By Keenan Steiner
You see Yamaneika Saunders all over the place these days. Last year she filmed a prestigious Comedy Central Half-Hour Special, she’s a correspondent on the Tonight Show, you’ll see her on HBO’s “Crashing,” at clubs all over New York, and she’s cooking up a new hour-long set. In her Comedy Central Special, she loudly and honestly joked about personal topics that are awkward for most of us — sex and religion — and did so with her own very unique take (she’s a Christian who didn’t lose her virginity until 27). Recently, her life has become heavier and darker, and her comedy is showing it. Ahead of her performance in Westchester at Yonkers Comedy Club on April 7, we talked about how her comedy is evolving, and why.
Over a decade ago, you were booed off stage Showtime at the Apollo. What was that like?
I always tell people: the worst part is the booing. I walked off on the wrong side of the stage after I got booed, just out of shock. And they made me walk back across that stage, so they booed me as a walked back across. And then I didn’t want to sit in the bullpen with the other contestants, so I asked them if I could go to the holding area upstairs, so that meant I got booed as a walked through the theatre.
A couple people recognized me on the train and they booed me on the train. I went from 125th Street all the way to 68th Street, Hunter College with people booing me.
How did it change your career?
I kept replaying it over and over. But I wouldn’t say that was my turning point. After that, I was so conscious again of having to be the smart, intelligent, black woman that I am that I was not being funny. I was more concerned with you having the takeaway that I am a worthy, smart black woman who should not be seen as a sassy black bitch, that I was not having fun.
Having that moment took me to a place where I said, “I don’t give a (expletive) what you think about me. When I am on stage, I am doing what the (expletive) I want to do.”
Prior to that, I was not having fun. My grandma used to say, “Listen, people are just gonna assume when they see you: Black people are from the ghetto, they ain’t got shit. Let people know you’re smart, you went a good school, you came from a good family.” So that’s how my comedy sounded. I wasn’t saying what I really wanted to say because there was a guard up. Now there’s no guard.
You grew up in Maryland. What was your childhood like?
I grew up an only child. My family doted on me and loved me and did everything for me. And I had to learn at 21, 22, when I was first getting to New York City, how to take care of myself.
But now I have to be an adult. The people that were always there to make me feel safe are dying. I’m in a different space; I’m learning to be more powerful, but it’s also depressing. I’m very insulated in myself right now, trying to figure out who I am. Now that my grandma died, my mom has to be the matriarch and I have to go play mom. We all have to step up in our new roles. That really is a reflection of my comedy right now, just trying to figure it all out. Often times it’s harsh, and I lose people.
Are you talking about difficult topics?
No – not difficult topics. There’s a fun side of me that’s still there that people are engaged in. But she can turn cold real quick. But she’s still fun – but it’s the kind of fun where more women become silent and give you lots of ‘awws,’ and more men laugh. So I think if anything, I’ve become ‘Something for the ladies, and something for the fellas.’
What frustrates you as a performer?
The frustration I feel as a performer is: I wish more people knew me and I wish I was more popular so that I can get away from the material I’m doing now and get into the real stuff that I really want to do. But at this point, when it comes to television and putting out specials, it’s still more about: let’s really hit all the funny and goofy things; people have to know you at that level before they can know you on a higher level. I’ve been doing standup for long time and I’ve evolved past the material that is often seen of me, and I’m just waiting for my audience to build enough to the point that they know me so I can talk about the real shit. That’s not to say that the things I’m talking about aren’t good now, but there are deeper places that I want to go that requires people to know who I am first before they say, “Who’s this bitch trying to be Nietzsche?”
You’re working on your new hour-long set. What are you going to talk about?
There’s not a lot of sex stuff in this new hour. More often than not, the success rate of the set that I’m doing is up there, and people are really connecting with it and loving it, but I realize that I have to slowly insert the dildo.
It’s always going to be me. It’s always going to be autobiographical but I call bullshit on a lot of stuff: calling bullshit on the way products are being marketed to women, calling bullshit on women’s opinions of themselves, and, overstepping boundaries, but the reality is not every woman is the best woman in the world, but we sort of created this environment where it’s like, “Women!” And I’m like, “Girl, I’m with you, but let’s keep it real. You told me to believe all women and I can’t even stand all women.” Let’s have a real conversation. When we start to swing the pendulum, let’s make sure we are kicking it back, and it doesn’t stay on one side too long and it kind of settles in the middle, because I’m not for extremism on either end.
There’s another part. In the 80s, we were kids who went home with the keys behind our neck. You might as well give your damn kid a damn Marriott card. Why were we constantly in a situation where we were not protecting children, versus how they protect children now? But the double-edged sword of it: we are tough and resilient. Now we are in a time where, I don’t know how tough these kids are gonna be because they all have peanut allergies and night-lights.
Saunders is headlining Yonkers Comedy Club on April 7. This interview was edited for clarity.