t represented by a talent agency. However, Bee’s application process was unique, eliminating the usual bias against those with less experience in the industry. “Typically, it’s clear which applicants have worked for a late-night show before,” says Black. “But Samantha Bee’s application gave everyone detailed instructions for how to submit their work.”
A big part of Black’s job is to track the news cycle, much of which centers on President Trump. However, the election didn’t change her comedy as much as it did her audience. “I’ve always said edgy things, but I’m experiencing more hatred and vitriol. Instead of people saying, ‘That’s not funny,’ they go after a person’s race or gender. There will always be nasty people, but now we’re just yelling at each other.”
Black frequently hits the field, such as in a viral 2016 Full Frontal segment in which she interviewed Trump supporters about the social justice group Black Lives Matter, and encouraged them to repeat the group’s name. Instead, many chose instead to say “All lives matter,” a slogan that’s often used to discredit black people and has come to be considered racist.
“There was one guy who wouldn’t say ‘Black Lives Matter’ on camera, but he told me privately that of course, he agrees with it — he just can’t say it in his neighborhood or he would be ostracized,” says Black. “Some people have been fed so much misinformation, and that makes them sound racist, but they don’t have the facts. They believe their position is reasonable.”
While Black doesn’t consider herself a bastion for body positivity, she says her talent implicitly carries a political message. “Without me saying anything about body positivity, as a larger person, I can play many different roles — a mother, a kid, a Harvard doctor — which slowly chips away at [preconceived] ideas.” Black gave the opening speech Saturday at theCURVYcon 2018, a three-day event to celebrate body diversity that aired live on Yahoo Lifestyle on Sept. 7 and 8.
Black uses social media to promote her own standards of beauty. “I am not ashamed [of my body] and you don’t have to be,” she says. “I try to curate my feeds to change the message in my head. And hopefully, seeing me out there comfortable in my body, people will think, ‘She’s smart and unknowingly rewrote that script.’ That’s a good thing.”
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