In this exclusive interview with EBONY, Amanda Seales keeps it 100 about her new HBO stand-up special, how she handles tone policing and dropping the “diva” from her name for something truly greater.
EBONY: Many of your followers remember your MTV VJ days when you went by Amanda Diva. Why did you choose to professionally transition into being recognized by your birth name?
Amanda Seales: “Amanda Diva” had just become this problem for me. Having “diva” attached to my name created a lot of issues and was actually keeping me from opportunities. Before I’d even be considered for a job, they’d see my name and became repelled by what they think that means, like, “Oh, she’s going to be a handful!”
I also reached a point where it didn’t represent me anymore, when I realized I wanted to use my voice to speak on bigger things. Lastly, when I turned 30, I was just like, “OK, girl; the jig is up [laughs]!”
You’ve always been a bit of a renaissance woman, delving into acting, music, hosting and now stand-up. Why is comedy the focus for you at this point in your career?
Stand-up is just such a pure art form. It is the cornerstone of being a valid comedic voice, and I consider comedy to be the essential ingredient in what makes my voice unique. It’s not just that I’m smart, it’s not just that I speak from an intellectual place about Blackness and womanhood; it’s that I can do it through humor.
For me personally, it’s not enough for me to just do that in writing. I need to be able to do that as a stand-up comic.
I’d love to touch on tone policing for a bit, especially when it comes to women of color. You constantly receive criticism for your points of view, but the complaint is often about how you choose to express yourself. You have a very unapologetic tone that can make some people uncomfortable …
And the crazy thing is, women of color be tone policing each other! How many times have we been told by another sister, “You have an attitude?” It’s like, “No, I don’t have an attitude, I’m just telling you something that’s an inconvenient truth.”
Instagram has become such a personal interaction for people. Think about it: You’re in your personal space, holding your phone, and you think I’m talking directly to you! Now, if I [were] talking to you as an individual, I [might] not deliver it the same way. I’m speaking in my personal space of comfort.
Maybe there is something to be said for me attempting to be more thoughtful of people receiving what I say in their personal space, but I ain’t really a spoonful of sugar kind of gal. When I speak, I come from an earnest place, I come from sincerity, I come from passion, I come from a desire to elevate with the things I’ve learned, and also, to continue learning myself! I am a work in progress.
I think looking at the reason people are tone policing is important, too. Whether it’s “You have too many opinions as a woman,” or “You’re not Black enough to get this,” or “You think you’re all that because you’re smart,” I just sit back and think, ‘Yes, I do think I’m all that because I’ve put a lot of work into learning sh*t.’
Speaking of which, you have a master’s in African-American studies from Columbia University. How does your formal education inform your comedy?
It is the cornerstone. I didn’t plan on using my master’s to be a stand-up comic, but it’s been incredibly helpful. It’s where my passion lies, and at its best, comedy comes from what you really know. That fact that I not only know of the Black experience as a Black person but also from reading about so many different perspectives and concepts, broadens my ability to be able to use my comedy to address what we are about from a lot of different vantage points.
Do you believe, as a stand-up, that there are rules to comedy?
Yeah, I don’t want to hear no White people saying “n*gga.”
We’ve def been having that discussion within comedy as of late. Is there anything else that you feel is off-limits?
The golden rule of comedy is, “Is it funny?” I don’t think anything is off-limits if it’s funny, and how do we measure if it’s funny? By who’s laughing. So if you [tell] a racist joke and the only people laughing are racists, maybe that ain’t a joke you should be [telling]. I just think if you can be humorous and thoughtful, you should be.
Do you ever worry about crossing the line or offending others?
As far as crossing the line, the line will always be in respect. There’s going to always be people who are offended. People have the right to be offended, but I also have the right to not care.
Comics and their audience have a relationship with one another, and I think a lot of folks think all comedy is supposed to make them laugh. There are just some jokes that are not for everybody. There are big- name comics that just aren’t for me, but they have full-ass audiences that are cackling. I don’t think fart jokes are funny at all; I’m always uncomfortable, but there’s a whole lot of people who love them, so what do I know?
What parts of Amanda do you draw from when playing Tiffany on Insecure?
We’re both truth tellers. A lot of people like to put Tiffany in the “bougie” box, but she’s the only one on that show with her sh*t together. Amanda got her sh*t together, too.
Any interest in leading your own comedy?
Of course, eventually. Insecure has been a great vehicle for me, though, and really helpful in the advancement of my platform.
As a Black woman in stand-up, do you feel welcome by the comedy community?
Yes. I wouldn’t say I always felt that way, but it’s a show-and-prove kind of game. I been provin’, and folks show love. That’s all I can ask for.
Finally, can you tell me three Black women stand-up comics who either inspired or influenced you?
I can’t, and that’s a problem.
Yeah! When I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch Mo’Nique and other sisters like her because the subject matter was too much; my parents weren’t having that. Even if I did watch when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to relate to them because I was 13 and flat- chested. I [didn’t] even know what they were talking about, so I [couldn’t] find the humor and relatability in it. I was more influenced by Seinfeld because he was talking about toothpaste. Oh, I know about toothpaste!
The reality is, there just haven’t been enough Black women stand-ups who[were] supported like their male counterparts.
What I did draw a lot of influence from [is] Black women comedic performers. I can absolutely say I was influenced by Jasmine Guy and Cree Summer on A Different World. I can absolutely say I was influenced by Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable. Tichina Arnold and Tisha Campbell on Martin, performances like that were more of an inspiration for me as far as Black female comedic voices.
Watch Amanda Seales’ first hour-long comedy special, I Be Knowin’, Saturday, Jan. 26 at 10 p.m. EST on HBO.
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Born and raised in Compton, California, Jessica Bennett began her career as an intern at The Oakland Post, and later, The Source Magazine. She went on to write for respected hip hop publications such as DJ Booth and Hip Hop DX before becoming the Urban Editor of pop culture website, Wetpaint.com. She joined Ebony as the Entertainment Editor August 2017. Bennett has interviewed such names as Vanessa Williams, Spike Lee, Tyra Banks, Forest Whitaker, Magic & Cookie Johnson and several others.