Q&A with Chonda Pierce
Chonda Pierce is the top-selling female comedian of all time. In April, she launched her first ever comedy series on the Dove Channel. “Stand-Up For Families” is a 3-part series that features some of her dear yet hilarious friends. This is the follow up project to her box office hit Laughing in the Dark.
What was the inspiration for Stand-Up For Families?
Chonda: The greatest inspiration was that I am a mom; I have a family. With this day and age, picking something to watch that everyone will enjoy is hard to find. The greatest thing about Stand-Up For Families is every 15 minutes there is another comedian, so there is a taste of material that hits everybody on the couch in one show. No one has to feel excluded or bored. You can share a bowl of popcorn and share a show. I sat down and watched the first clip of Stand-Up For Families with my son who’s 26 and my goddaughter who’s four, and everybody is chuckling about something, and I love that.
Why do you think that we have that disconnect?
Chonda: I think the great inventions of cellphones and technology is something the devil is going to use to separate us. There are too many things out there that come between the time that family chooses to be together. In our house, we had a family rule that when we were sitting and eating dinner, you had to put your cellphone away. That didn’t go over very well with teenagers, but it was the rule.
There are so many different schedules and people are living in a two-paycheck family, which means often times mom and dad are rarely at the dinner table. It seems as though there are so many things separating and building walls between us. It’s really nice to be a part of something that’s trying to bring a family together, even for an hour television show, or just for thirty minutes to sit on the couch together. The importance of community and family being together is a given. We have fatherless families out there, the crime rate is high, and families are broken and culture is deteriorating because of the family in it. So just to be a part of something that has a small contributing part or a way that’s trying to get families to spend time together in an uninterrupted time is really beautiful.
They say laughter is the best medicine, so do you feel that there is a sense of healing that comes from laughter?
Chonda: Absolutely, you know God and Solomon are the ones who put that phrase together in Proverbs that says ‘laughter is good like medicine.’
I came into a time in my life when my family imploded and fell apart. I lost both sisters within about 20 months from each other and my parents divorced. I came from a very strict church family; and when all that was happening, I got a job as a young performer at a theme park in Nashville, Tennessee called Opryland. And the only part I could play was Minnie Pearl because I didn’t know how to dance! Five times a day, six days a week, I had to make a crowd laugh in order to get a paycheck.
The most incredible thing about that is it was as much medicine for me, quoting someone else’s material, as it was for the audience enjoying their day and having a rip-roaring time at a theme park. I am living proof of the medicine that laughter truly is. Twenty-five years later, here I am in a career as a stand up comedian, enjoying that gift night after night and seeing firsthand exactly what it does to a roomful of people. You know, I recently did a show in Louisiana where the flooding was horrendous. The show was sold out, which tells me NOT that I am hysterically funny, but that we are in a day and age where laughing is so desperately needed and people are trying to find that medicine. So I get excited knowing that gift and knowing how it healed me. I get excited to see that healing happen almost every night. So, when you are talking about a variety of comics in a television show that’s embracing the clean comedy in the medicine the comedy would omit to be, I get very excited about that and I am very blessed to be a part of it.
Tell us what people can expect from the series?
Chonda: Minnie Pearl, my great mentor when I was starting out, used to say, “Y’all come, we’ll treat you so many different ways you’re bound to like one of us.” That is exactly what the show is like, it is a variety of stand-up comedy. There’s a ventriloquist, there’s storytelling type of stand-up, and then there’s the one-two punch jokes comic. We have a little bit of everything in one show and so you’re bound to like one of them. There is going to be something that’s going to hit your palette as the lover of entertainment. At the same time, hopefully you’ll have moments chuckling with your family. There’s nothing that can endear a couple to one another or children to their parent’s more than a good laugh. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole thing, watching that medicine go through the whole family.
How did you gather these other comedians?
Chonda: I will say, it was hard, not because there is a lack of clean comics, but it was hard to narrow it down! I work in the comedy field where my audience is primarily church-based, and that’s how it just happened. I never set out to exclude anybody, comedy is built on who you know, and the premises of your background, life, and your childhood, and mine happened to be in the church world. So it was just an organic, natural thing that happened. Plus, my mother was still living, and it’s embarrassing for your mom to drag you out of a place that’s serving alcohol and you’re 40 years old, there’s something humiliating about that! But I will say, some of these comics are strict club comics, but they are doing it clean, holding up truth and hanging onto their faith. I admire them so much and I am a big fan of comic comedy. When I go through my Dove Channel on my Dove Channel App and I pick something I am going to watch, there’s a list of comedy that I’m going to get to this week. My son is entirely different, his is a list of some mystery or something he’s going to watch, but I always lean toward the funny. So, I love collecting funny people, and it was so exciting to be able to highlight some friends who don’t always get much national attention as I am blessed to get. The interesting thing about the process is I tease my crowd every night saying, “While I may not have a bunch of hecklers hollering at me, I do have a few that say that, ‘You’re going to hell in the hand basket!’” So in other words, you can’t please everybody. Then also I want to keep it clean because that’s who I am and my faith, and I want to honor God. Then I have the denominational lines to think about. Something that’s going to be funny to a Baptist isn’t going to be funny to an Episcopalian, so it’s nearly impossible trying to please everyone, it’s going to drive you crazy! One comic won’t please everybody, but if we get four or five with a different variety and different faith/denominational backgrounds, then we have a better chance to please more people.
Why do you think that comedy has taken the route of demeaning/degrading content?
Chonda: There’s a couple of ways of looking at it, and many times comedy is a reflection of society. Like my grandmother says, “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket,” so if it’s reflecting culture and society, then sadly it’s reflecting that things are rough and we are a part of a fallen world. Secondly, if you believe that there’s a God and there’s good, then you also have to concede there’s evil. The devil is in the business of perverting anything good. The devil loves a rainy day; he likes to ruin the sunshine. The devil loves cancer, he wants to take a body that God created and wreak havoc with it. So of course he’s going to fall into the business of ruining a good medicine, which is what laughter is. That is his job.
Now, I have to be careful when saying this, because I don’t want to call those comics who are delivering dirty comedy evil. My mama says, “They are walking in all the light they know.” They don’t have the same foundation that maybe some of us do. They don’t understand that the God of the universe loves them and wants to give them peace and joy. They are in a place where they think boundaries are stifling; I am in a place where I understand the boundaries because God has saved my life. So you have all that into play.
Once in a while, I go to a comedy club. I love to go hear comedy, laugh and support people. Then there are moments when you sit there thinking, “Man, it’s not even funny.” If you scribbled out the dirty words and read the premise of the story, it wasn’t funny. Sometimes it’s the shock value that they are going for, if their material is weak. The hard thing for me is when I get asked this, there is a fine line between where that all comes from and what is wrong with all of that, and you want to be careful with that so you aren’t passing judgment on the human beings. So my heart grieves, when I see comics whose style is just anger and is so degrading to women. I just want to throw my arms around him and go, “I want to talk to you about your relationship with your mom.” It’s much deeper, I know this for a fact. There are many times when I can go back and listen to a show I did and see where my pain is coming through, my anger or the jab was deeper than it should have been. Then healing comes around and material usually drops out of my repertoire because God has done the work in me. People always go, “Well you never cuss,” and I go, “I never heard those words growing up. So for me to string a bunch of cuss words would be so unnatural.” For some of the comics, that’s exactly what they heard growing up and yet they don’t have a relationship with God to want to desire to clean it up, so that’s what you are going to get.
That’s the great thing about the Dove Channel. You can go to a place to find your stand-up comedy in a place you know is going to be safe. You walk into a comedy club, the first one might be great, but the second one you might have to walk out on, and you just wasted $25.
Laughing in the Dark is now available on DVD following the huge theatrical success last year. Tell me more about the project and how you feel about the response it had from movie goers?
Chonda: I have kept my head down and done the job for so long that when I got an award such as ‘The Most Awarded Female Comic in History’ it blew my mind! I was like “really?” because I put my head down and do the work and things come along and happen and you go “wow.” I am still shocked that I am doing this 50+ city tour, and it’s just about sold out at 56 years old! It is just amazing. My career is just as much of a surprise to me as it is to my mother.
With the movie, we didn’t know what we were doing. We set out to tell the behind the scenes story of a comic who kept it clean and massive audiences that she connected with. We wanted to have a piece on the entertainment world that could see there was vital comic out there, she kept it clean and drew an audience. We wanted something similar to one of those VH1 Behind The Scenes specials. Then, when the cameras started rolling and my personal life unfolded—you know there are times when you have a sprained ankle and you have to go to work—there are those moments of life in this movie.
I have suffered from clinical depression, so I take my medicine, and sometimes I don’t feel very funny, but a crowd is expecting me and I get out there and have to do my job. I know the jokes that work and I stay at it. There comes a time when your personal life is so heavy that it bleeds over onto the stage and you can hardly do your job anymore, and that’s what happened to me. My mother became very seriously ill and eventually passed. She was a huge part of my life, my material, and the joy I have. I have a daughter and we became quite estranged and it was very sad and it took a toll on my family. The worst of the worst is my husband passed away. What we captured on tape was amazing. Of course there are times when you turn off the cameras and just have to cry, but there are moments that we decided we would allow the story to unfold and see what happens. When it was all over and sitting in the editing room and you start seeing the footage before your very eyes what we realized was we had captured the grace of God on film and His mercy. We captured a survival story that touches many families and many in tragic moments, and we decided to put it all together.
What is next for you?
Chonda: You know whenever I try to plan what’s next I mess it up! A really good vacation might be in order! I love my job. As long as people come see me, I will always stand in a room somewhere and laugh a little bit. I do love diving into this idea of film. You know I have been in a few Hallmark movies and enough to say, “Yea, you know I can do that more.” I really would love to be a part of a few funny projects.
What has the tour been like?
Chonda: The thing I love about the touring is that people are showing up. Sometimes I think the crowds are here to see that I am ok, you know after seeing the movie and buying a ticket, they are probably thinking, “This may be the last time she’s going to breathe, so we need to go see the show!” And that’s okay! It’s like when you hear your favorite celebrities were in a personal tragedy and you go see the next film they are in just to go look at them. I don’t take it for granted for one second the people that pour into a theater or a church or a coliseum buy a ticket to see Chonda Pierce, that blows my mind every night. I just love it. You can try out being in a movie, you know you could have your own talk show and be the next Ellen DeGeneres (you know that’s one of my biggest dreams), but nothing will ever take the place of just walking out and sharing laughs with the crowd.
What is the best way to stay in touch for your fans?
Chonda: E-mail, Facebook and website. I am so blessed, I have about 500,000 followers on Facebook and sometimes I wonder what it would be like if it came earlier in my career. It would have been interesting to see how far along the road we are. I know social media is electronic and there are miles and miles between my fans and I, but there is something tender when you are going through something like your husband passing away, and you get to read the love and that people are praying for you; that’s life changing. It really gets you through some dark days.
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