When Tiffany Haddish tells a story, especially her own, she does so with her entire body. In her debut standup comedy special, TIFFANY HADDISH: SHE READY! FROM THE HOOD TO HOLLYWOOD, which premiered on Showtime this past Friday, Haddish was clad in a pliable black bodysuit which lent her body the blank, shape-shifting quality of a mime. On stage at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (formerly the Ebony Showcase Theater), she contorted her facial features and hunched her back; even her hair, a long silken ponytail which she claims to have procured from a Facebook weave vendor, seemed to operate in service of her impressively physical performance.
Haddish has been a working comedian for over 12 years, with small parts in Keanu, The Carmichael Show, and Real Husbands of Hollywood, as well as a fair amount of standup gigs. But within the continuum of her career, which I am hoping will be a long one, it is Girls Trip which will be remembered as her genesis. If you thought that she was delightful in that film, as I did, you will have left the theater longing to know and see more of the girl who gave us the licentious and lovely Dinah, the comedic nucleus around which the rest of the film is formed.
In her Showtime special, Haddish literally dances onto the stage, crip walking and nae-nae’ing as chandeliers and cascading sheets of crystals wink behind her. The visually dazzling set serves as a juxtaposition to her more vulgar material (“I feel elegant as shit,” she says upon entering), while also lending an air of formality that seems to underline the momentousness of the occasion: the girl from South Central has made it. An encapsulation of Haddish’s beginning—from the hood to Hollywood—is plainly stated in the title of the special, as well as in many of the promotional interviews she has done since Girls Trip. We know where Haddish’s story will take her—to movie stardom and a solo comedy special for Showtime—but how she got to where she is standing, and the innumerable, often absurd obstacles she has faced, comprise the bulk of her comedic material.
She begins in childhood, with her adolescence spent in foster care. Haddish was taken from her mother and put into what she refers to as The System, after her mother was physically incapable of caring for her and her siblings following a car accident. Haddish’s stepfather later admitted to cutting the brakes of her mother’s vehicle in an attempt to kill the entire family. “Make some noise if you was in the system!” she says to the audience, which is mostly silent. “Guess I’m the only special motherfucker here, huh,” she responds after a beat. Her own specialness and singularity—the idea that her misfortune, if it was not ordained, at least contained some sort of meaning—is a repeated theme, the kind of magical thinking that I imagine was central to her survival and sanity. The alchemical ability to spin what could be sorrow into comedy is one of Haddish’s greatest talents, and even if her jokes don’t always land as perfectly as they could, journeying with her is typically fun. The opening bit, a meandering tale about a grade school bully, seems to bumble along, detouring and derailing for a conclusion that doesn’t quite feel worth it. She reveals that said bully, Kiyosha, refused Haddish participation in a game of tetherball on the grounds that she did not have a mother and father; it’s one of the moments when the audience cheers for Haddish, but doesn’t seem to laugh. I wonder if there is a difference and if so, whether it matters.
Haddish’s comedy is sublimely physical, also buoyed by the sort of jejune silliness that is usually picked up on the playground. After a stint in foster care, Haddish makes it to her grandmother’s house and goes into a somewhat anodyne number about the woman cautioning the young girl against promiscuity. The schtick mainly serves to demonstrate Haddish’s adroit capabilities for facial distortion, and is a bit she’s done before. It is enjoyable but not really necessary. The session is one hour and six minutes, plenty of time for her to stretch the bounds of her physicality and demonstrate her veritable toolbox of comedic talents and gags.
Now, onto the riskier stuff: there is a part in the special, post foster care and pre-fame, where Haddish describes being choked by her husband, a man who had previously stalked her. I’m not stodgy enough to think that the bit should be scrapped (if a survivor of domestic violence can’t joke about her own traumas, then who can?) or that Haddish should censor herself, but I do think that it needs to be massaged into something more than what it currently is. The story goes that, after a physical altercation, Haddish reunites with said man. During a ride home, she peeps a suspicious text message and a brawl ensues, which ends with Haddish being strangled. The punchline seems to be that she was choked so viciously that she was incapable of speaking in anything above a throaty, strained voice, which still demands to know “Who was that texting you?”
I imagine that as she gains popularity, Haddish’s comedy will include more social commentary, that she will turn her keen eye outward. (In one bit, after checking “white” on a census exam, Haddish, a newly white woman, says that she will go on to lead the KKK.) She will adjust to life as a sought-after actress, accept her place among the elite which are currently her foil, like the Pinkett-Smiths (she includes the Swamp Tour tale here, in which the unfathomable wealth of the Pinkett-Smiths is hilariously is held in contrast to her own life when she takes the couple on an airboat tour she nabbed from Groupon). I don’t think that she belongs to the class of white, female chauvinist pigs, so full of self-deprecation and careers seemingly anchored by a belief in their own physical undesirability. Here, Haddish has displayed enviable storytelling abilities as well as a perceptiveness which will serve her in standup as well as in acting. This was an ambitious debut from a nascent star that we all are lucky to watch.
Jasmine Sha-Ree Sanders is a writer from the South Side of Chicago.