Tiffany Haddish on 'Keanu' and Cussing Out Jerrod Carmichael

Tiffany Haddish talks 'The Carmichael Show,' being recognized in the streets, and how she got to owning one of the cats from 'Keanu.'

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Complex Original

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If you're not up on Tiffany Haddish, you're playing yourself. While she might not be a household name, she beams into homes every Sunday night on NBC's The Carmichael Show as Nekeisha, the ratchet ex-wife of Jerrod Carmichael's brother Bobby, which is important. While The Carmichael Show is applauded for the old-school sitcom conversations it has on everything from gentrification to the Plan B pill, the key is the differing voices on the show. Jerrod might cater to more of the inquisitive male voices in the world, while his parents bring an older viewpoint on things. Haddish's Nekeisha, meanwhile, has an entirely different approach to life, bringing the voice of the (turnt) people, for good or ill.

True story: I remember first hearing about Haddish via her appearance on Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher's "The Champs" podcast. It gets very emotional, detailing Haddish's hard life growing up, which included turmoil at home, being sexually assaulted, and ultimately being put in the foster care system and becoming homeless. Throughout her pain, she embraced humor and fell into becoming a comedian. Since then, she's shined thanks to her unique voice and quick wit, nailing parts on everything from That's So Raven and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Kevin Hart's Real Husbands of HollywoodIf Loving You Is Wrong, and the upcoming Key & Peele film Keanu.

We caught Haddish while she was getting ready for work. She'd done the Goddman Comedy Jam the night before ("they called me the Queen of the Jam"), and was busy wrangling her dogs and cat—one of the many felines who played Keanu in Keanu—but was still able to make time for us. She's a multi-tasker, evidently. We talked how she got onto The Carmichael Show, what it's like working with Jerrod Carmichael and Key & Peele, her "Chuckles, Not Knuckles" program for high school kids, and her search for the social worker who helped her get on this path in the first place.

I've been looking back into the making of The Carmichael Show, and I was shocked to find out you initially weren't even looked at to play Nekeisha on the show. 
Not even thought about. The story of my life. 

So how did that change?
Lil Rel [Howery, who plays Bobby] is like one of my best friends, and he told me he auditioned for Jerrod's show, that he got it, and that they got this other girl. I was like, "Wow, he didn't even ask me to come in and audition." He was like, "I kept telling him he should ask you. I don't know why he didn't." I guess because I was doing If Loving You Is Wrong, and they thought I was still obligated to that—which technically I was—but I saw Jerrod at the Comedy Club, and I walked up to him, and I was like: "Jerrod, I'm so happy for you, congratulations on the special, congratulations on the pilot, man. This is a tremendous thing you're doing. But you know what? It's real messed up how you didn't ask me to come and audition or nothing. That's real disrespectful. Why you saying you respect my comedy? Why you saying you love what I do and all that? You didn't even invite me to audition. You telling everybody I'm talented, but you don't give a fuck about me. You don't give a fuck about me. But you know what? If you need help with anything just let me know. You need somebody to run lines with you. To be a PA, a stand-in, anything. I'm here to help. I'm here to be of service." And he was like, "Okay."

Lil Rel called me two days later like, "Yo, Jerrod told me you cussed him out." I was like, "I didn't cuss him out, I just let him know that I didn't like that he didn't invite me to come in." And then two weeks later he called me and asked me if I would come in and do the table read with him because the girl they hired was doing a play, and then I was like, "Oh, they letting me in the door. That's it. I'm about to put my whole foot in it."

One of the things that people love about the show is that it's so topical—it's so real when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement or the whole Bill Cosby scandal, and nothing is ever sugar-coated. Do you guys have those real, intense conversations before they're written into a script and shot?
Yeah, we have conversations every day we're at work. It's like right before we start work, we talk about what we saw online, "Oh my gosh, did you see what Katt Williams did?" And we'll have 20 to 30 minute conversations, and then we start working and rehearsing and stuff. Then the next day, the new rewrite will come in and it's like, "Whoa, I just said that yesterday." 

Jerrod always pulls from our lives. You have to be careful what you say around Jerrod because it might end up in the script. It's pretty hilarious, and it's kind of fun. But you got to watch what you say because it could be used. Like, "Oh no, I didn't want to say that in front of the world."

You've been in the game for ten, 11 years. I would say this is a real peak in your career. Are people starting to recognize you?
Oh my gosh! Okay so every day, I try to go to the Culver City stairs to get my booty like, ya know, I want that Nicki Minaj booty, but without the injections. So I be doing these stairs. And people be like, "Nekeisha, Nekeisha you better climb these stairs, girl! You better get your ass up them stairs." Like, oh my god. 

I have a cousin that you remind me of: very opinionated, very loud, but also just very hilarious. Do you find a lot of people commending you for bringing that type of woman to an NBC show?
Yes, they're always like, "Thank you for being there for us. Thank you for showing them us. Thank you for keeping it real." There's some ratchets out here that love Nekeisha. I don't mean to be ratchet, but I mean, she just being herself. And then really, Nekeisha, I feel like is a version of me times ten. Maybe it is me. I don't know. I know I don't dress like that.

Now you're also in Keanu. What is was like working with the Key & Peele, especially as opposed to working with someone like Jerrod?
Well, working with them is like working with comedic geniuses. Working with Jerrod is working with comedic genius too, but these guys, oh my gosh, their timing, their intelligence level is ridiculous. It's super-refreshing to be around people like that. I just went in and auditioned, and I went in just pretending I was one of them gangbanger chicks that used to pick on me back in the day. And I remember I got a flat tire, and I was like, "I better get this job." I got a flat tire, and I caught an Uber saying, "They better give me this damn job because I can't be going through this no more. I swear to God I'm finding me a driver." And I got the job, and I remember Jordan was like, "Yeah man, you came in and I was a little bit afraid."

The universe works in mysterious ways.
Right, it gets you prepared for it. And working with them was so much fun. And I feel like I made two new really great friends. And it's funny because the cat, Keanu, there are like eight cats that we used to film it. They were rescue cats, too. And one of the last ones, the trainer was like "Yeah, I'm trying to find a home for this cat. We got to find a home for her." And every time I would hold her in a scene, she would like fall asleep or curl up with me. The set decorator was like, "That's your cat, you got to take her home. That's your spirit animal. She's your creature." And I'm like, "I already got two dogs at home. This is not going to work." [But] every time the trainer would take her away from me, she would cry and like claw at the trainer because she wanted to be with me. [Finally], I was like, "Okay, I'll take her."

Outside of your film and TV work, I wanted to hear more about your "Chuckles, Not Knuckles" program, where you're basically helping out the high school kids with comedy. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with finding comedy and how you then came to develop this particular organization for the kids out there? 
Yeah. My social worker was getting tired of driving up to my high school every morning, and she's like, "Look you've got two choices, you can go to the Laugh Factory comedy camp, or you can go to psychiatric therapy. Which one you want to do?" I was like, "Which one got drugs?" She said I'd be on drugs if I went to therapy, and I was like, "Okay, I'll got to comedy camp," and it changed my entire existence.

You know, that was the first time a man ever told me I was beautiful and I didn't think he was trying to do something bad to me. Because where I come from, men don't—first off, you barely see men, and when you see them they're doing something bad to somebody. So for these celebrities to be saying nice things to me and encouraging me, it was like the world.

When I got emancipated from the foster care program and I became homeless it was a struggle. I was working at an airline, and then I stopped to pursue comedy 110%. I started working at this youth center, and at the youth center I noticed the racism and the segregation amongst the children, and there were all these riots going on at these schools, these race riots. So I was talking to some people on the board of Los Angeles Unified School District, and I asked them: "What if I do a program because a lot of times, kids are trying to have fun and joke with each other, but they don't understand the severity of what they're doing. Why don't we do a show called 'Chuckles, Not Knuckles' where we have four different races of comedians come in and we do like a one-hour program, and we talk about bullying and racism and trying to survive in this world?" There are a lot of comedians that were bullied and picked on, and that's why they became comedians. Survival of the fittest.

I read that you're actually trying to find the social worker that helped you out back in the day?
I have been looking for her. Her name is Coleta Lewis and I cannot find her. I don't know if she got married or what. The last time I saw her, I was 21, and I was living in these like lush apartments, and she was like, "How are you over here?" And I was like, "I live here."

I have been looking for her ever since. I have been on Facebook. I was on Black Planet, MySpace, everywhere. I cannot find her. I know she's from D.C. And I know she was saying she was going back to D.C., and that's all I know. I called all the social workers that used to work with her. I go talk to the foster youth to encourage them because somebody encouraged me, and I'm always like, "If you guys see Coleta, if you hear from Coleta, let me know."

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