By Leslie Jones
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Hey you guys, it’s Leslie. I’m excited to share my story with you.
Now, I’m gonna be honest: Some of the details might be vague because a b*tch is fifty-five and she’s smoked a ton of weed. But while bits might be a touch hazy, I can promise you the underlying truth is REAL. Whether I’m talking about my childhood growing up in the South, my early stand-up days driving from gig to gig through the darkest parts of our country and praying I wouldn’t get murdered, what Chris Rock told Lorne Michaels, that time I wanted to shoot Whoopi Goldberg on SNL, and yeah, I’ll tell you all about Ghostbusters and the nudes and Supermarket Sweep and The Daily Show . . . I’m sharing it all in these pages. It’s not easy being a woman in comedy, especially when you’re a tall-*ss Black woman with a trumpet voice. I have to fight so that no one takes me for granted, and no one takes advantage. These are the stories that explain why. (Cue the Law & Order theme.)
When Leslie Jones walks into a room, she’s always out of breath and mad about something. Whenever you see her, you always feel like you just missed a fistfight. And she won.
But, as successful as she is, I have to say, I don’t like the way Hollywood has treated her. She’s too funny not to be everywhere, in every movie, on every TV show, with ten Netflix specials. She should already have been a Marvel villain, or an animatronic version of herself in a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. She should already have had a franchise action series, with towering billboards, a gun barrel by her cheek, and her side-eye cocked and loaded. Even in drama she would have been a great Harriet Tubman, and she kinda looks like Nina Simone.
I’ve known the lady for twenty years, and let me let you in on a secret: Back then, nobody wanted her. She was just going around the circuit, cracking the earth up, but Hollywood was not interested. Yes, Hollywood is that dumb.
Then one day, Lorne Michaels called me looking for a funny Black woman. And here’s a little insight into the workings of Hollywood. SNL, the American capital of comedy, has no idea where to find funny Black people. Not their fault. Just how it is. SNL knows where to find funny white people because they have things called institutions. You can find funny white people at Harvard, The Groundlings, The Second City…
Funny Black people are usually working at your local DMV.
So, when Lorne called, I said, “You gotta get Leslie Jones! There is nobody like her. She’s hilarious.”
And then, admittedly, I used her height to cover my ass in case she tanked. I said, “Lorne, I guarantee that she will stand out among the cast. She will be head and shoulders above everybody else.”
To be honest, I said, “Lorne, hire her or make her your nanny, what do you care? You’re Lorne Michaels.”
Lorne hired her off my word alone, and now she’s a household name. And you know what that means? She owes me some money.
So I’m gonna count every book she sells, and if this hilariously funny memoir becomes a bestseller, I want a check.
I have this recurring idea. I want to quantum leap back to my younger self and tell that person all the stuff she needs to hear. I was standing in my closet recently, looking at my clothes, and realized that the only person who could truly appreciate all this shit, and what it took to get here, is me. (There’s a reason I called my last Netflix special Time Machine.) I used to go to the mall whenever I got a bit of money, but back then I’d just buy everything in black—I’d have a closet filled with black clothes only, and jeans and T-shirts. These days? Beautiful gowns, jackets, lingerie, swimsuits—it’s like a department store, but a really exclusive, high-end one. There are clothes in there I haven’t even worn yet! Sometimes I’ll look at that closet and say, “Who do you think you are, Diana Ross?”
When I think about how far I’ve come, I want to go back through my life and give my former self the love and respect she so often missed out on. I want to look after my younger me, tell her she’ll be alright—better than alright.
She’ll be Leslie Fucking Jones.
(But I’m also glad that I didn’t ever get those positive notes from myself, because if I had, I might have been cocky, and without them, I still became Leslie Fucking Jones anyway.)
When I was in the sixth grade in Fort Bragg, I was around white kids a lot. I didn’t think of myself as a Black kid; I was just a kid. The white kids didn’t care, either; we were all just military kids. But their parents were the racist ones; some would refer to me as “Smut” or “Darky,” and my friend’s mother gave me the nickname “Blacky.” I had no idea it was offensive.
One day, my mom found out that I’d been called Blacky, and she started crying. She knew I was innocent, didn’t know what the fuck that meant.
My mother sat me down and explained how offensive this was; she felt bad about it, but she had to tell me what racism is, when I had been oblivious to it before that. All the kids were fucked up after that; I didn’t want to play with my friend anymore. I now looked at people differently. Racism is taught to kids—they’re not born that way.
I started thinking that maybe I was ugly because I was dark skinned, darker than other Black kids. And because my mom knew I was having a hard time with these feelings, she stepped in to save me—she got an African woman she knew to come to school to talk to me (my mom and dad both worked, and I barely remember not being at school—I was always there). Actually, she might have been just wearing African clothes… Either way, that’s when I started believing in angels.
We met in the counselor’s office. The African woman’s skin was smooth, like chocolate. It was as if you could take your hand and dip it into her skin. She was elegant and smelled so good; her teeth were perfect. She was stunning.
“Am I going to look like you?” I said to my mom’s friend.
Very calmly and kindly, the African woman looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re actually going to be more beautiful than me.”
I remember thinking, No way.
I can’t tell you what a huge effect that had on me. Actually, I can: It changed my life. After that, I went around saying, “I’m a Black muthafucka, I’m blacker than you, I’m proud.”
Forty years later, I’m Leslie Fucking Jones, but that lesson from that woman stays with me. Every time I go somewhere, there’s always some pretty little Black girl who wants to connect. Recently, I went to a Keith Sweat concert, and sure enough, a Black girl and her mom came over to me. I could immediately see what the girl was feeling; I could immediately tell what she was going through.
“You’re my favorite star,” the girl said, “and you’re so beautiful.”
I’ve always been an empath. (When I’m onstage, I use it for crowd work—I’m careful to not go after someone unless I’m pretty sure they can take it.) I saw myself in that little girl that night. I can tell when someone is wounded; I saw the pain; I imagined other kids making fun of her; I could tell she was embracing who she was a Black girl, but others weren’t embracing it yet. She had clearly taken time to do her hair, and she was so proud of it, but I could imagine people making fun of her for it.
I could see that this girl was looking closely at me and my hair. It reminded me of the first time I saw Whoopi—back then I remember thinking, That’s me, grown up. It had been the same with the African woman I’d spoken to all those years ago in grade school, too: It’s OK to look like me.
I knew that girl needed to be told that she was going to be fine and on the right path. She was going to be greater sooner than I ever was.
I grabbed that little girl’s face.
“You are beautiful,” I said. I kissed her face, and I hugged her. And then I pulled her to one side, and I said, “I know it’s hard right now. If you get through it, I swear to God, you’re going to triumph better than anything. You’re going to be so strong. You just gotta get through it. Hold on. It does not last. It’s going to get better.”
There’s a lot of little girls who feel like that—shit, many grown-ass women feel like that. I’ve come to understand that that’s what I’m here for, now—that’s one of the reasons I’m on this planet: I was built to be strong, and I want to share it, pay it forward. And real talk: I was never a victim, even though really bad shit happened to me. I know it’s my job to help other Black girls and women get strong like me.
Beneath all the stories you’re about to read is this message: We have to take care of ourselves and realize the wonderfulness in all of us. Because once we start doing that, once we start with respecting ourselves—really getting into the business of liking ourselves—we’ll realize that each of us is a unique person with God-given gifts that we have to use to the benefit of everyone around us. You are with yourself every day, all day, all night—might as well like yourself.
I’ve had to carve out a career as a woman—a Black woman—in a business where so many of the gatekeepers are white males. I’ve been told I’m not funny because I’m a woman; I’ve had people hire me and then want me to be someone I’m not; I’ve been subject to racism and sexism. But always, I believed in myself.
The first time I touched a mic onstage, I knew I was home. Eventually I built a successful career in comedy, and I did it by not compromising; by learning to love myself; by proving over and over that I’m tougher, smarter, and fucking funny. And I did it by realizing that the best comedy is built on a foundation of hard truths, of real talk, and real work. (Recently, when I was a guest on his talk show, Seth Meyers said, “Leslie, honesty is your main export.”)
Hey you guys—some of the stories about my childhood are vague because a bitch is fifty-five and I’ve smoked a lot of weed. A lot of it is hazy, but I will give you the best recollection of it that I can. Every day I have to fight so that no one takes me for granted, and no one takes advantage. These are the stories that explain why. (Cue the Law & Order theme.)
One of the people who taught me to make sure no one took me for granted was my father, Willie Jones Jr. He was an electronics engineer in the army—a genius at it, too. But I didn’t see him much in my early years; I know now that he was off serving his country abroad. Back then, though, I had no idea he was risking his life because to me, Daddy was just Daddy. Recently, me and my uncle William Earl were talking about my dad, and I was amazed at some of the stuff he told me.
“He did Korea,” William Earl said. “I did Korea with him, and Vietnam, too.”
“You went back?” I said, hardly able to believe it.
“Yeah, man,” he said, “everybody went back.”
“But I thought Black men would be treated badly.”
“Sometimes we were!” he said, “but in the army we were also brothers. We were always treated badly on bases in the States, but once we got overseas, things improved. Bullets coming at you change your attitude about color.”
Everybody knew Willie Jones Jr—he hated to be called Willie Jones, because that was his dad’s name, and he hated his dad. Willie Jones Jr was our light, our foundation. He was something. He didn’t throw parties—he was the party. When he wasn’t working, our house was the place to be on Fridays to listen to all his albums and have a fish fry. My mom, Sundra Diane, could fry the fuck out of a fish.
There was one night we started at a different house and picked up a family, then headed to the next house, picked up some more, before we finally arrived at my uncle’s house, where the party was. Along the way, we were blasting the oldies, and at every stoplight we’d all jump out of the car and start dancing. Before the light changed, we all had to dive back in the car so we could keep going. We were a fun family.
For a while we lived in North Carolina because my dad was stationed at Fort Bragg, and sometimes we’d take a road trip to see family in Memphis. But we always traveled at night. Dad liked to drive through the darkness, and I would stay awake with him. (That’s probably why I’m a night owl now.) Once in a while he’d catch eyes with me in his rearview mirror.
“You up?” he’d say.
We both knew what this meant. He’d put on George Benson’s “This Masquerade,” which seemed like it was twenty minutes long. I was about five or six, maybe a bit older. And we would just sit back and listen and look out the window as America went by. I thought that was the most beautiful song. After the George Benson he would play Donny Hathaway and Al Green—man, just the music going through you…
We would always stay in the places that were fun, too. At the time, Ramada Inns had these theme hotels. Once, we were riding through a town, and we saw a castle.
My mind started racing. If we stayed there, would I get a crown? Would there be swords? I had to find out.
“Dad, please, please can we stay there?” I shouted.
“Only if it’s a Ramada Inn,” he said.
He only liked Ramada Inns because back then they were the best of the best, and my dad liked to give us the best of the best. (If we ate steak out, we ate the best steak.) So, we—me, my brother, my mom, my dad, and my grandmother—got a room at that Ramada Inn, and I drove everyone crazy running up and down the halls because it was a fucking castle.
My mom and dad had been sweethearts in high school, in Memphis, Tennessee. My mom’s mom abandoned her and her brother, Butch—literally left them on a street corner somewhere. I’m hazy on family details given that my mother was abandoned, and she never talked about it, but I’m pretty sure that Aunt Winnie was my grandmother’s sister, and it was Aunt Winnie who raised my mom.
When I was a very little kid, before my brother was born, for a short time Aunt Winnie helped raise me, too. She lived on a farm in Jericho, Arkansas, about twenty minutes northwest of Memphis. I always sat in Winnie’s lap to eat at the time. She’d make beautiful art out of egg cartons and those plastic rings from soda cans, too, and she kept snuff everywhere.
Jericho’s just a street, less than half a mile square—not even two hundred people lived there, and almost all of us were Black. Aunt Winnie’s farm was right across the street from the cotton fields and the railroad track that follows Route 77 through town. We used to walk those tracks.
One day I got my white socks dirty playing by the railroad, and I thought Winnie was going to spank me. They were really nice white socks, and she was always telling me to not get them wet.
By the time I got back to the farm, I was crying so hard.
“What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” Winnie asked, terrified that something terrible had occurred.
“I got my socks wet,” I said in a tiny voice.
“Oh, girl,” she said, “I can wash your socks! I thought something bad happened.”
I think about that little girl now—the worst thing that could happen to her, ever, was that her socks got wet.
My father liked to drink—a lot. If I’d known back then that my dad had gone to Korea, maybe I would’ve understood better why he drank so much.
In those early years, Dad was cool as fuck—not angry, just drunk and happy. His drinking didn’t make him scary, though he was scary nonetheless because he was huge. He had a trumpet voice and he was 6′5″. But I was glad he was that way. He was a sergeant and people respected him, and he was that muthafucka—you didn’t want to really fuck up and get a whooping from him. But if something happened and Daddy had to whoop you, then you knew you had really fucked up. One day, I was terrorizing him—because that’s what kids do—and he’d had enough. I had just done something really stupid and I was running away, and to slow me down he threw a shoe at me and got me right in the back of the head. He could really throw a shoe.
“Daddy!?” I shouted when the shoe hit me.
“That’s what your ass gets for running,” he said. Both of us fell out laughing at that. I always loved it when I made him laugh—it was usually when I did something I shouldn’t be doing, like the time I fell all the way down the stairs—he thought that was hilarious.
Later, my aunt told me that he’d gotten way better after having us—he used to discipline his siblings all the time since he was the oldest.
My dad’s dad beat the shit out of my dad and my grandmother. And then later, when my grandmother married her second husband, Ed, he literally tortured my dad, making it clear that he wasn’t his kid. He would actually make my dad pick bones out of the tiny little fish they’d catch, and my dad would be crying because it was shitty, painful, humiliating, frustrating work, and then that man would give the fish to a white man anyway.
My dad had it hard growing up, because he was a Black man in white America. But he eventually got to a point where he was tall and athletic and strong. Trust and believe that they did not push Willie Jones Jr around anymore. Then, when he was nineteen and my mom was eighteen, I came along, so he joined the army to take care of his family. But despite being in the military, he still did his thing—he just was Willie Jones Jr.
My family faced racism all the time. My dad’s mother, Big Mama as we lovingly call her in the family, got arrested for fighting back when three white boys tried to rape her—she was as tall as I am now and beat their asses. My great-grandfather had to go down to the jail with a gun to get her out, so my dad was born into that shit—all of them were.
My father hated white people, and I couldn’t fault him for that after understanding where he came from—he thought white people were the devil and hoogees (not a word a white person has probably ever heard, nor anyone outside of the South, I bet). “I don’t work with hoogees,” he’d say. But white people… they, like everyone else, loved Willie Jones Jr.
My dad was very much against “the Man,” for sure, but he was also clear about what life had in store for me. He knew I’d have to fight for everything I got.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re Black and you’re a woman and you can’t do it,” he’d say. “You can do whatever the fuck you want. As long as you work hard. But you have to work hard. You can’t get the shit easy. As long as you are better than everybody else, you’ll get what you deserve.”
He was the one who said I had to be undeniable.
“You are Black; you are a woman.” He said it every day. “But if you work harder and you’re better than everybody else, you are undeniable. They can’t deny you. They going to tell you that you are a woman, they’re going to tell you that you’re Black. Don’t fucking listen.”
I couldn’t help but see the things he had to face, that we all had to face, and I would get so angry. (Often, people in my family call me Willie Jones Jr to this day—I have his voice, and his temper. I’m proud of that.)
Back then, for someone like my father there was no such thing as Oprah, or talk therapy, or sharing your feelings. Willie Jones Jr was very proud, and honestly, even if there had been someone who could have helped him with his demons, he probably wouldn’t have taken the help anyway. So many of us try to do our own emotional oil change, but we’re not mechanics. He had no help—he went to war, and he saw people die—and he drank. He drank and drank and drank.
A lot of stuff needs to be fixed between generations. Every generation thinks they have a new set of issues to deal with, when actually it’s just a different scene, different clothes, different mechanisms, but the same damage getting passed down. And when no one talks about it—when people “forget”—nothing gets fixed. I just wish everybody would have a conversation about it. Every race goes through something—Black, white, Spanish, Asian… No one is free of fucked-upedness. We’ve all got baggage. But if we could just have some compassion for each other’s baggage, everything could be solved so much differently. The older I get, the more compassion I have for Willie Jones Jr.
Sundra Diane Brantley was the one who would keep us in check, the one who would fuck us up in a minute. My mom did not play that shit, which is funny, because she was a full Leo—very sweet. She was one of the most nurturing people I’ve ever known. Leos are so nurturing anyway, but my mom was just nurturing to a fault, even when it meant she could come off as a doormat. Sometimes she’d just do and do and do, help and help and help. She was always giving of herself to people. Muthafuckas would sometimes take advantage of her. But she wasn’t no punk. Leos put up with a lot until they snap. She could be very vocal. You’d have hurt her feelings seven times before she would no longer fuck with you, but if you apologized, she’d fuck with you again.
But that didn’t mean my mom was weak—she did not fucking play. She loved us—seriously, she loved her children—but if we fucked up, she would fuck us up. Those ass whoopings… maaaan, I deserved every one of them.
I had been a difficult birth for a start—my mother had struggled so hard, and it had been so stressful, that the doctor even forgot to write down the exact time of my arrival. (Shit, now I don’t even know what cusp I’m on!) My mom had been so exhausted that when it came to telling the nurse my name for the paperwork, she’d just threw out the names, and the nurse put them in the order she wanted, so I was “Annette Leslie Jones.” Growing up I was always “Leslie” to anyone who really knew me (except in high school, where people called me Annette). When my mother told me the story of my naming, I said I was going to get it changed officially.
“No way you doing that,” she said. “Because that would mean I made a mistake, and I don’t make mistakes.”
Me and my kid brother, Rodney Keith (we called him Keith), were a lot, and when we were little, because my dad was always in the army, everything fell to her—she had to deal with all of our shit. I don’t know how that woman didn’t kill us—Lord have mercy, how did she not smother us with a pillow?
My mom was supposed to die when I was twelve. She had problems with her platelets and ended up in the hospital. The night before she was due to be released, she was found in a pool of blood—she was bleeding out. She was literally dying, and she prayed to God, “Please don’t take me now. Wait till my kids can take care of themselves.” Miraculously she survived, but it didn’t mean she took her medicine regularly or stopped smoking. I didn’t know a lot about it—my parents were not the kind of people to tell us exactly what was going on.
It didn’t help that I was a selfish teenager, a privileged one who thought she was the shit. There was no talking to me. And I hate myself for it. When I look back now I realized how spoiled we were. My mom and dad made it that I never had to share a room with my brother; then there were the hotels that looked like a castle, and the best steaks when we went out… In fact, there was only one time that I saw how hard it was. I found out afterwards that my mom got caught in the store trying to steal some toothpaste for us. I was probably in sixth grade or something. Fortunately, because there were kids in the car, they let her go, but still, I can’t imagine what that felt like for her.
My mom had been through so much shit, too. I remember one time, Keith and I were all dressed up one day to get photos taken at Sears, and the three of us went to 7-Eleven afterwards. My mom paid the guy, putting the money in his hand, but when he returned the change, he just rudely dropped it on the counter.
“Did I fucking put the money on the counter when I gave it to you?” my mother shouted. “Put the change in my hand!”
Afterwards, she just referred to him as a white muthafucka. She was not to be played with. I asked her if she was OK.
She just looked at me and smiled. “You know how white folks is,” she said.
For a while we’d had to live with my dad’s family while he was overseas, too, and that was really hard. But my mom made shit work. And my dad loved her. It was like the TV show Lovecraft Country, how the lead couple had to be together because of the pain that they had been through. I really feel like that’s what their shit was; I do believe they were in love (one of my uncles confirmed that they were, too). But I also think that at some point it was just friendship. I knew they still had sex, but still I just think that she should have divorced him. I think that she would still be alive if she had.
I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was… energetic. I was a mischief, a problem child—that’s what my mom called me once (hence the name of my first special). I had so much energy… But there was more to it.
There are photos of me from back then, and when I look at them now, it stops my heart. In some of those early pictures, there’s a light in my smile, a pure, sweet light—innocent, unadulterated, open, trusting. You could tell I was a baby; you could tell I was happy. I can’t have been more than one or two…
- "This is not the kind of comedian memoir that’s an extension of the act, an explicit provider of context, or a personal-branding exercise. This is a conversational celebration of the force of nature that is Leslie Jones from the world’s foremost expert on Leslie Jones."—Vulture
- "This refreshingly uncensored book will appeal to Jones’ many fans and to anyone who appreciates the struggles Black female comics face on the road to success."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Coming in with the best title of a memoir this season, Leslie Jones is here to share, and we’re glad she did. . .Guaranteed to be funny and interesting.""—New York Post
- On Sale
- Sep 19, 2023
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Grand Central Publishing
Barnes & Noble The Grove hosts Leslie Jones for a book signing
Barnes & Noble The Grove | Los Angeles, CaliforniaMore Information