Behind just about every comedian in film or TV, there’s a funny black woman rolling her neck. And very often that woman is Kym Whitley, a bona-fide scene stealer.
Just take a look at her recurring role as Gertie opposite Mo’Nique in “The Parkers” or as Ormandy, the man-eating, straight-talking hairdresser opposite
Even her latest role, as the aunt of Lena Waithe’s Denise in the much-talked-about “Thanksgiving” episode of “Master of None’s” second season, is one of the best parts of an already impactful character arc.
As is often the case with black women in Hollywood, you undoubtedly know her face, just maybe not her name. But inspired by the likes of Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and her good friend Caroline Rhea, Whitley has continued working since the early ’90s.
How did you get into comedy?
I was born into it! [laughs] My whole family is funny and my life was full of laughter — rarely did we have sad moments. But they all became architects. I’m the only one that took a chance.
I also saw people onstage [that inspired me]. I remember being around Redd Foxx,
Redd Foxx told me to get him 10 minutes of material and he’d help me. I was like, “10 minutes? Oh God!” But I’m a procrastinator and he died. “Oops, missed that opportunity!” [laughs] The night he died, I did my first stand-up show.
But it's always been in me to make people laugh. My mother told me to always be a light in the world and to sparkle, especially where there’s darkness.
So, did comedy come first or acting?
I always wanted to be a funny actress. Stand-up was along the way. A lot of comics always say, “Kym Whitley went in the back door of comedy.” I’m like, “Does it matter how I got here?” [laughs] It’s all about the destination, not the journey.
I just didn’t believe that you had to sleep in your car, to struggle and do open mikes. I believe when you’re doing stand-up, you’re also acting, so I did it all at the same time.
Describe one of your first auditions.
Well, I did theater with Shelly Garrett’s “Beauty Shop,” but my first big TV show was “Sparks,” and Robi Reed was the casting director and I didn’t have an agent. That’s the one that sticks out because [the story] is all about networking. I met her and all these casting directors at parties. All I would do is be funny and Robi told me to come in for an audition. She didn’t know I didn't have an agent. I went through like seven auditions and got the part. Now it's time to negotiate the deal and I’m like, “Hunh?!” So I called an agent. That's how I made it in.
Has auditioning changed for you since?
The audition process is still a scary situation, but I’ve learned now that it's not all about you. You do the best you can and move on, because there's so many variables [to whether you get the job or not].
If they love me in China or across Europe, then I will be lead in a movie.
Whoopi [Goldberg]... they loved her internationally.
— Kym Whitley
As a veteran in the industry, why do you think it’s difficult for black women to become comedic superstars in the same ways as some of their white and male counterparts?
They only let one in at a time: Eddie [Murphy], then Katt [Williams], now Kevin [Hart]. So, I’d say across the board that there are so many people who are funny, but only one gets a shot at a time.
With women, I think it's more difficult because we are held at a different standard. There are a lot of black women who talk like Amy Schumer, but it's not accepted or not embraced. The real problem is not diversity; it’s inclusion. Because if we were included and it wasn’t a rarity and we, as black female comics, were in all of the movies and there wasn’t a separation like our churches are separated — you’ve got “Rough Night” and “Girls Trip,” the exact same movie [except one is white and the other black], like “Friends” and “Living Single” — but with no inclusion, we’re absent. If we live on inclusion, it all becomes normal.
If we celebrate our own black actresses in our country, we will be celebrated internationally. Because people don’t know that the international dollar runs the film industry. If they love me in China or across Europe, then I will be lead in a movie. Whoopi [Goldberg]... they loved her internationally.
There is some kind of barrier or ceiling and [the industry is] afraid to take a chance [on black women], because of our voices and stories as female comics. When we talk sexual, as black women, some people are uncomfortable. I don’t know if that’s because we come from the nurturing of the mammies and being caretakers. But Moms Mabley broke the barrier.
I just know that Wanda Sykes is hands down one of the funniest females, but she hasn’t risen to where she can go. Chris Rock went on, and she was right with him.
Do men have it easier than women?
For men, it’s easier because of the [Bill] Cosbys and Eddie Murphys and Richard Pryors. That’s what society saw first. Whoopi did a funny one-woman show, but look how many years it's been [since a black woman got to that level]. Mo’Nique was the next one, right there on the pinnacle of comedy and drama, an incredible talent. No matter the incidents that happened within her career...if I had to look at one, I’d say she was next, and in the comedy game, it’s all about who’s next. Right now, Tiffany Haddish is next.
What has changed for you over the course of your career?
When I started as a stand-up, [all I had were] black audiences, but now that I have “Raising Whitley,” a black show, and my Caucasian show, “Young & Hungry,” my audience is diverse. As these shows grow, so does my fan base and my audience, and because I tell human stories — not [just] black stories — everyone laughs.