Interview: Elsa Waithe
Comedian, activist, motivational speaker, and self-described “wild child” Elsa Waithe has been busy! The hilarious Brooklyn transplant performs in comedy clubs all over the city. When she’s not on stage, she’s crafting 140 characters of pure laughter on twitter. Elsa Just Elsa Comedy comes with a message, too. Active in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and open to discussing her own personal experiences, Elsa effortlessly balances jokes about weed with jokes about society. BanterGirl was lucky enough to speak to this powerhouse about her life in comedy, activism, and the things that make her the most joyful!
You often hear women asked, “What is it like to be a female in comedy?” But what is it like to be a comedian who’s part of the LGBT community?
It's fabulous darling.
Actually, I don't think that it's too much different than being any other "Fill-in-the-blank in comedy.” That "fill-in-the-blank" is basically anything other than “straight white guy.” You always hear that women and minorities have to "work 2 times, 3 times harder.” Well, I'm a black, gay woman, and I'm not good with math but that means that I'm not allowed, really, the privilege to be mediocre. Not that I want to be and not that I ever could be. But just like being a woman in comedy, people expect you to talk about it. So I do, of course. It would be weird if I didn't. But I also try not to let being a lesbian dominate my jokes. "Lesbian" is only a slice of who I am.
You aren’t afraid to make powerful statements with your material. Have you ever found yourself performing for an audience with opposing views? If so, how have you dealt with that?
I wouldn't say that I'm not afraid. Sometimes I am. So it might take me a little longer to craft out what I want to say onstage. But that is so that I'm happy with it, not so much the audience. As a performer, specifically one with a strong viewpoint on so-called "hot button topics,” there's absolutely no way I will please everyone. And while I've rarely dealt with open opposition at a show, I can always feel the energy in the audience shift whenever jokes about race or politics get too real. But this 10 or 15 minutes might be the only time all week, or all month, or EVER someone in my audience gets to hear this authentically from someone like me, and it would feel like a missed opportunity if I wasn't my realest self.
More and more comics are venturing into political and social commentary these days, . Do you feel like making jokes about these topics makes a difference or changes minds?
Making a difference and changing minds are hard to gauge. So, I don't go out on stage and tell myself that's what I'm doing. What I feel like I'm doing is adding lube to the conversation. We often shy away from the social or political because they are tough to discuss. But, I've always heard that if you want to tell someone something bad, you start with a joke. A joke lowers the defenses. Now, I might be able to slip in something real and raw. Or maybe not me, maybe someone else later. If I can make you laugh at it, then hopefully later I can make you think too.
You have become very active in the movement to push for the end of police brutality; how did this activism come about for you personally?
If we flashback to about 4 years ago, you would have probably found me somewhere back in VA asking "But what about Black on Black crime?" Even after all the times I'd been arrested and treated unfairly by the police, I still thought that. And that's the insidiousness of white supremacy and the police state. That no matter what, police brutality is somehow always the fault of the oppressed. But, one night in October 2014 changed all that. I was late for a show in Greenpoint and jumped off the bus and started running. I get no more than a block when an unmarked police car hopped the curb to cut off my path, nearly hitting me. A man emerges from the car, and he immediately puts a bright flashlight in my face and his hand on his hip. He's yelling questions at me "Where are you going? Why are you running so fast? Show me your hands!" I'm stunned and, when I finally find words, I explain that I'm running late for a show. I had to show him my ID and even my GPS. He let me go, but it wasn't until the next day when I was recounting the story to a friend that I realized how scary and dangerous that was. And even still, the full weight of it didn't hit me until the Eric Garner and Mike Brown non-indictments. Had he decided to hurt me, no one was there to see it, and it would have been his word against mine. And we all know how that goes. After the Mike Brown non-indictment, I left the show I was at and joined the movement that very night.
Your jokes on Twitter are always on point. How do you balance preserving your material while also marketing your personal brand of humor?
I believe in 2 schools of thought. First, write 'em faster than they can steal 'em. Second, write 'em so personal that they can't steal 'em. I write and perform a lot, so if someone takes a joke, oh well. I have more. And my jokes and material are mostly written from the perspective of black, gay woman. So, a lot of tweaking and changing would be required for “Joe Schmo” to do my stuff. I've seen my jokes end up as memes a week or so after I tweet it. That to me just means it was a good joke and people connected to it. But for the most part, I don't really think about it.
If you could have your dream career in comedy, what would it look like?
I would want a late night talk show that mixes the fun and games of Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres with the thoughtful and humorous panel discussions of Larry Wilmore or Bill Maher.
What brings you the most joy in this life?
My partner, my hamster Falafel, and marijuana.