'Saturday Night Live' rookie Leslie Jones talks her big (and bumpy) year
In October, veteran stand-up comedian Leslie Jones made headlines when she walked from the SNL writers’ room to the stage. (The show had never featured two black female cast members at the same time before.) We jumped on the phone with Jones to discuss the learning curve—and, by the way, the 47-year-old breakthrough knows it’s been steep.
EW: Hi Leslie, this is Hillary.
Leslie Jones: Hey Hillary, how you doing? I used to have a best friend named Hillary.
What happened between you guys? You said “used to.”
[laughs] No! I just moved to New York, so I don’t ever see her. [laughs harder] That’s hilarious. No, I still talk to her. I called her Hilamina. I used to call her a different version every week—like, Hildocious, Hilamina.
Let’s talk about the show. You have a ton of stand-up experience. How was your transition to sketch work?
When I first got there, it was very difficult. I’m really good at standup. I always win at standup. And writing a sketch is completely different. When you’re writing a sketch, it has to be surrounded by a situation. It can’t just be out of the air.
So how did you learn to write in this different medium?
It’s just, like, trial and error. It literally is. The one big thing I learned is that I had to take my ego completely out of it. It’s definitely a lesson that I’m glad I learned, because it’s changed me onstage also as a standup. I’m different when I perform now. I told Lorne [Michaels] I have new shelves in my brain with information that I didn’t have before.
Do you still feel most comfortable when you’re on Update, though?
Oh, Update! Yeah, Update is like standup. I’m talking straight to the camera, I’m talking straight to the audience. So whenever they give me Update, I’m going to destroy.
You’ve been a member of the cast for a few months now. I wanted to ask about the sketch, with Chris Rock, when you froze up. What happened there?
I’m going to be honest with you: It was literally the scariest moment of my life. All day I was already freaked out because I was going to be on live.
Because you had done the taped stuff before, and Update, but this was totally different.
Yes, exactly! Making sure I look at the camera, making sure I look at the cards, was very hard for me. And then between shows [dress and air], they changed a couple of stage directions. What happened was, I was supposed to go offstage and then come back on immediately. Or I wasn’t supposed to leave, or something like that. But I went off and when I came back on, I was lost. I didn’t know what my position was, I didn’t know what color I was on the cue cards. It was just one of those moments of “Oh, shit. What? What?” And in my head, it’s like, “Say something! Say something!” Finally, I figured out what my line was. Oh my God. It seemed like it was 10 minutes. People said it was only a second or whatever, but it felt like it was five minutes.
How did you feel afterward?
I thought everyone was going to be pissed at me, or I was going to get in trouble or something. But I love my job. I love the people at my job. I love my boss. I love my camera men, I love my crew—because they all surrounded me with straight love. Lorne came straight up to me, like, “Don’t worry about it. It’s live TV. You’re going to get it.” Everybody was so supportive. The cast was like, “Trust me, everybody has had that moment.”
Is any part of you relieved now—as in, the worst thing that could happen has already happened?
Right! I think I was waiting for it: “Dude, what if you freeze up?” [laughs] So now that it’s done, and I got it out the way, there’s no fear there now. Now I can go up there and do it.
After last year’s media circus surrounding diversity on SNL, have you felt a lot of pressure as a black woman in the cast?
No. I’m 47, you know? [laughs] That stuff just doesn’t get to me. I love making people laugh. And at this present time, no one is laughing. We’re a very depressed nation now. Everybody hates the president, we’ve got all this racial stuff going on. Even the people that we would watch on TV, like Cosby—a lot of stuff is happening right now where our nation is sad. I want to be the one to make them laugh again. I want people to authentically laugh again. So my job is to bring the tickle. I know what’s funny.
Think about it: back in the day, everybody thought court jesters were just for the king. [But] the king had the court jester to lighten up the mood because of everything that was going on. That’s why it was off with your head if you weren’t funny, because it’s like, yo, we got enough serious stuff going on. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had a guillotine at every comedy club so people could start being funny again? That’s what our job is—to come out and make that stuff funny or relatable. Like, you know how when you take your medicine, you put it in some juice so you can drink it? It’s our job to be the juice.
I wanted to ask about your relationship with Sasheer Zamata.
Oh, I love Sasheer! That’s my baby boo. Like I said, I’m 47. I’m like the mom. I take care of everybody. I’m either hugging you or making sure that you’re not sick, because my backpack has every kind of medicine in it. Sasheer is the sweetest thing ever.
You two are the first two black female cast members on the show at the same time. Do you feel a special connection with her?
We feel…we feel like we’re part of something really awesome happening. That’s what we feel like. We feel like, let’s do our jobs, because we’re part of something really great. And I’m telling you, Lorne, he is so mediating this the right way. He’s doing it so right it’s ridiculous.
Have you started working on the 40th anniversary show yet?
I don’t think anything’s solid yet.
Is there anything that you want to see happen?
You know, it would be awesome if Eddie Murphy came back. That would be very awesome, if Eddie Murphy came back and did a sketch with us.
I also wanted to talk to you about Top Five briefly. How long have you and Chris Rock known each other?
Oh man.Let me see… since at least ’98. Because I’ve been doing comedy since ’87. I met Chris at the Laugh Factory, I do believe, when I came from New York. And I do believe that was like, ’98, ’99, something like that.
So how’d you get involved with the movie?
I went in and auditioned for Sherri Shepherd’s part, and Chris was like, “No, I want you in the role that we can give all the killer lines to.” He said, “I want you to be like Carmelo Anthony in the paint. I want you to score.” So he wrote that part for me.
Tell me about the shoot—it seems like you guys are having a great time in the movie.
I don’t know how we got that film finished, because every scene literally we were on the floor laughing. Every scene we had to reshoot because would start laughing. Tracy Morgan—oh my God, Tracy Morgan would just say stuff and literally we would have to cut because nobody could keep their face.
Anything else you want to add about SNL or the movie?
Just that I love my job. This is the first time I ever can honestly say that I’ve worked at a job [where] they actually accepted me for who I am. Know what I’m saying? I mean, I’ve always been who I am, but the job ain’t never really accepted it. [laughs] This is the first place I’ve ever worked at that I completely fit in.
That’s great. Well, congrats again on the show, and I’ll be watching on Saturday.
Thank you! Nice talking to you, Hilamina.
Nice talking to you too… Leslinator.
[laughs] That’s terrible! [laughs harder]