What Amanda Seales knows: On comedy, authenticity and success on her own terms

Salon talks to the "Insecure" star about her new HBO stand-up special, fame, and the power of social media

Published January 26, 2019 11:00AM (EST)

Amanda Seales (Elton Anderson)
Amanda Seales (Elton Anderson)

Actress, comedian, artist and creator Amanda Seales opens her debut special "I BE KNOWIN'," which premieres on HBO Jan. 26, by being clear about who her comedy is not for. It's not for "racists, rapists, sexists, misogynists, narcissists — you know folks that are calling the cops on black folks for just living our lives," she says. Seales' body language and attention shifts between the camera in front her and her Instagram story on her phone, merging her primary lanes of communication via TV or social media, but always underscored by her humor, which is ever-present on both platforms.

"It ain't for Trump voters," Seales continues, "or for people who don't believe that white men can be terrorists. It ain't for homophobes, or transphobes, or xenophobes, you know that wall is some bullshit!" The list goes on as she makes her way to the stage. "And it ain't for the people who take their shoes and socks off on planes, who raised youuu?!'" Seales derides. And as she finally arrives — as cheers from the audience become audible — Kendrick Lamar's infectious, resilient anthem "Alright" blares.

The beginning of "I BE KNOWIN'" is the perfect introduction for Seales, currently best known for playing Tiffany on Issa Rae's HBO series "Insecure," but is also someone who has worked in the entertainment industry for decades across various platforms. She created and is currently touring with her live comedic competition show, "Smart Funny & Black." She hosts a weekly podcast, "Small Doses" and has a book coming out this year under the same name. She's a former MTV VJ and as a child acted in the Nickelodeon sitcom "My Brother and Me." She toured as part of the R&B duo Floetry. She has a master's in African-American studies from Columbia University. And her regular Instagram videos are often hilarious, frequently searing, always informative.

What has grounded Seales' roles and creativity throughout her career is a commitment to telling unflinching, unapologetic truths about race, politics, culture, gender, and history. I spoke with Seales recently about integrity, the downsides of visibility, and the significance of her HBO special. (Our conversation has been condensed for clarity.)

As someone who’s been working in the industry for decades and has conquered so many platforms and styles, do you ever want to shake fans or executives, like, “What took y’all so long?” Or is it all part of the journey?

I think it’s just that. It’s all a part of the journey. It’s really a growth process and on one hand, I am glad that it’s finally happening, but on the other hand, I know that things happen the way they are supposed to. I’ll have people kind of say to me like, "Oh you should have a show by now," and this, that, and the third, but I feel like when it’s time, it will be the right time.

I know you’ve talked about the importance of knowing yourself as a precedent to success. And certainly people are really drawn to your authenticity and your integrity. I’m wondering if you feel like your experience in the industry has allowed you to reach success on your own terms?

I think the biggest thing is that I have made that a decision. It’s not really my success in the industry that allowed me to do things on my own terms, it’s doing things on my own terms that brought me success in the industry.

I think really it’s just hard to do that, because a lot of us are scared into thinking that by having standards and by challenging the folks that are the gatekeepers, that it’s going to lose us opportunity and that it’s going to prevent us from being able to make gains.

But at a certain point I just realized if these people over here ain’t going to let me do what I know is reasonable, what I know is practical and what I know is authentic, then they just ain’t the folks to do this with, and I’ve got to stick to my guns to find the right folks. And I think that’s the hardest part, right? Because you need money, you know, so it’s not always the easiest thing to do. But that’s what’s allowed me to actually even become such a multi-hyphenate — I had to learn a lot of different skills to stay afloat to support the weight of my integrity.

You've said when you came to stand-up, it felt like home. What do you love about stand-up and why does it feel like the perfect platform for your voice and perspective?

It feels like the perfect platform because it’s literally built on being authentic and it’s as close to a meritocracy as you can get in the entertainment business. Because you can’t fake funny. You can fake singing. You can even fake dancing. Sh*t, you can fake writing, because how many times have we seen ghostwriters? But you cannot fake funny.

There is no version of faking funny. So that to me is such a critical part of why comedy is so interesting, and such a draw for me, because I really am somebody who is just enamored with genuineness and being able to do things in the most honest way possible.

That’s a great segue go to the special, "I Be Knowin.'" Is there something from the special that you’re most excited to share with the world?

I just think seeing all those black women in their laughing their asses off and seeing just unabashed love for ourselves, even just singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing." But also, seeing folks have a shared experience of stuff that they probably thought was just them.

When I talk about what it is to be black in the workplace. When I talked about what it is to realize that you’re the only black person in the situation, how are you going to manage this? When I talk about the awareness that particularly black women have of the ire that folks have against us just living our lives.

So, I think that being able to witness that is something that is rare and that we really haven’t gotten to see, because we really haven’t gotten to see black women comedians on this type of platform. I mean after Wanda Sykes, I’m only the second black woman to have a stand-up special at HBO, and hers was 10 years ago.

Your social media is also a great source of entertainment, but you also use it to convey really big ideas — often political, historical, intellectual — in ways that are accessible. Is that a conscious decision for you to do that and use your platform in that way?

I am absolutely consciously using my platform in that way. Or else, I'm just like, what’s the point? If I’m going to be on that social media sh*t, it better be for a purpose. Otherwise, it’s just narcissism.

And food pictures. . . I hate pictures of food on social media. Oh my God!

What do you get from social media? We get so much from you as your followers, but what do you get in return?

I mean listen, comedians love assurance, right? Like that’s how we measure, did this sh*t work? Y’all laughing? Great. It’s an immediate response, which is a rhythm that I’ve grown accustomed to on stage.

And as a creative, it’s awesome to be able to have market research at your fingertips. To be able to throw stuff out there and get immediate reaction to, is this something you guys are feeling? Is this something that you guys are interested in? Because I always say my work is 50 percent about serving me and 50 percent about serving the people.

It also is just hilarious. The wittiness of black people, if it was ever in question, the Internet has silenced that forever. We are talking beyond Black Twitter. Because when it comes to memes, when it comes to the quickness with which black folks find a reference and align it with something in the current zeitgeist, it can’t be matched. It has become literally a cultural specificity that we do. Our ability to pick the right song to go with, or the video, oh my God, what? Like if DuBois was alive, it would be a whole new volume of work: The Memes of Black Folk.

Are there any downsides to visibility that you're feeling?

Oh my God, girl, what? I can’t even go to a doctor’s office without them being like, "Are you Amanda Seales?" I’m like, "We are here to talk about my vagina. I need you to chill." So, yes.

Then I think just the realities of like having to look at your circle and re-compartmentalizing folks and having to be like super keen on who is understanding of the life changes. I think some people don’t really understand the difference in how I have to move now and even just how they have to move when they're with me.

I think that is not necessarily coming from a place of malice or disrespect, it’s just a lack of awareness that things are different and there are more eyeballs, there are more ears. There are more repercussions from missteps — not just by my actions, but by those who are next to me. So just my awareness of that.

I think a lot of people think that with celebrity, the hardest part of it may be like having to deal with finance and just all that comes with that, you know, mo' money, mo' problems. But it’s also mo' people, mo' problems.

One of your social media posts recently was how — from all your roles, from a child to now — from "Insecure" to "Smart Funny & Black," to your social media to your special, you've been a truth-teller. I don’t know if you ever experience fear, but it seems that you have a community that really grounds you.

I really do feel very lucky at this point to finally like have folks that are not only understanding of my boldness, but encouraging of it. I think that really does make a difference. Whenever I have people that are intimidated by that or that question it, I remove them. Because they're not valuable. Because I don’t move in fear. There’s a difference between having tact and having fear. I’m all for tact, consciousness, and consideration, but I just don’t have any use for people around me suggesting that I 'watch my mouth'. Or encouraging respectability politics.

I was reading an interview you did and you talked about the power of "Insecure," and with Issa Rae being very specific in her storytelling. And it’s something the entertainment industry had rejected for a long time, which reinforced this racist idea that predominantly white casts and stories are universal and mainstream, while stories with predominantly black casts or queer casts or people of color casts were niche and not relatable. Do you see the industry changing in that regard and where else you would like to see progress made?

Well, I think if anything, it’s changing in the sense that black creatives are just being way more ardent about sticking to our guns. There seem to be a few executives who see merit in that and see commerce in that. But I don’t by any means think that there has been a consciousness change that says that overall the industry understands this now. By no means do I think that’s the case.

I think that there’s simply some more folks. But we have to remember the ‘90s saw a flourish of Black sitcoms, and it was almost as if once Obama came in office they were like, whoa, whoa, whoa, it’s too black. Let’s bring back some whiteness. Like we’ve got to scale back and keep it balanced.

So, I don’t think it’s fair to say that just because certain individuals have had success that there’s been an awakening of some sort. I think it just means that we’ve had certain folks at the gates who have let people through, and ideally, they will inspire others to do so. But I can’t confidently say that it would be based on an awareness of the value of our voices in a prospective space, versus an awareness of the value of our voices in a profit space.

Mmm, yeah. Do you have thoughts on the #MeToo movement and how you would like to see that conversation evolve?

Well, I think nuance is really something that gets lost. I think that we attempt to create blanket solutions for individual issues. But I think nuance is an incredibly important part. We have this thing called "cancel culture" now, which is a real thing that unfortunately, as effective as it should be for certain people, it a lot of times is not allowing for redemption. So that’s where the nuance comes in. Like we are very quick to cancel, but we are not as open to allowing for folks to demonstrate consistent examples of their own evolution and growth, so I would like to see that.

But as far as #MeToo, I would love to see it be restored back to the space it was originally created from, which was Tarana’s [Burke] understanding of the fact that black women needed a space to be safe in speaking to their experiences of sexual assault. Essentially, when it hit Hollywood, we were not a part of the conversation in the same way.

And, to be frank, if #MeToo hit the music business, all the labels would end up having to close. It’s rampant. We’ve all experienced it in some form or fashion. To see the responses and lack thereof to R. Kelly continue as they have for the last 10 years and more, incenses, disgusts, and infuriates me — not only in how it plays out with in the entertainment business, but within just regular people just deciding to ignore the misogyny of this person. What’s going to happen is that it’s going to reach such a fever pitch at a certain point where people are going to be so embarrassed. They’re going to be so embarrassed for what they stood by and accepted, and I hope that that shame doesn’t kill them, because it’s going to be a heavy weight to bear. If it hasn’t already.

Just to finish up, I know you’re working on a book right now, right?

Well, "Small Doses," the book, is based on my podcast "Small Doses: Posing Truths for Everyday Use," and it’s basically the literary companion to what has become a podcast that speaks to my thoughts, my ideologies, my curiosities about what it is to just be living in this life, through various themes. It’s a collection of essays, of blurbs, of stories, of sketches, all under various headings, from a section called "Race Realities" to a section called "The Glowup."

Let me tell you something, writing a book is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. . . It really tested my discipline, and when I say test, I mean failed. Like I literally was like, "Oh sh*t, you are not the disciplined gymnast and thespian that you grew up as." I just could not believe how often I would procrastinate. That’s not in my character, and there would be times where I literally knew I needed to be writing and it would be like, or I could binge "The Good Place."

A great choice.

There was no limitation to what else I could be doing other than just knuckling down, buckling down and writing this book. It got to a point where I had to wake up at 5 a.m. in the morning, when the world was asleep, in order to really get sh*t done.

I think maybe it felt like school. I think maybe it’s also just kind of the idea of knowing that this medium of writing is so permanent. It’s just ever-present. Like once you write a book, like that book is there. People say the Internet is permanent, but it’s like y’all know we still got the Bible, though, right? If you want to see permanent, put that sh*t in print.

I think there's something maybe to the weight of that. But it’s also a necessity. I feel like as somebody who is an academic and somebody who is a thought leader, putting stuff on the page, and that permanence of it being on the page, it really furthers and supports your voice as one of value. Or just your messaging, and if you’re trying to really be someone who is affecting how we're moving as a society, it’s integral that you connect with the page at some point in some shape, way or form.

By Rachel Leah

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