The Bad Girl of Comedy Gets Candid: Luenell Brings the Heat On & Off the Stage
Cecilia Smith Austin | 11/27/2018, 11:12 p.m.
It’s a November evening in Houston, yet the air is deceptively mild, as a small line begins to form outside of the Houston Improv. Weaving through the crowd and into the building - conversations fade in and out - with some eagerly remembering past shows, and others just ready for a good laugh.
Walking by a poster of the headliner one can’t help but notice that signature blonde haircut, a short style that suits the self-proclaimed “Bad Girl of Comedy.” Yes, tonight is all about Luenell. Inside its bursting with noise as seats fill quickly, the crowd is alive and ready for what most are - already anticipating - will be a great show. Finding a seat, servers hustle from table-to-table before the lights finally dim.
Taking the temperature of the crowd, the host kicks the night off before introducing comedian and character Sister Quintella Caldwell, who easily commands the stage with an infectious laugh and a walker. Yes, you read that right. A proud member of “Jezebel Missionary”, the set flows as Caldwell quizzes, “I’m 87-years-old, what the fuck is pastor gone do to me?”
Finally it’s time for Luenell; the veteran comedienne and actress seen in everything from BET’s Comic View to appearances on The Middle, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Tony Rock Project, Californication - and films like Borat, Taken 2, the Think Like a Man series, animated hit Translyvania and more.
Vibrant and boisterous, she enters the stage with a smile and a shot of Patron, leaving a lemon wedge to fend for itself inside of the shot-glass. Soon the crowd gets comfortable while she weaves stories with undeniable humor, like the time she tried to “save” a group of Black and Latino shoe-shine boys.
“I’m from East Oakland, you know I don’t give a damn,” she jokes.
Later she exits the stage to a loud, round of applause; her famous blonde hair bobbing from the stage, down the stairs and into the lobby, where she’ll spend roughly the next 30 minutes signing autographs and taking pictures with waiting fans. The 50-something-year old comedienne is on a roll, cracking jokes without missing a beat not long before she’ll take the stage and do it all again. Finally, a new crowd begins to form outside of the building, silently signaling that it’s time to head backstage.
Now moving quickly through the empty theater, we pass seats that will soon be full again, following her into a room near the back of the building. Relaxed yet sharp, she eyes the room before deciding on a black, leather sofa in the center of the room. Not far away is Sister Quintella, who sits in a chair still in full character, clutching one of her signature church fans.
“Not crazy on the queso, like watch them yourself. Imma hold you responsible,” Luenell tells the young waitress with a smile before adding, “You guys got any coffee or anything like that? With Baileys.”
“Ooh, that sounds good,” Quintella chimes in.
Settling into the couch, she asks where I’d like to sit before instructing me to just grab a seat beside her. Interviews can notoriously be hit or miss - often dependant on the interviewer and the willingness of the subject - but with comics, I’ve often found a mix of humility and openness that has truly made them one of my favorite creatives to interview.
Time has been relatively kind to Luenell, extending into over 20 years of experience. There’s little she hasn’t seen in Hollywood or on the comedy circuit, but at that moment all I can think of is Soul Beat TV, the famed Black-owned public access station pioneered by Chuck Johnson in Oakland, California - a hometown we both share. It’s a platform that an entire generation of Bay Area residents, including myself, grew up watching; as Luenell became a frequent face in the early 90s alongside prominent journalist, Chauncey Bailey.
“That’s a blessing that we found each other here (in Houston),” she says, her face lighting up as we get ready to begin.“So did you see why I wanted you to see the show first and interview after?” she asks.
--”Did you see me?” Caldwell interjects.
“Of course, she saw you,” the comedienne responds with a laugh before informing the room it’s time to start in true Luenell fashion: “So I’m ready whenever you’re ready. Shut the fuck up, everyone shut the fuck up.”
On-stage she appears larger than life; her oversized personality on full display while moving from punchline-to-punchline with ease. But in person, there’s a raw yet undeniable strength, qualities that make you feel as if you’ve known her for years - a likability that carries over into real life.
With a career that’s included everything from acting to comedy, we started with her latest performance, an appearance in the Bradley Cooper revamp of A Star is Born. Also starring Lady Gaga, the film is already earning early Oscar buzz, though the story behind the project is more detailed as she explains, “Bradley and I were already friendly, having made a movie called All About Steve, which was a Sandra Bullock film. He’s just a really sweet, nice guy and we remained friendly throughout the years.”
“I had also worked with Lady Gaga before because I’m in the “Telephone” video with her and Beyonce. So I’d worked with them both before. Bradley has four comics in the movie actually, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Griffin, myself, and Andrew Dice Clay. So it was just a blessing and a wonderful thing.” With a chuckle, she jokes, “Every now and then you run across good white folk.”
Showing no signs of stopping or slowing down, up next the Comic View alumna will appear in the Netflix original film Dolemite Is My Name, starring fellow comedian Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore - the comedian, singer and producer most famous for his role in the 1975 blaxploitation classic, Dolemite - who also co-wrote the original film and soundtrack.
“It’s a biopic of the late, great hood legend, Rudy Ray Moore. Eddie plays Rudy, I play his aunt and there are so many other people (Wesley Snipes, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, T.I.) in the movie. And Chuck Johnson from Soul Beat produced Moore’s (1978) movie Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-In-Law, so that ties Rudy to Oakland.”
Her voice lowers a bit as she adds, “I’m just glad to have known him and to be in a movie that shows his legendary success. That’s something Rudy would have loved.”
She pauses for a moment, briefly lost in thought after I ask her to share something that people don’t really know about her. Slowly she reveals, “I’m either really, really mean sometimes, or I’m really, really, sensitives sometimes. People don’t know that, and nobody gives a fuck so (chuckles) no one’s going to remember that part of the interview. Nobody gives a shit,” she laughs.
Known for being incredibly vocal about her love of working with other comedians, especially other women, she shifts gears to open up about why she selected Sister Quintella for the tour:
“One simple reason. Quintella cracks me the fuck up every single show. Every single fucking show. I don’t care who doesn’t like who or what, funny is funny. That shit is hilarious to me. Plus we go way back.”
Across the room, Quintella gently waves her fan before sharing news of her own, announcing she’s slated to join a nationally syndicated morning show in 2019. “Brand new Rick Party and Sasha the Diva Morning Show featuring Sister Quintella!”
Luenell leans in with a laugh, “Ahhh...you’ve got a scoop!”
In an industry that, at times, seems hellbent on turning peers against one another - Luenell has remained true not only to herself but to her fans as well. When asked what she would have been had she not gone into comedy, she quips “a prostitute.”
And even if she were, I’m 99.7% sure she’d still be the funniest woman in the damn room.