Luenell Campbell, one of the featured comedians in Showtime’s recent stand-up special Funny Women of a Certain Age, was a well-known Oakland television personality before her career career got a jolt from starring in 2006 mockumentary Borat, in which she played a mechanical bull-riding dinner guest who returns to Kazakhstan with Sacha Baron Cohen’s titular character. The Arkansas-born comic subsequently found cinematic chemistry with Katt Williams, Snoop Dogg and Nick Cannon before Bradley Cooper called on her to appear in A Star Is Born. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen caught up with Luenell by phone as she as she packed for an East Coast performance scheduled between her headlining appearances at SLS Las Vegas on April 21 & 28 and May 5 & 12.
Did I catch you packing for the April Fools Comedy Jam at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center?
Are you anticipating it? Have you been there before?
I’m trying to remember if I’ve played Barclays before. They all blur from time to time, but am I anticipating it? Yeah, I anticipate every show I do.
In Funny Women of a Certain Age, you had the last slot, which made you the de facto Funniest of the Funny Women of a Certain Age.
Not my call! That’s (executive producer) Carole Montgomery’s problem. (laughs)
Was it like any gig you’d anticipate, or did the purpose behind the show affect the atmosphere?
It was absolutely a purpose-filled vision of Carole’s. I never had a vision of that myself until she designed it. When she did it, I told her it was brilliant because in this millennial-obsessed, youth-obsessed world we live in, somebody does need be a cheerleader and speak for women, and men for that matter, of a certain age. I thought it was a great concept. We’re actually doing it again tonight in Los Angeles at the world-famous Comedy Store. However, there won’t be the same lineup. I think what she does is sort of travel with it and expose people to it all over the country now. I’m just glad to be in the group.
Where was the Showtime special recorded?
We recorded it in Brooklyn.
How did you get involved? Do you and Carole Montgomery go way back?
Never met her before in my life until the night we taped the show. I guess I must have been on her radar. She really didn’t bring it to my attention. She just went through my management and I thought it was a great concept, but for me it was just another show. Once I got there and met the girls and felt the camaraderie and stuff, it was really a blessing to me to be involved with it. That just goes to show you that when you have comedy as the thread through the fabric of your unity, it doesn’t matter where you come from or how long you’ve been knowing each other, or any of that. What matters is that you’re funny and that you have something to say. We all have something to say in a different type of way, and I just thought it was great. Some women were creative. Some women did accents. Some women were married, some women had never been married. Yet all of us have a common thread in that we have something to say.
Who did you draw on for inspiration when you started doing stand-up?
I didn’t emulate anyone. I’m an island. I saw people who did stand-up before me such as Mo’Nique and Laura Hayes, and Adele Givens and some more did the only black female comedy tour. There hadn’t been on before, and there hadn’t been one since. It was called The Queens of Comedy. I looked up to them because Laura Hayes is from Oakland, where I also was raised, but there wasn’t anyone to look up to that was female. There was only men. There was other people like Elayne Boosler and Judy Gold and Kathy Griffin. They might have been doing it before me, but they’re not senior elder statesmen of anything like that.
Whenever the subject of women’s contributions to comedy is discussed I bring up Elayne Boosler. She seems to get forgotten a lot in current conversations.
I loved Elayne Boosler. There’s not too many black female comics that would give credit to her, but I’m a different type of girl and I was raised in an all-white community, so I was up on a lot of white things before I was up on a lot of black things, unfortunately.
You had built up a regional following before you became nationally known.
There was an African-American owned and operated cable network in Oakland, California called The Soul Beat Television Network, founded by a man named Chuck Johnson. This was before BET was ever started. Soul Beat started in Oakland. It was local. It went to some of the surrounding cities, and I didn’t just do one show on that network. I did many shows on that network. I started out doing commercials, then I was a VJ. Remember when they had VJs who played videos and talked? Then I did a show called Love Talk. It was about relationships and stuff. This was when people could actually watch you on TV and pick up the phone, and call and talk to you back-and-forth on television. I did a variety show called Club 37, because out channel was 37, and Club 37 was like the Johnny Carson show where I did a monologue and had guests. I did many, many shows on the Soul Beat Television Network, which made me a local celebrity. When I went to Los Angeles I wasn’t affected by celebrity because I already had it when I got here.
You used a phrase in an interview I read: “There’s beauty in the struggle.”
What stories do you have to tell if you don’t have a struggle? If you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth and you went to private schools, and you had a Porsche when you were 16, what struggle do you know about? What can you really talk about? So there is beauty in the struggle. The struggle is character building, I believe. These are just my opinions, you know?