Supermom? Hell yes. Besides doting on her preschool daughters Makela-Hadiya Ayodele and Sameera-Adamma Nafia, mental health advocate/actress/stand-up comic Meshelle just qualified to compete for a slot on Nick at Nite's reality show Funniest Mom in America. If she triumphs in the regionals held Jan. 21 in Raleigh, N.C., she'll advance with 13 other moms competing for a grand prize of $50,000 and an on-air hosting gig. We met with the very pregnant comic--she is due March 18, two weeks before the show concludes taping--in her Bolton Hill home to talk about being one funny mother.
City Paper: How did you find out you were a finalist?
Meshelle: I got a phone call on the way to Chicago for Christmas vacation. The whole thing was bizarre, because they weren't going to let me audition. "`Oh, that audition's closed, everybody's full, the lineup's been picked.'" I'm like, You gotta be kidding me. It just so happened that a friend reached out to a friend, and a guy from Nick at Nite was like, "`Look, I want to see everyone.'" The day of the audition, I got a call saying, "`OK, we're going to squeeze you on in.'"
CP: So what was the audition like?
M: It was strange because it was mostly all middle-class white women who were either stay-at-home moms or were higher-ups in, maybe, private industry or government--so some of them came straight from work with their pinstriped suits. And then there was the ones who [were] just glad to be out of the damn house with no kids. "Look, I'll tell a joke, I'll do whatever. Just get me out of the house." The couple of African-American women who were there, one was a seasoned comic from this area, and then the other three were novices I'd never met before.
I've been doing stand-up for 10 years. And [the clubs are] always full of men. So it was weird to see all these women. Women are always a minority at these clubs. We always have to really super prove ourselves to get some stage time. And let's just talk about African-American female comics. The stereotype about us is, we're big women who hate men. Or we just want to talk about the big D-I-C-K, and we have all this innuendo. So anything outside of that is either refreshing or completely shocking.
CP: When you were growing up, what comedians did you listen to?
M: Bill Cosby. And then I fell in love with Moms Mabley. And I remember seeing the Flip Wilson show and Carol Burnett. I looove Carol Burnett. My sisters and I used to put on shows for my aunts who used to smoke weed. They would invite all their friends and charge a dollar. I didn't know they were charging a dollar. They would laugh their ass off, partly just because they were high. It was right around Park Heights, in one of those big enclosed porches my grandmother had. And we would come out and do our stuff.
CP: Were you born in Park Heights?
M: I was born there. And my mother met my stepfather, and [then] we moved out to the northwest suburbs. So we're living in Milford Mill, Randallstown area, when we were the only African-Americans on the block.
CP: This is back when Randallstown was mostly Jewish?
M: All Jewish. I went to more bat mitzvahs than anything I've ever done in the black tradition. I got so much from hanging out with those girls. But I spent all my summers in Baltimore City. So my mother gave us the best of both worlds. I was in Girl Scouts in the suburbs, I would go camping, and I would come down to Park Heights and sit on the stoop and do double dutch and walk back and forth to the store to get Now and Laters all day. The glucose-induced highs I used to experience in the summers was just above and beyond.
CP: That makes sense you grew up partly in the suburbs, because in your routine you do a great white-girl voice.
M: (big laugh)Girl, I got the white-girl thing down to a science. I got the cadence, the up and down singy-songy thing. (She slips into a pitch-perfect imitation of a giddy teenager.) "So, I was sitting there? And he said to me? Do I like him? Or do I like him like him? But he's kind of hot? I don't know?"
CP: African-American comics seem more willing to make those kinds of observations about race. That might be because African-Americans are more willing to talk about race, period.
M: Yes. And I think we choose laughter to keep from going insane. African-American comics, when they're good, they tap into that remorse and pain--but they flip it. And I don't know where I am in that whole thing, but I'm an equal-opportunity person. The closest to [me] is Dave Chappelle, because Dave is fearless onstage. Dave uses the stage like a panacea for pain. But he does it in such an entertaining way you don't even give a damn. And being a thinking person and studying psychology for so long, I have all these academics saying to me, "`Meshelle, be careful what you say.'" But I already have that internal threshold that I won't cross.
CP: What was your background in psychology?
M: I went to Bowie State, and then I got admitted to Temple [University]'s department of psychological studies and education. These are the psychologists who typically do the testing in a school setting. They can also practice as therapists. And that was the track I was on. But before I left, I did an open-mic contest here in Baltimore at a club that Mo'Nique owned. Co-workers dared me to talk about the stuff I talked about at lunch.
CP: Like what?
M: At the time, I was working as a service coordinator for the Baltimore Infants and Toddlers program. And these kids are prenatally exposed to all kinds of drugs. And so my job was to teach parents how to get services. But you're talking to crackheads! I had to go over this crackhead house and be like, "Check this out, I know you getting high right now, but the baby--can we get something for this cat so they might have a chance?" So the baby was really my client, but I had to get personal enough with the addict mother to get them the services. So I had to go in there, with my little clipboard and my little folders, and try to get these moms to talk to me. Girl, they're nodding out. I'm sitting there and they got the heroin nod. (lolls head and droops eyelids) "`OK, OK . . . look, you got some Pampers?'" They always wanted to know if I had diapers. Sometimes they wouldn't talk to me if I didn't come over without some diapers or a can of milk.
After months of doing that, I had to find the humor in it. These babies had dumps in their ass for five days and they're walking around with this big-ass load, and the mother's like, "`It stink in here, I need to wash the dishes.'" You have to laugh to keep from crying. So I would get back to the office and share the anecdotes. And I didn't know, but my co-workers were writing it down. And they came out and said, "`We put you in Mo'Nique's contest.'" Once I got that first laugh, it was probably the closest thing I'll ever know to addiction. I stayed in the open-mic contest and I won three weeks in a row.
CP: Past seasons of Funniest Mom in America have included a development deal as part of the grand prize. So if you win the Funniest Mom competition--
M: When I win.
CP: When you win.
M: Pregnant and all!
CP: What show do you want to produce for Nick at Nite?
M: I have a show in my brain that I've put together. I pitched it two years ago to Paramount. At the time it wasn't really received because I was still an unknown. They're like, "`We need to get some buzz about you.'" Well, this is hella buzz. I'll say, "You guys discovered me." But just like Christopher Columbus discovered America, I don't know how the hell you're going to discover something that was already there.
CP: Have your daughters seen you perform?
M: Yes. I did a one-woman show in D.C., a take on being a psychologist turned comic called Nervosis, and they came to opening night to see me. My daughter will say, "`Mom, I got a joke for you to try.'" And it'll be the craziest, have nothin' to do with nothing [joke], but it's so sweet she gets it. She says, "`My mom's a comic. And she's funny, too.'"
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