It’s a November evening in Houston, yet the air is deceptively mild, as a small line begins to form outside of the Houston Improv. Weaving through the crowd and into the building - conversations fade in and out - with some eagerly remembering past shows, and others just ready for a good laugh.
Walking by a poster of the headliner one can’t help but notice that signature blonde haircut, a short style that suits the self-proclaimed “Bad Girl of Comedy.” Yes, tonight is all about Luenell. Inside its bursting with noise as seats fill quickly, the crowd is alive and ready for what most are - already anticipating - will be a great show. Finding a seat, servers hustle from table-to-table before the lights finally dim.
Taking the temperature of the crowd, the host kicks the night off before introducing comedian and character Sister Quintella Caldwell, who easily commands the stage with an infectious laugh and a walker. Yes, you read that right. A proud member of “Jezebel Missionary”, the set flows as Caldwell quizzes, “I’m 87-years-old, what the fuck is pastor gone do to me?”
Finally it’s time for Luenell; the veteran comedienne and actress seen in everything from BET’s Comic View to appearances on The Middle, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, The Tony Rock Project, Californication - and films like Borat, Taken 2, the Think Like a Man series, animated hit Translyvania and more.
Vibrant and boisterous, she enters the stage with a smile and a shot of Patron, leaving a lemon wedge to fend for itself inside of the shot-glass. Soon the crowd gets comfortable while she weaves stories with undeniable humor, like the time she tried to “save” a group of Black and Latino shoe-shine boys.
“I’m from East Oakland, you know I don’t give a damn,” she jokes.
Later she exits the stage to a loud, round of applause; her famous blonde hair bobbing from the stage, down the stairs and into the lobby, where she’ll spend roughly the next 30 minutes signing autographs and taking pictures with waiting fans. The 50-something-year old comedienne is on a roll, cracking jokes without missing a beat not long before she’ll take the stage and do it all again. Finally, a new crowd begins to form outside of the building, silently signaling that it’s time to head backstage.
Now moving quickly through the empty theater, we pass seats that will soon be full again, following her into a room near the back of the building. Relaxed yet sharp, she eyes the room before deciding on a black, leather sofa in the center of the room. Not far away is Sister Quintella, who sits in a chair still in full character, clutching one of her signature church fans.
“Not crazy on the queso, like watch them yourself. Imma hold you responsible,” Luenell tells the young waitress with a smile before adding, “You guys got any coffee or anything like that? With Baileys.”
“Ooh, that sounds good,” Quintella chimes in.
Settling into the couch, she asks where I’d like to sit before instructing me to just grab a seat beside her. Interviews can notoriously be hit or miss - often dependant on the interviewer and the willingness of the subject - but with comics, I’ve often found a mix of humility and openness that has truly made them one of my favorite creatives to interview.
Time has been relatively kind to Luenell, extending into over 20 years of experience.
There’s little she hasn’t seen in Hollywood or on the comedy circuit, but at that moment all I can think of is Soul Beat TV, the famed Black-owned public access station pioneered by Chuck Johnson in Oakland, California - a hometown we both share. It’s a platform that an entire generation of Bay Area residents, including myself, grew up watching; as Luenell became a frequent face in the early 90s alongside prominent journalist, Chauncey Bailey.
“That’s a blessing that we found each other here (in Houston),” she says, her face lighting up as we get ready to begin.“So did you see why I wanted you to see the show first and interview after?” she asks.
--”Did you see me?” Caldwell interjects.
“Of course, she saw you,” the comedienne responds with a laugh before informing the room it’s time to start in true Luenell fashion: “So I’m ready whenever you’re ready. Shut the fuck up, everyone shut the fuck up.”
On-stage she appears larger than life; her oversized personality on full display while moving from punchline-to-punchline with ease. But in person, there’s a raw yet undeniable strength, qualities that make you feel as if you’ve known her for years - a likability that carries over into real life.
Read this story in full at Houston Style Magazine - November 2018