Amanda Seales spent 12 years working hard in New York City, looking for her big break. Though Seales now lives in Los Angeles, for a couple of days last week, she was in her old stomping grounds hosting her comedic game show “Smart, Funny & Black.” It’s a trivia show that quizzes media personalities on their knowledge of black history, black culture, and the black experience. “It’s like an Ivy League HBCU, and our contestants compete to be inducted into the illustrious league of Master Black-sperts,” Seales explains. It’s this venture—one of her many—that kept her out until 3:30am the night before we met. When in the city that never sleeps, why sleep?
Seales has lived many lives at only 36 years old. She’s cycled through careers since the ’90s, some of which included acting on Nickelodeon’s My Brother and Me, working as an MTV VJ, being one-half of R&B duo Floetry, and, currently, starring on HBO’s Insecure. Lately, she’s been focusing her attention on comedy—specifically, stand-up—but she has a web series and is working on a podcast as well. She’s also one of the most active people you’ll follow on Instagram, posting social commentary videos on everything from politics to racism and Tyrese. Calling her merely busy is almost doing her hustle a disservice.
It’s how Seales likes it though. “When you’re in your purpose, you’re not exhausted, you’re exercising what you were here to do, so it’s more like it’s invigorating,” she tells us. “I mean, is my body dead after doing two shows last night and going to sleep at 3:30am? Yes, yes it is. But it’s dead in an I-just-ran-a-marathon kind of way.”
We somehow managed to sit down with the star when she was in New York in between all the many things she had going on. Read our interview, below, in which she touches on everything from that viral conversation she had with Caitlyn Jenner to what it’s like being a polarizing comic and why she doesn’t like to unplug from social media.
What about comedy stands out from other fields that you’ve pursued?
Comedy has allowed me to be my 100 percent true self as opposed to other places, where I feel like that’s been a hindrance. Whether it’s music or poetry or hosting, people want you to be something else, they want you to be packaged in a certain way. I feel like all those things that were maybe detractors from me being successful in those fields have actually been the things that have made me a unique person in comedy—my particular-ness, my attention to detail, the solidity of my voice, of my point of view. In those other spaces, people say, “Oh, you’re difficult,” or “You’re rude,” or “You’re a bitch.” In comedy, these are all the things that make me an articulate voice and witty.
Was there a certain point in your life where you knew that you were funny?
I mean, I’ve always been funny, but I never considered it as a particular career path until my early 30s, when I realized that hip-hop wasn’t going to be the long term. You know when you’re with a boyfriend, or you’re with a significant other, and you just realize, “Oh, we’re not going to last.” You don’t end it right then, but you start seeing the exit music, that’s how it was with me for hip-hop. I started to see, like, “Okay this is not going to be the full narrative.”
And when it came to comedy, it was more so that I was looking at careers that mimicked what I wanted from myself, which was a multimedia platform based on my point of view. When I looked at people like Chelsea Handler and Ellen DeGeneres and Chris Rock—they all have that type of career—they had a through-line that I didn’t have which was stand-up. All of them could write, all of them could host, all of them could perform, but all of them were doing stand-up, and that was the one thing that I was missing. So when I got the opportunity to do so, I jumped at it, and I was very fortunate that it went well and that I’ve been able to continue to grow in that space. Even though a lot of people don’t know me for my stand-up yet, I do believe that’s going to end up being the tentpole for folks.
You celebrated your four-year anniversary of doing stand-up, did you do anything to celebrate? Did you do a stand-up show?
I was at a school the night before [for an appearance], so I definitely did a whole bunch of time onstage. But four years ain’t nothin’ in comedy, I’m still a baby by stand-up standards. There’s a comic reading this right now that’s pissed I’m getting to do the stuff I’m doing after only doing stand-up for four years. But what I tell them is that, even though I wasn’t necessarily doing the art of stand-up longer than that, I was doing the work that inspires that. I was hosting, I was writing, I was working in spaces with a number of comics, I was doing Best Week Ever and all these countdown shows on VH1, and so I was exposed to people that had all the chops. I got to have this kind of incubation period before I, myself, ventured forward, and it really served me well, because by the time I did get to the stage and pick up a mic to tell jokes, I already knew my voice and I already knew the stage, so I didn’t have to figure those things out. I just had to figure out how to not try to convince the audience I’m funny, because that’s the part that people don’t understand. As a comic, you think that you have to convince the audience that you’re funny, which is not the case.
What do you have to do?
Just be fucking funny. It’s the convincing part that’s the mindfuck. You’ve just got to be funny, and sometimes they’re not going to think you’re funny. That doesn’t mean that you’re not.
I’m sure it also depends on the audience that night—different people find different things funny.
Yes, and I’m not a general type of comic; I do a lot of polarizing stuff. I talk about a lot of racism and sexism and politics, and if you’re not necessarily in agreement with those things, you might bristle at it. For the most part, the skill comes in figuring out how to make it funny regardless. Whether you agree with Trump or not, you can’t deny he looks like a piece of pizza with the cheese off. It’s just what it is.
Do you think that your stand-up informs your acting? Are you able to improvise on Insecure at all?
We leave the improvising to Natasha [Rothwell]. Natasha is an improv queen, and she definitely goes the distance with that, so I wouldn’t say that I do much improvising in terms of my lines. It’s more so just the faces that I make, and that’s really just performance. But I would say that my stand-up lives separate from the show in the sense that it creates a balance. Because my stand-up is so opposite of Tiffany, and I think that, for a lot of people, it’s really interesting to see.
You’re very active and vocal on Instagram, and you seem more connected and plugged-in than most celebs might be. How do you disconnect?
I don’t like it. I just found this out. I was in Ghana, and I got to disconnect because we didn’t have internet in certain places and I was literally, like [fidgeting], ‘What are we doing? What are we doing?’ I think, at the end of the day, I’m a comedian and we like a response. That’s why we get on stage and put ourselves in those situations, because we know there’s an immediate response, and I’ve become—I don’t like the word ‘addicted’ in this case—but I would say that I’ve become accustomed to that. My brain is always working, and there’s always this barrage of thoughts, and it’s actually been really freeing to have a place where I can get that out of my head and into the world and get something back from it where it’s not just stacking up in my head, which to me makes it harder to disconnect from myself. Even though people can be ridiculous sometimes, there’s way more positivity than negativity, and I feel like I’m doing way more positive than negative by being on it.
So, you read the comments?
Of course, I read the comments.
Do you ever regret reading the comments?
Absolutely. There’s a rule that my mom is not allowed to talk to me about any comments… I had to block her for quite some time because she was like, “I don’t like what you’re posting.” And I was like, “It’s not for you.” She’s now allowed to watch it, but she is not followed, so no DMs. I had to cut her off also because she’ll find the negative comments, and be like, “I can’t believe someone said dah dah dah dah dah,” and I’ll be like, “I didn’t know that, and I didn’t need to know that, and now you’ve brought it to my attention, and for some reason the fact that you’ve brought it to my attention makes it even more annoying.” So yeah, I read the comments, and people are always like, “Why do you have to respond to the negative, why do you do this, why do you do that?” And a lot of the time I’m like, “First of all, until you have that many people coming at you at one time you can’t imagine what it’s like to just not respond.” It almost feels rude, to be honest.
Do you feel like you need to defend yourself?
In certain cases. I think there’s something to be said for people who think that they can talk to you any kind of way behind the guise of social media, and I demonstrate that, like, no, I’m a human, I’m still here. And also I think that a lot of people feel like they don’t have a voice and feel like they don’t know how to clap back, and when they see me do it, it’s like, you know what? I can clap back, too.
You went viral this summer when a clip of you talking with Caitlyn Jenner was circulated around the internet. What motivated you to go on the live stream?
I was asked to go on there [Katy Perry’s ‘Dinner and Discourse’] to be a truth teller in that space because they knew they wanted it to be a dinner with discourse, they knew they wanted to have value, they wanted to actually propel a conversation. They wanted somebody to be in there who was going to be fearless enough to ask questions and challenge things that were being said. I think the thing that stops people from doing that in those spaces is because they want to be liked and they want to be polite and they didn’t want to ruffle feathers. You know, they want to keep it a nice dinner. But it wasn’t that kind of party, it was absolutely for the purpose of discourse, and so I came in there with that mindset of... it’s like when you go to school, and you’re like, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to learn.”
Yes, or on, like, America’s Next Top Model when they say: “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win.”
Right, that’s everyone’s narrative. For me, it was like, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to have real conversation, and whoever I make friends with coming out of this so be it and if not so be it, but more so I just want people to keep it 100.” And I feel like I pushed that. I may not have ended up making friends with the people at that table, but what I did do was gain an entire new audience of individuals that followed my Instagram and my work and appreciated my stance in that space.
Were you able to have a follow-up conversation with Caitlyn at all?
No, but I mean, what’s the point? When people ask me, ‘Did you think she heard you?’ I don’t care. I really don’t care. The people who needed to hear me and feel empowered and feel like they had a voice and feel inspired, they heard me. So, that’s more important to me. It’s not like Caitlyn Jenner is going to turn around now and be like, ‘Oh, I get it, and now I’m a freedom fighter’ and start using Shea Moisture. None of that is going to happen, she’s not going to be a spokesperson for shea butter awareness.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of when we found out that Trump was going to become president. Do you feel more or less hopeful now about the state of our country?
Hope is a strong word. I don’t feel hopeless. I would say I feel, for lack of a better word, ready to challenge. I feel like I’m doing that with my work, and if and when more needs to be done, I will receive that message and do what needs to be done, because that’s the kind of person that I am. But I feel ready to really start in real ways taking on what’s happening. And I think a lot of people aren’t ready. I feel like a lot of people are still living in this rose-colored box where they think this is just an inconvenience. And I’ve been seeing this quite a bit lately, because I feel like a lot of people haven’t thought of it this way, but I think when we’ve seen newsreel footage of the ’60s and the ‘70s and whatnot, it always looks like a movie because it’s often in black-and-white or in technicolor, so we watch it like it didn’t really happen. There’s this idea of ‘it was so long ago,’ and it always feels like that happened to those people. But, those people were us at one point, and when you see all of these shootings and when you see a church getting burned down and... none of these things are happening in a vacuum. They are extensions of the past happening in the present, and at some point, it’s going to be undeniable for folks, and then what? So, I’m ready because it’s already undeniable to me. And I just want other folks to start waking up. Wake it up!
I put a post on my Instagram the other day that I had taken from Black Media USA’s Instagram, and the post was, “If you’ve always wondered what you would’ve been doing during the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement, you’re doing it now.” And a lot of people got what I was saying, but then a number of people who were like, “What kind of statement is that? Those are different contexts.” And I’m not saying you need to be out here on a soap box, I’m not saying that you need to be out here with Molotov cocktails in front of Trump’s residence. But what would you have been doing? Would you have been reading up on stuff and sharing information, would you have been challenging other people, would you have been in a resistance, would you be a part of an organization that’s moving in an underground way to make changes? What would you have been doing? Think about that and then start doing work toward it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but at least put some action behind it. I know that I would’ve been right there next to Harry Belafonte and Dick Gregory marching, telling jokes, and doing work that helps to create resources, funds, and a voice for the people. So, guess what I’m doing? That.
What’s next on your docket, project-wise?
I just signed a book deal. I have a podcast coming, doing Seth Meyers in December, headlining in Caroline’s on February 1 to 3, finalizing this deal with Smart Funny & Black going to a bigger platform, hopefully taking it out on the road shortly. It’s a lot. Busy busy. Work on Insecure. I think that’s a good amount of stuff.