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Def Comedy Jam alums reflect on the life-changing series: 'It was everything'

In honor of the series’ 25th anniversary, EW talked to Tiffany Haddish, Martin Lawrence, and more

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The careers of some of Hollywood and comedy’s biggest stars can be traced back to one place: Def Comedy Jam.

Premiering in 1992, the HBO stand-up series spanned five seasons and helped launch the likes of Dave Chappelle, Leslie Jones, Jamie Foxx, Chris Tucker, and Martin Lawrence. Now, 25 years later, many of the legendary alums reunited in Los Angeles to film a reunion special for Netflix and reflect on how Def Comedy Jam changed their lives.

“It was everything,” D.L. Hughley told EW at the event. “Imagine training for something your whole life and never believing that you would have access to it, and then, all of a sudden, they open the floodgates.”

Alongside television producer Stan Lathan, the man to open those floodgates was music mogul and Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, who was struck by the difference between his industry and the comedy world. “Music can’t be stopped by gatekeepers. You throw a song out the window, it’s going to explode,” he explained to EW. “It seemed like every place I went, the coolest thing that was happening at any club was their comedy night. You’d get there and see all of these talented people that were underserved and belonged in the mainstream. But the gatekeepers wouldn’t acknowledge them because they were too edgy.”

The first up-and-coming comedian to get a big break courtesy of the groundbreaking program was Lawrence, as Simmons tapped the House Party alum to be the host and face of Def Comedy Jam.

“When I look back, I was a young kid and I was fearless, so I just wanted to seize the moment every chance I got to get onstage,” shared Lawrence. “I tried to have fun and make it as big as possible.” And soon, he was as big as possible, thanks to the hosting gig and his own Fox sitcom, Martin. Within a few years, Lawrence was starring in franchise blockbusters like Bad Boys.

David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images (2); Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

“Martin Lawrence was a star waiting to happen,” adds Simmons, refusing to take credit for the success of his famous alums. “Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle, Steve Harvey. I could go on. There are so many that deserved a break and Def Comedy Jam gave them that break.”

Not everyone saw an immediate meteoric rise following their appearance on the stage, though. For some, like Ghosted star Craig Robinson, the “brilliant and necessary” series was the first step to “putting them on the map.” But for others, the sitcoms and big movies never came — or in one case, it just took a while.

Tiffany Haddish was one of summer 2017’s breakout stars thanks to her scene-stealing performance in Girls Trip, and although her recent success has been treated like a surprise, the actress — who appeared on Def Comedy Jam in 2008 — has been grinding away for over a decade. “I feel grateful and thankful and honored that they even thought to call me,” she joyously exclaimed. “Out of all the people they could have called, they called me?! When I was trying to get on Def Jam, I submitted a tape and was showing up at all the auditions and they wouldn’t let me get onstage, and someone saw that tape and said, ‘We got to get her on.’ And when they gave me the opportunity, I lit that ass up. I always light it up if someone gives me the chance to.”

Unfortunately, not all of the renowned alums were able to attend the reunion. On a night that featured Hughley, Harvey, and Cedric the Entertainer, one king of comedy was missing — but not forgotten. “I remember Bernie Mac telling me, ‘Just be whoever the f— you are. Either they’re going to like you or they’re not,'” Hughley fondly recalls his late friend, who died in 2008, advising him before his first Def Comedy performance. “And I’ll never forget that.”

Def Comedy Jam 25 debuts Tuesday on Netflix.