The Comedy 'It'
Pamela Leak Is Just Plain Funny As Ms. Maybelle
Pamela Leak wants you to know everything about her. The 40-year-old has worked in the mortgage foreclosure department of the Baltimore City Circuit Court for the past eight years, but what she really wants you to know is that she's a comedienne, an actress, a radio personality, a born-and-raised Baltimorean, a product of Edmondson-Westside High School, possibly psychic, and a mother of three boys: Antoine, 20; Shawn, 15; and 1-year-old Nicholas. And before you can catch your breath, she also wants you to know about how she has performed stand-up all around the city and up and down the East Coast, about the first time she squashed a heckler into oblivion, and about all the people she's met who told her she was funny--from Bernie Mac to Mo'Nique to Wanda Sykes.
This all comes in a barrage of rapid-fire yet winding anecdotes that makes her entourage--which includes her fiancé, Andre, who totes in a bulletin board featuring pictures of Leak rubbing elbows with famous comics, athletes, and actors; her manager, Bruce Brown; and Brown's wife--all giggle and snicker at stories they've all heard before. They're crammed around a table in the back dining room of downtown's Burke's Café.
"This is the perfect place for us to talk," Leak says. "I been through so much in here."
By "here" she means the Comedy Factory, one flight upstairs. A natural storyteller with a no shortage of stories to tell, Leak's smile reveals tiny, fine lines around her face that tell you she's lived her 40 years--she's an old soul, not an old lady. But she fans herself, orders an ice water, and gets comfortable like one. Maybe she's in character.
You see, for the past seven years everyone from comedy-club patrons to churchgoers might know Leak better as Ms. Maybelle, a loudmouthed, sassy, spunky grandmother type. It's a character she created and polished--think Sanford and Son's Aunt Esther meets Tyler Perry's Madea, only funny. Ms. Maybelle is her comedy act onstage, on Larry Young's WOLB-AM radio show, on local television programs, and soon a local cable TV show called As Real as It Gets, a sketch comedy/talk show set to debut on WJZ-TV, as well as a small part in another show that is in talks with BET.
"Oh yeah, I'm also a plus-sized model," Leak blurts out as she continues to list her credentials, which are easy to lose track of as she speaks. To recap, she's acted (she's played small roles on The Wire, including D'Angelo Barksdale's aunt), done stand-up comedy, and even done some commercial work for Katz Insurance.
"Katz was good to me," she says. "I did some commercials for them, and some heifers--and you can write that down, they was heifers--called up and said I'm degrading black folks. Can you believe that?"
The commercial featured Leak's Maybelle in a hair salon complaining about baby daddies and how dumb her friend's kid was. It was mostly ad-libbed--which Leak unapologetically re-enacts in the restaurant.
"As black as I am, they called and said they were going to boycott," she continues. "They took the commercial off [the air]. I'll do more soon, though, I think."
Ms. Maybelle came about when Leak auditioned to be a host at the Comedy Factory. She had to do five minutes of stand-up for the audition. "I was like, `Sugar, no--I'm not a comedian,'" she remembers.
So she hatched up the Ms. Maybelle personality. "When I first got started, I was scared to go as myself because I didn't know if I would be good," she says. "So I went to the thrift store to get an outfit and I didn't know what to pick, but I found an old shawl, a dress, a scarf, and I was just playing around with different looks. And the owner came out and said, `You know, if you put on a gray wig, you would look just like an old lady.' And I was like, `You know what, that's not a bad idea.' I tried it out and it worked, so I stuck with it."
Ms. Maybelle is what garnered Brown's attention. A mortgage lender with All First Mortgage Corp. by trade, from 1980 to '88 Brown worked as an agent for Regency Artists, and he produced local cable access shows in the early '90s, such as 1991's Video Focus, a public-TV music video show.
Brown cooked up the idea for the low, low-budget, late, late-night Fox 45 show Keeping It Real in 2006 and pitched it to the local network. On it, Troy May, a Baltimore singer for the latest incarnation of classic R&B group the Manhattans, and 92Q's Sonjay interview entertainers all over the city. It also features Leak doing her Maybelle shtick, interviewing celebrities and touring restaurants, being sarcastic and sweet and funny. Just like all of your drunk aunts--only charming.
"I knew Maybelle had to be a part of it, so she was there since day one," Brown says. "It's because [Leak] really is funny. Some people are born funny and some are not--she's born funny."
And right now he hopes BET feels the same way. Brown and Leak say they are in talks with BET to pick up Keeping It Real for its fall late-night comedy schedule. "We should know something concrete soon," Brown says. "We have been told by BET that the network would like to buy the show and put us on in the fall. It's just a matter of details and the right contract now."
BET representatives did not return calls for comment on whether or not Keeping It Real is in development, but As Real as It Gets, a spin off of Keeping It Real, will appear on Baltimore's WJZ-TV in May, and will feature "a lot more of Ms. Maybelle," Leak says.
You get the feeling that Leak isn't too apprehensive about the BET possibility--whether or not it happens, she's looking further into her future than that. Besides, she's still got stories to tell. The Katz Insurance anecdote is sandwiched between her story about meeting and being disappointed by comedian Mo'Nique, who Leak felt brushed her off when they met in Los Angeles (the two have since made up), and learning valuable acting advice from rapper Method Man. And then she slips into a story about hanging out with former governor Robert Ehrlich after a sidekick stint on former state senator Larry Young's radio show.
"One day, this lady called and asked advice about her 16-year-old daughter," Leak says. "She didn't think her daughter was going to school, and I told her to act like she was going to work and just come home and she would catch her."
The woman did just that, busting her daughter, then called back wanting to know how to get in touch with Ms. Maybelle on a regular basis for other questions. "I gave her my P.O. box number, and Larry said, `Is that your real P.O. box number or the number of the day?'" Leak says. "And I said, `Wait a minute, I'm having a vision. Everybody play 938 and put all your bus money on it.' And it came out."
And for the following two months Ms. Maybelle picked the correct Pick 3 numbers once a week during November and December of 2003.
Later that year, Leak accompanied Young to a political function where then-Gov. Ehrlich approached her. "The governor came up to me and said, `How in the world did you pick those numbers?'" she recalls. "I said, `Baby, I don't know.' And he said, `Well, someone wants to meet you.' And he went and got Buddy Roogow, the director of the [Maryland] Lotto."
Leak says that Roogow thanked Maybelle for allowing him to pay out $18.4 million in two days. "I should be their spokesperson," Leak says. "I think they really think I know what I'm doing. I don't, but, still, they need to call me."
Leak isn't kidding. You get the impression that she does everything she does because she likes doing 500 things at once. "I can't just do one thing," she says. "No matter what, I have so many things I have to say and so many ideas."
One of her goals is to introduce Oprah Winfrey--and she already knows how she'd like to do it. "I been sending letters every month," she says. "You know how when Oprah first comes on and you see the credits and everything and different pictures? [For] this particular day, while the pictures are going on you, just see a sudden scrrreeeet," she says, making a car sound effect. "And then I come walking down, and people looking like, What in the world? Because Maybelle's clothes don't match. And I come walking down and tell the people that I came all the way from Baltimore to meet my auntie O, and she don't know I'm here. And while I'm entertaining this crowd, Oprah comes out with her hand on her hip and--you know she got attitude--and she says, `Who are you, ms.?' And I tell her who I am and sits me down and interviews me, and I say, `Take it to commercial whoever runnin' the damn camera.'"
It's the hyperactive and vivid imagination of an 18-year-old theater major who wants to go out and be the biggest star in the world. That such attitude is in someone who looks about 20 years out of place is part of what's funny. Whether that's a deliberate ingredient to Leak's routine isn't clear, but she's happier than most people and getting paid to do her thing.
"The future is gonna be bigger and brighter for me. . . . I want my own products, like simple stuff," Leak says as Pamela before sensing a punch line and switching back into Maybelle. "Like a light switch with Maybelle on it. I don't want clothes like Sean John and them--just simple everyday stuff that people use, like my picture on a toothbrush, or some paper cups, or on some soap wrappers."
She laughs at the soap wrapper line because she knows it's silly, and that's what it's all about. Ms. Maybelle doesn't offer ironic sociological commentary. Leak isn't trying to do a deliberate parody of black comedy. She is, quite simply, just a funny lady comfortable with the niche she's carved out for herself, and she knows that she will have an audience somewhere if this whole TV thing doesn't work.
"I've done almost every church in Baltimore," Leak says. "I've done clubs. I even done funerals. I don't know if I wanna keep doing those, though, but you have to be versatile. Wherever they need me to show up and make 'em laugh, sugar, I show up and make 'em laugh."
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