The Conversation: Saturday Night Live's Leslie Jones
Leslie Jones has been an athlete longer than she has been a comedian, playing basketball from junior high through college at Colorado State. The oldest cast member hired by "Saturday Night Live," Jones, 49, bleeds passion for everything from stand-up to trash TV to her adopted team, the New York Knicks. Ahead of a sit-down with Knicks power forward Kristaps Porzingis for ESPN The Magazine, Jones talked with Allison Glock about height, her family's influence and what to do when the trolls come out.
Allison Glock: We're here to meet with Knicks forward and tallest player in the NBA Kristaps Porzingis. He's 7-foot-3, and you're 6 feet. When did you first realize you were tall?
Leslie Jones: As soon as you said that, I literally pictured myself in high school. We'd just moved to California. I had on these little Izod matching shorts and shirt because I couldn't believe you could wear shorts to school. And I just remember not knowing anybody and just being tall as f--- and country as f---. Everybody kept talking to me, and every time I spoke, they were like, "Why do you talk like that?" They started calling me "Tennessee."
LJ: Yeah. And then when I started playing basketball and they saw how good I was, they started calling me "Chocolate Thunder."
AG: Did you embrace being tall?
LJ: No. Not at all. For a long time, I slouched. I was maybe in the fifth or sixth grade, and then one day I saw some girl that had on heels, and she was tall, and I was like, "Why are you wearing heels? You're tall!" And she was like, "B----, because I look good." And I was, "Oh, oh, OK." [laughs] I don't know when I actually began feeling confident about my height. Maybe when I started joking about it onstage. I started taking it on more as a persona.
AG: You mean with your stand-up comedy, in which you would lead with your stature to disarm people?
LJ: Mmhmm. Disarm people and disarm myself.
AG: Did sports bolster your body confidence?
LJ: I don't know if I ever respected my body as an athlete as much as I just felt like I have to stay in shape because I'm on the basketball team. Because I was tall, everybody automatically wanted me on the team. When I first started playing, I'd never played before. It was the seventh grade. I remember I was coming down the stairs on my way to class, and Coach Simi saw me and yelled, "Hey, come here!" And I was like, "I'm in trouble." And she asked, "How tall are you?" And I said, "I don't know." And Coach Simi was like, "You're tall enough to play basketball." I knew my dad liked basketball, so I was like, "F--- it." And I went to practice that day at 3 o'clock.
Before we started, I made sure that I walked over to the other bench and told them, 'I have five fouls this game.' Like, I can hurt you five times. Just so no one would go into the paint.Leslie Jones
AG: You were recruited.
LJ: I was. I showed up, and Coach gave me my first lesson in being the big person: Stand in the middle with my hands up. You don't even have to do anything. They're gonna be scared.
AG: What was your biggest strength on the team?
LJ: When I started actually learning how to play? Block shots, rebounds. That was always my thing. I slapped the ball a lot. And intimidation. Before we started, I made sure that I walked over to the other bench and told them, "I have five fouls this game." Like, I can hurt you five times. Just so no one would go into the paint.
LJ: Back when I played, basketball was all about fundamentals, about hustling, getting those loose balls, all those rebounds under the basket. That equals up to 12, 14, 16 points. You can lose a game with that much. It's different watching basketball now. People don't play the same way. It doesn't matter if you score, if you can't stop the other team from scoring. Our coach used to kick our ass if we didn't. I was told if you saw more of the other team color under the basket than your own team color, you ain't doing your job. Everybody should be under the board, trying to get that ball. There should only be one player back, and that's the guard.
AG: Why do you think that changed?
LJ: The whole world has changed, Allison. Everything is quick, fast, shiny, poppy, glittery, boom, boom, boom, boom, dabbin'. Everyone wants something that they can do to look flashy, which is so funny because you would look dope as f--- if you could play defense. That's the thing I respect about a player -- an all-around game. Fundamentals is what wins. People think it's points. It's not. It's fundamentals, I'm telling you!
AG: When you talk about fundamentals and being prepared and putting in the work, is that how you approach your career as well?
LJ: Yes! There is no such thing as getting anything easy. Trust and believe. Even if you're good at what you do, you still should be practicing, you still should be updating, especially. Because if you don't update, you become a dinosaur.
AG: It's easy to not challenge yourself once you have a little success, to stick with what's working.
LJ: It's very easy.
AG: But that's not your play, obviously.
LJ: Hell no. You've got to work for what you want. The world, society is about to realize that the quick and easy s--- is not going to last. The reason everybody is so amazed and enamored with me right now is because I have worked every angle, I have worked every formula, I have worked every equation, I have seen every club, I have seen every performance, I have seen every joke, I have studied, I have done my job. That's why I'm good. It's not because I got up one night and decided I wanted to tell some f---ing jokes.
AG: Folks love that persistent myth of the overnight success.
LJ: It doesn't work like that. And you shouldn't even want it, if it is like that. Because when it comes that easy, it's going to end that easy. Take Beyoncé. Beyoncé has been working her ass off for a long time. You can't just wake up and do "Formation." That s---'s not gonna happen automatically. [laughs] You know what I mean? People think I'm an overnight success. No. It's just that you all found me overnight.
AG: What's the worst advice you got when you were starting out?
LJ: Somebody told me to wear a dress onstage so I could look more "ladylike."
AG: Yuck. What did you say?
LJ: I told them to go f--- themselves. Said, "You go put the f---ing dress on."
AG: I'm guessing you took away more useful lessons from playing sports.
LJ: Yeah. Good sportsmanship. The best man wins. Shake hands at the end. Next time, I'm gonna get you, m-----f-----. But respect. My dad taught me that. We used to watch basketball, and I would say, "Oh, Daddy, they hate each other." He told me after the game they were probably saying, "How the kids doing, man? How's the wife?" I was like, "For real?" He told me competition stays on the court. It shouldn't be about egos. Another thing is my coach used to say, "Don't play as bad as the other team." You can be a championship team, and you go into a sorry team, and then you start playing like them.
AG: The contagion of the lowest-common denominator.
LJ: The other night, Knicks vs. Lakers was the classic example of that. To me, the Knicks are a better team than the Lakers, but the Lakers came in and made them change their game up. I was screaming that s---, like, "This is our f---ing house! Play our game!" I get emotional with basketball. [laughs] Sorry.
AG: You've made a career in a field that is notoriously inhospitable to women, and you've done it with an unapologetic, take-no-prisoners style of comedy. Was it ever challenging for you to do you?
Everybody was asking me, 'What are you doing? You're ruining your life. You're embarrassing your family.' That's all I got. So you can't listen to that. You have to listen to yourself.Leslie Jones
LJ: Let me tell you something. If I sat around and waited for somebody to tell me that I was great and to keep going, I wouldn't be doing this. Everybody was telling me to sit my ass down. Everybody was telling me to get a real job. Everybody was asking me, "What are you doing? You're ruining your life. You're embarrassing your family." That's all I got. So you can't listen to that. You have to listen to yourself.
AG: How did you find the conviction to keep trying?
LJ: I don't know. I can't explain it. I had a feeling in me that knew I was funny, that I wasn't wasting my time. If anything, I felt that I wasn't getting discovered yet, that they weren't seeing me, and yo, somebody's going to see it soon. You know? It was just one of those things that I told myself to keep pushing, that the right person was going to see me.
AG: That's an athletic mindset too: running the drills, doing the boring s--- nobody sees, practicing alone, getting up at 5 a.m.
LJ: You have to always keep conditioning. My coach used to say, "You play like you practice." If you practice s---ty, you're going to play s---ty. I swear to god, when I would get in the game, it would happen.
AG: In 2014, you were the oldest cast member ever to join "Saturday Night Live," at 47 years old.
LJ: I'd been in all kinds of production meetings and sat at tables with directors and m-----f-----s that now are in my face telling me, "Oh, you're so great." But they couldn't do anything with me until I sat down with [SNL creator] Lorne Michaels.
AG: He was the one who finally saw you.
LJ: He said to me, "I don't know what you are, but I'm not letting you go, so come work for me." I didn't realize the age thing until I got hired and everybody was telling me I was f---ing old. [laughs] I just thought I'd been doing this a while. Look, you can't rush good wine. It has to sit. And when you finally drink it, it's the bomb. It's worth the wait.
AG: Were you a funny kid?
LJ: I was crazy. I always thought I was mentally ill, that at some point they were going to lock me up. They never did. I don't know why. Maybe because we're black, and my family might have been embarrassed that their kid was in a mental institution. [laughs]
AG: Well, you were born in the South, and we Southerners don't send crazy people away.
LJ: Exactly, we keep 'em in a room.
AG: Or we put them on the front porch.
LJ: And say, "Don't go messin' with Junior. Ya know what I'm sayin?"
AG: How crazy were you, really?
LJ: Well, I made my family laugh, but usually because I did something terrible. Like, I tore up the bathroom when I pretended to be Nadia Comaneci. And my dad and my brother were laughing, but my mom did not find that s--- funny at all.
AG: You made yourself makeshift equipment with the materials at hand.
LJ: Yeah. We had no towel holder. We had no shower curtain. Oh god, I was such a problem child. That's what my mom used to call me, "problem child."
AG: Whose laugh do you want to get the most?
LJ: The one who's not laughing. And that's f---ed up because it could be one person in the audience, and I see him not laughing, and all I can think about is, "Why the f--- is he not laughing?"
AG: Do you notice it when you're performing?
LJ: Yeah, of course. I try not to. But if I see someone not laughing, the first thing I'm thinking is, "OK, am I cursing too much? Am I doing a joke he doesn't understand? Is he resting?" Then he starts becoming my focal point. Once I see him laugh, I'm like, [snap] "All right, now I'm funny."
AG: That's ... interesting.
LJ: Yes, it's sick. I need help. [laughs]
AG: Let's talk about social media and the pros and cons of being so visible to the public in that way. Do you like that kind of communication?
LJ: I'm going be honest with you. It didn't start off like that. I always had a Twitter account. I always had an Instagram account. I was always active on it, always spoke my mind. To me, it's really weird that I got so many followers and people that pay attention the way they do. It's hilarious, actually, because people didn't used to listen to me at all. I used to be like, "Does anybody hear me talkin'?"
AG: And now everybody listens.
LJ: Now everybody listens.
AG: And in your case, as is the case with so many outspoken women, a lot of those followers are trolls.
LJ: It's stupid. It just seems like our priorities are f---ed up. How is anyone's most important thing what the f--- I do on Twitter? [laughs]
AG: Yeah, it seems like there are a few things right now that could be getting a little more attention.
LJ: Yeah, just a bit, just a tad bit. We just had a great president in office. And now? Now there is a whole room full of men deciding on what I do with my ovaries. So yeah, we got a slight problem. You know what I'm saying?
AG: Does the current political situation ever get you down?
LJ: F--- no! That's the problem with those young m-----f-----s now: They feel s--- too deeply. Good god. I want to stab y'all with y'all bleeding hearts. Please grow the f--- up, OK?
AG: What would you tell those who are feeling despair?
LJ: This will not be the first or last bad election we have in this United States of A-f---ing-merica. You know what I'm saying? People ask how I can say that: "You're a woman. You're black. You're not supported here." You know what? You're right. But the Crips don't get supported by their neighborhood, and they ain't moving. [laughs] I'm not leaving America because it doesn't support me. I'm just going to Crip walk all the way to the bank, m-----f-----. This land is made for you and me.