If you search YouTube for footage of Leslie Jones, you’ll find clips of a lanky slender young woman with long straight hair curled to frame her face. She’s telling semi-polite jokes about how every girlfriend in a crew plays a different role: the promiscuous one, the perpetual drunk, the tipsy-but-ever-lucid designated driver. These were jokes Jones told in the 1990s, back when Steve Harvey’s biggest gig was hosting “Showtime at the Apollo” and David Alan Grier was introducing her on small BET set stages, long before he was top-billing Broadway shows.
You’ll also find much more recent clips, say five or six years ago, of Jones as you know her today, with short hair and a fuller figure, telling far more profane versions of that same girlfriends joke. In the newer clips, it’s clear she’s working harder for laughs. Her eyes dart a bit more. She’s sweating, raising her voice, gesticulating wider as she paces the stage. Toiling. Languishing, even.
No one needs to rely on YouTube to find Jones anymore. She’s on SNL every weekend. The New Yorker recently profiled her in a piece aptly titled “Ready for Prime Time.” And last week, when the trailer for Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” reboot made its debut, she was front and center.
But in this moment — her moment — it’s worth revisiting her lesser-known stand-up work and noting how her delivery evolved from the idealistic post-college comic who found herself performing at the legendary Apollo in her 20s to the wearier performer still working those smaller stages in her 40s.
That sort of investigation unearths two fairly obvious observations. First, Jones was long overdue for a shot at the big stage. Second, Jones has always been a physical comic who delivers broad, often bawdy humor. She’s always widened her eyes and used her 6-foot-plus body to enhance her routines, calling attention to it in ways that are both boasting and self-deprecating. She has long been loud; her delivery is never dainty. She may yell both the setup and punch line — as is her right. And though she’s clearly smart, her brand of comedy hasn’t ever been particularly highbrow.
These are things it’s good to bear in mind as Jones deals with a bit of backlash over her clips in the “Ghostbusters” trailer, where her character is loud and blue-collar and wide-eyed while her three white comedic costars are playing quieter, more composed (if quirky) particle scientists. Most of the backlash comes from a single line Jones delivers: “You guys are really smart about this science stuff but I know New York.” In response to Twitter followers calling her character’s portrayal racist and asking why she couldn’t play a scientist instead of an MTA worker, Jones spent days replying in her own defense and retweeting arguments that supported her stance. “Next movie I’ll B a teacher or soldier or scientist,” she responded at one point.
The first time I watched the trailer, I loved it, though the “You guys are really smart, but I …” line did stick in my craw — not just because the lone black actress had to deliver it but also because it’s a lazy, obvious, unnecessary bit of exposition. Nothing else in the trailer, however, betrayed Jones’s long body of work. This is the kind of comedy she does: broad, brash, physical, loud.
It’s the kind of work generations of white comediennes have also done, without having to defend themselves against accusations of playing into racial stereotypes. What a burden that must be, to have people call your wide eyes “bugged” or your natural loudness and physicality “shucking and jiving.”
This isn’t to say that Jones is deft at tackling race in her own work. In one of her earliest “Saturday Night Live” appearances, she made a cringe-worthy joke about slavery and sex, with herself as the butt of it — a joke she had tested among black small audiences that could never have safely landed in a huge white network TV one.
This has been true of other overtly racial humor Jones has written for “Saturday Night Live,” proving that the jump from a marginalized crowd to the main stage is often an uneasy one. Jones, after all, was in part a diversity hire, brought onto the show after national complaints that no black women had been part of the cast for years and no black women writers had ever been hired for the writers’ room. Jones was brought on as a writer and then a featured performer in direct response to public outcry.
But her early work there has been uneven. Watching can be like watching the loudest, most energetic kid at school suddenly forego recess and use her inside voice all day. She can do it, but it’s a huge adjustment.
“Ghostbusters” puts her back on the playground but at a much, much larger school — where the few black women who’ve attended before her — the Aisha Tylers, the Maya Rudolphs — have played quieter and more refined. That is, perhaps, merely a matter of style. Jones is entitled to maintain and polish her own.