NEW YORK — When Louis C.K. returned to the Comedy Cellar nine months after confessing to sexual misconduct, many criticized the club in tweets and articles, and a few protested and walked out of shows. But the only star comic to stop performing there was Leslie Jones.
She started spending more time at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side near her home. “They took his picture down,” Jones said of that club, adding, “Mine’s up.”
Over lunch in the Flatiron District, Jones, who has talked to the Comedy Cellar’s management about her disappointment but has returned to the club after a long stint away, said it was a personal decision. “I knew girls,” she said, pausing and holding a stare, “and they got to walk into the club and see him talking to the owner. That ain’t cool.”
Using a metaphor she returned to a couple times in our two-hour interview, Jones said she no longer cared about rocking the boat: “I am at the age when I will get off the boat and get on another damn boat.”
Last year, she exited the biggest yacht in comedy, “Saturday Night Live,” and when asked why, Jones paused, uncharacteristically cautious: “I’m 52 and tired. ‘SNL’ is a hard job. It’s 100 hours a week,” she said. “Also, it’s an institution. I get bored. And I want to do different things.”
So she is, with movie and television projects in the works this year (the “Coming to America” sequel and a reboot of “Supermarket Sweep,” which she will host), along with a just-released special, “Time Machine,” a dynamite hour on Netflix directed by the showrunners of “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They were her third choice, behind Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams (both were booked).
Onstage and off, Jones is not short on swagger. “I want to be the next Johnny Carson,” she said. “I want ‘The Tonight Show’ really bad.” But what about Jimmy Fallon? “I love Jimmy, but Jimmy is going to leave in a minute,” she said. “And who are they going to possibly fill that spot with?”
After clarifying “except Seth Meyers,” she answered her question with a roar: “ME!” She then flashed a stern face that pushed defiance into a deliriously funny kind of self-parody.
Jones thinks a lot about funny faces. She has studied the greats — Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, who she said had “the best faces in the game” — and developed her own go-to expressions from hours of testing in front of a mirror. There’s the withering glare that writers on “SNL” would write into scripts as “the Leslie Look.” It was inspired by the exasperation of her late brother, while a photo of her father serving during the Vietnam War is the model for her most unhinged expression, eyes popped out, one more than the other, a glance she uses to intimidate audiences and tame hecklers.
When Jones kills at clubs — and she can lay waste to an audience in a way that few others today can match — it can seem like a force of nature, the work of raw charisma and a tornado of energy. But make no mistake: She’s a veteran student of her craft, honing her act since 1987 when she started telling jokes onstage as a Colorado college student in a contest before moving back to Los Angeles. However, she describes her new hour as a reintroduction. Since rocketing to fame on network television, she has an entirely new audience, one that’s far whiter than the crowds she played to early in her career.
When asked about the difference, Jones said white audiences are “so much easier,” before cackling and assuring me she loves the high standards of her Black fans. “You know how they say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?” she said. “If you can make it with a Black audience, you can make it with anyone.”
In the past few years, Jones’ comedy has also evolved, thanks to a collaboration with comic Lenny Marcus, a bespectacled Jewish tactician of stand-up who opens for her and gives notes on jokes.
Jones, 6 feet tall with a booming voice, has always been a ferocious and freewheeling performer, but Marcus convinced her to make a set list for the first time, to stick to the same jokes at every show as opposed to improvising new lines, and also to be more strategic with crowd work. “She is also so quick and even when just talking, she’s captivating,” Marcus said by phone.
“Lenny gave me discipline,” Jones said. “He has a whole different way of doing comedy. It’s like merging peanut butter and jelly.”
While it’s common for comics to use writers, it’s unusual for them to give them credit on a special. Jones understands this but said she hoped to be an example, to give stand-ups permission to help one another. “Netflix was like, ‘It would look better’ ” if she only billed herself as a writer, Jones explained, but she said she would “feel disgustingly sleazy” doing that. She and Marcus are both credited as writers and producers.
(As for the “Game of Thrones” directors, she was a big fan of the show and simply asked, expecting they wouldn’t be available. They were and wound up using nine cameras to tackle the formidable challenge of translating her visceral live act to the screen, which Jones was especially excited about.)
The funniest moments in a Jones performance are not really the move from setup to punchline but the radically extreme pivots between emotions. No comic alive travels a greater distance between confidence and vulnerability. In her most ambitious bit in the new special, she dramatizes texting a boyfriend, veering from angry dismissals to heartbreak and desperation in mere moments. “It’s not easy to date Leslie Jones,” she said, a line written by Marcus.
Being lonely in love has been a common theme of her comedy since the start of her career. Her first reliable joke involved telling women who can’t find a man to visit the produce section of the supermarket, before whipping out a cucumber and later taking a bite out of it. “Do you know how many rotten cucumbers were in my car?” she said, laughing at that early prop work.
“I respect crazy girls,” she said. “You know, the woman caught in the chimney trying to go down her boyfriend’s fireplace? I felt her on a whole other level. Every female been there. Every female who says we can keep it casual, she done passed by your house twice.”
She often plays this lovestruck obsessive in her comedy (think of her gushing over Colin Jost on “Weekend Update”), but it comes from a real place. On dating, she can sound hopeless, talking about her fear of dying alone. “I’m tall. I got a big mouth. I’m not Beyoncé,” she said, bluntly handicapping her chances. “Everyone is like, ‘There is someone out there for everybody.’ Nah, I don’t believe that.”
Jones doesn’t hide insecurity so much as flaunt it. She recalls old slights or insults vividly. There was the time her brother told her she wasn’t funny and was an embarrassment to the family. And there was the tour with Kevin Hart in London about 15 years ago, when he told her she would never make it big because she doesn’t do real jokes or talk about herself onstage. He later apologized, and while noting that Hart was a different person back then, Jones said the comment fueled her: “Nobody was following me that night.”
As a famous Black woman in comedy, Jones has taken more abuse than most. After the sexist controversy over a gender-reversed “Ghostbusters,” which she starred in, Jones became the target of trolls. Her phone was hacked, and nude photos were spread across the internet.
Jones quickly turned this incident into comedy on “SNL,” but she said that the intensity of the backlash got to her, briefly. It didn’t make her stop sending nude photos. “I remember the person I sent it to was like, ‘You ain’t learned yet? You learned nothing,’ ” she said, letting out a booming guffaw.
And when the trailer for another “Ghostbusters” was recently released, she saw it as vindication for the worst critics. “It pissed me off,” she said. “It feels like, ‘They did it wrong, and we know you guys were upset about that little girls’ “Ghostbusters,” so we're going to do it right now.’ ”
She added that her movie was hurt by studio interference and an edit that took out 20 minutes of strong material, and she wished she had spoken up in protest. “If I was the Leslie I am now, I think it would have went different,” she said, shifting her face into not exactly the Leslie Look but something adjacent. “Big franchise, don’t rock the boat,” she said. “I wish I would have rocked the boat.”