'Insecure' Star Amanda Seales Takes The Stand-Up Stage In HBO's 'I Be Knowin"

Jan 28, 2019
Originally published on January 27, 2019 10:36 am

Actress and comedian Amanda Seales is the type of modern renaissance woman who it seems has always been around to entertain us.

Before her star turn as Tiffany in the HBO series "Insecure," she was the MTV2 host known as Amanda Diva. She briefly toured with the neo-soul group Floetry, and she has been making appearances on college campuses for years with her comedy show Smart Funny & Black.

She hosts a podcast, "Small Doses," and she's earned legions of fans on Instagram and Twitter with hot takes on everything from dating to modern race relations.

But it's her stand-up special on HBO, "I be Knowin'," which premiered on Saturday, that makes Seales feel like she's truly arrived.

"It's absolutely a milestone," Seales told NPR's Michel Martin. "I'm having a private screening event that is essentially my wedding reception. We literally have a wedding cake with a topper."

With her new special, Seales hopes to cement her position as a trusted and thoughtful comedic voice that speaks to a demographic that she says has long been ignored: black women.

But in the special's opening monologue, she runs through a lengthy list of people who her comedy is decidedly not for:

"Everybody except for racists, rapists, sexists, misogynists, narcissists, or those that are calling the cops on black folks just living our lives ... It's not for Trump voters or people who don't believe that white men can be terrorists. It's not for bullies, not for abusers and not for people who keep asking me, 'Amanda can I pick your brain?' No! It's not for people who don't take care of their kids or people who take their shoes and socks off on planes — who raised you?!"

All jokes aside, Seales is clear about her target audience. "I wrote this and I perform this specifically to connect with black women," she says. "Anybody else who enjoys it, I mean, feel free. But I wanted to give us something to add to our own canon of representation."

Seales' comedy centers on interactions that are specific to black women with the acuity of a storyteller, including everyday mundane slights in the workplace.

"When you are a black person in any office, you stay ready, because you're always wondering, 'How black am I going have to get?' And what that really means is you are going through a series of checkpoints on how you are going to check somebody on a scale of Stacey Dash to Nat Turner," she riffs.

She says the raucous laughter from her audiences is a sign these topics have been neglected.

"It's never addressed," she says. "Black women are in the workforce toiling and managing so many methods of racism, sexism ... elite-ism, all the 'isms' just to continue to aspire to excellence. And it just doesn't get talked about."

"I Be Knowin'" covers a lot of ground in an hour — like the expertise black women have at giving compliments, street harassment and the mental negotiations involved in making the decision to go out or stay home. For her hilarious bits reimagining the day-to-day lives of prominent figures in black history — like Harriet Tubman — Seales relies on her master's degree in African-American studies from Columbia University for source material.

"I reference a lot of history as a tool to discuss the present and to conceptualize a better future. There's a reason why I do a whole Harriet Tubman bit ... I think we've been learning about Harriet Tubman for so long as this picture on a wall, but she was a human. She was a person. She had to deal with customer service issues when helping to bring slaves to freedom."

And as a comedian who works on college campuses, Seales agrees with some comics who say the environment has become too restrictive.

"I think the reality is that college campuses have a different vibe than we had when I was in college. Professors have to provide trigger warnings and there's just a different conversation that's happening on these campuses around ... conversation," she says.

She points to the example of a trans person at one of her shows who was offended by one of her jokes.

"They were offended by me saying trans and not referring to trans people, and it was clear that my intent was not to offend and not to demean. At that point, as a comedian, you're just like, 'Well I can't account for the things that are going to offend everybody.' Once you start adjusting to every individual, you're killing yourself."

Seales says her next step is to take her comedy show on tour. She says that after a lifetime of entertaining, "I Be Knowin'" has emerged as a jumping off point for future endeavors. "It's really exciting to see this milestone turn into more milestones."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, let us meet a modern renaissance woman. You might know actress and comedian Amanda Seales from her role as Tiffany in the hit HBO show "Insecure." But over the years, you might have caught her on MTV as the host known as Amanda Diva. She briefly toured with the R&B group Floetry. You might have caught her on college campuses with her show "Smart Funny & Black." And then there's her podcast, Small Doses, her workshops on stopping street harassment, not to mention her wildly popular Instagram and Twitter pages. So yes, she is busy. And now she has a new standup special premiering tonight on HBO. It's called "I Be Knowin'." And Amanda Seales is with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Amanda, thank you so much for joining us.

AMANDA SEALES: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Congratulations on everything.

SEALES: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Yeah. But I'm wondering with everything I just mentioned - your stint on MTV, your time touring, the, you know, the years you spent putting in work on "Smart Funny & Black," what does it mean to you to have this special on HBO? Does it stand for something? Does it seem like a milestone in some way?

SEALES: It's absolutely a milestone. I'm having a private screening event that is essentially my wedding reception. Like, we literally have a wedding cake with a topper because this is my wedding. Like, I'm marrying my future as somebody who is hopefully a comedic voice and a trusted and thoughtful comedic voice. That's what I want to go down as. And so yes, as far as a milestone, this cements that.

MARTIN: There's a hilarious opening scene in your HBO special where you talk about everybody the special is not for. Let me play a bit of that clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "I BE KNOWIN'")

SEALES: Everybody except for racists, rapists, sexists, misogynists, narcissists, you know, folks that are calling the cops on black folks just living our lives. Yeah, it ain't for you. It ain't for Trump voters or coons or people who don't believe that white men can be terrorists. It ain't for bullies. It ain't for poachers. It ain't for abusers and even people who keep asking me, Amanda, can I pick your brain? No. God. It also is not for people who don't take care of their kids and even people who take their shoes and socks off on planes. Who raised you?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. So that's a list. That's a long list.

SEALES: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Who is the show for then?

SEALES: Well, I wrote this and I perform this specifically to connect with black women. Anybody else who enjoys it, I mean, feel free. But as part of a cultural base that honestly is very far too often not spoken on behalf of, spoken for or spoken to, I wanted to give us something to add to our own canon of representation.

MARTIN: One of the things that I noticed, though, about it is that unlike some of the other African-American women that - working in comedy that that people might know - and I'm not going to...

SEALES: Yeah.

MARTIN: I'm not going to embarrass you by naming them. But I'll just simply say that - who a lot of whose acts seem to be focused on sex or wanting to have sex or not getting enough sex, a lot of your humor focuses on things that happen to people at work - right? - or people who work in offices or people who, you know what I mean? Everything from street harassment to being ignored in public to being misunderstood at work. And I'm going to play a short clip from - I can't play the whole conversation because you have to let it unfold. But I'll just play a little bit, and then we can talk a little bit more. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "I BE KNOWIN'")

SEALES: When you a black person in any office, you stay ready 'cause you're always wondering, how black am I going to have to get? And what that really means is you're going through a series of checkpoints on how you gon' (ph) check somebody on a scale of Stacey Dash to Nat Turner.

MARTIN: OK. So what really fascinated me about this - again, like, this whole bit is a lot longer than here - but what really got me is how people in the audience, like, they jumped up and cheered. Like, they were jumping up. It was like if - you get a car, and you get a car. But it was almost as if saying, I'm going to bring a customer service orientation to everyone. You know what I mean? It was like this really mundane thing about respect and being - having to be respected and being...

SEALES: Microaggressions.

MARTIN: And yet people were jumping up wildly applauding and...

SEALES: Because it never gets addressed. It never gets addressed. You know, like, black women are in the workforce, like, toiling, you know, managing so many methods of racism, sexism, misogyny, chauvinism, eliteism, all the isms just to continue to aspire to excellence. And it just doesn't get talked about.

MARTIN: But it's also a lot of joy there. There's a lot of joy there.

SEALES: Oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: One of my favorites was about how black women are particularly good at compliments.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "I BE KNOWIN'")

SEALES: We have taken compliments down to a precise science of conciseness where we don't even say a full sentence. We just say at you what we're looking at on you. OK, polka dots.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's all you needed to say. Everybody around here just was howling. Do you - I was wondering how much you think your master's degree in African-American studies from Columbia - congratulations on that as well.

SEALES: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Is there any way in which you think that experience informs your comedy?

SEALES: Well, I think it's less about that experience in terms of like doing the master's as much as it is the information I gained. And that has become an integral part of just like my voice and my comedic voice because I reference a lot of history as tools to discuss the present and to conceptualize a better future. I mean, there's a reason why I do a whole Harriet Tubman bit.

And I think on the surface, some people might think, oh, she's just, you know, like, she knows the history of Harriet Tubman. But really what that's about is acknowledging that, like, black women have been in these positions of having to be in full struggle and full greatness all at the same time. And I think like we've been learning about Harriet Tubman for so long as this picture on a wall, but she was a human. She was a person. She had to deal with, like, customer service issues while helping to bring slaves to freedom. And I just found that concept, like, so fascinating.

MARTIN: There are people who work in comedy who are complaining that the environment has become too restrictive. I mean, there are some comedians who have said that they won't work on college campuses, for example, because people are so easily offended. And I wonder - and, you know, that's a whole other conversation. I'm not going to mediate that. But I was going to ask you for your take on that because you do still work on campuses.

SEALES: I do. And I make a point of, like, letting them know what's up, you know, because I think the reality is that we - the college campuses have a different vibe than we had when I was in college. You know, like, professors have to provide trigger warnings. Like, there's just a different conversation that's happening on these campuses around conversation. So for instance, like, I have a joke in my special where I say I'm trans thug. I was born in this body, but within me lives Suge Knight. And I remember doing a show. And there was a trans person in the audience who felt offended by that statement. And they were offended by me saying trans and not referring to trans people. And it was clear that my intent was not to offend and not to distract from and not to demean.

So, you know, at that point, as a comedian, you're just like, well, I can't account for the things that are going to offend everybody. Right? Once you start adjusting to like every individual, you're killing yourself.

MARTIN: Well, what's next for you?

SEALES: What's next for me is a tour. So we're announcing tour dates on Monday. It's really exciting to just see this milestone turn into more milestones.

MARTIN: That's Amanda Seales. She is an actress, a comedian, a television personality, a podcast host. Her new comedy special "I Be Knowin'" premieres on HBO tonight. Amanda Seales, thank you so much for talking to us.

SEALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.