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What Ever Happened to…Ellen Cleghorne?

Ellen Cleghorne became a household name in the early ’90s with her memorable characters on Saturday Night Live. Most recently seen on the big screen in 2013’s Grown Ups 2, she’ll soon be adding PhD to her name. The comedy veteran shares her thoughts on what inspired her professional routes, plus the impact JET magazine had on her life.

JET: It seemed that you took a hiatus from Hollywood before appearing in Grown Ups 2 last year. How did that gig come about?  

Ellen Cleghorne: Oh, geez— you never know about these things. I’ll say Adam Sandler reached out and for that, thank you.

JET: From which doctoral program will you receive your degree?

EC: I’m getting a PhD in Performance Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I went back because I asked myself, “If you could do anything what would you do?” And I said, “Go to graduate school.” I’m writing about Black comedy and comedians, specifically and in general; “fancy-schmancy” humor philosophies; and Black humor practices as critical race theory deconstruction methodologies. How do you like me now?

JET: How long have you been into comedy? 

EC: I’ve been doing comedy for over 25 years. I’ve been acting, writing, etc., for much longer. I fell in love with (of course) Richard Pryor as a teenager and with Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory around the same time. When I would go to the library I liked to take out joke books, poetry, Edgar Allan Poe and Langston Hughes’ Simple’s Uncle Sam. In grade school, I had a bad head of hair and the other Black kids on the school bus used to call me Phyllis Diller, so my comic star potential was visible at an early age. As a teen, I also watched Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans, who made me fall out laughing. However, as a very small child, I used to sit up with my grandmother and watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

My dad loved Nipsey Russell, Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby (anyone Black). Laugh-In was something my father enjoyed because of the political satire; whatever my dad liked, I liked. There weren’t a lot of women doing comedy on television regularly. Of course, I’m a fan of Whoopi Goldberg and I love Joan Rivers and Carol Burnett!

JET: Looking back on the early days of your comedy career, what would you not change?

EC: One right thing I did was become a founding member of Black Women In Theater, Inc. I appreciate the following real women who taught us how to be ethical, support each other as Black actresses and that a commercial career in acting was attainable: Anna Maria Horsford, S. Epatha Merkerson, Barbara Montgomery, Hatti Winston, Brenda Denmark, Mary Alice, Seret Scott, LaTanya Richardson, Leila Danette and many others who were the steering committee of the organization. This group of women generously opened many doors for Black actresses, both young and not young, in New York during the 1980s. These ladies shaped so much of who I am as an artist and a woman. They deserve a shout-out!

JET: What advice would you give young artists?

EC: If you love the “entertainment business,” follow your dreams! There are people who will encourage you and people who won’t encourage you. Don’t listen to the latter group but you should know that they are out there. I’m the former.

JET: Do you have a favorite Internet comedian?

EC: I watch several Black comics on YouTube. I’m glad everyone is on the come-up and I wish them all well. Picking one over the other may not send the best message. I tune in to Funny or Die addictively. I love Zach Galifianakis’ Between Two Ferns. Note: I loved him before President Obama did his show. He’s a fool! I also like Kid President on SoulPancake. Actually, I love Kid President.

JET: What do you remember most fondly about JET magazine?

EC: JET— and EBONY— have always been in my life.  My grandmother had a subscription. Every month JET and EBONY would arrive and, in retrospect, those magazines made Black celebrity real because they were the only places where I could see “me” and question my absence from other publications like McCall’s magazine and advertisements like Prell shampoo. Yes, I “was” before Essence magazine. As such, I want to say “thank you” to Johnson Publishing Company for igniting my dream and showing me that a career in entertainment was attainable and igniting an internal discourse around my place. I actually wrote a letter to Butterick Patterns and McCall Patterns (I was a sewer) asking why none of the models were Black. Who knows what a little magazine can do to form the fist of a pre-teen freedom fighter?

JET: What life lessons are you making sure to impart as a mother?  

EC: My daughter recently earned a doctor of dental surgery degree (Howard University College of Dentistry, 2014) and is currently an oral and maxillofacial surgery resident. I hope I have taught her to keep God first, give him the glory, family second and to love herself and laugh at the ridiculousness of hubris.

JET: Who helped pave the way for your career in comedy?

EC: In the ’90s, thankfully there was Def Comedy Jam. Many people don’t know this but it was Russell Simmons who first hired me to appear on national television before Def Comedy Jam and for that I will forever be grateful to him.

I want to thank Richie Tienken and Lucien Hold from the Comic Strip on Second Avenue and 82nd Street in New York City; John Ridley (screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave) who was working at the Comic Strip and told the managers to give me paid “spots”; the Brown Brothers of the Uptown Comedy Club; Brillstein-Grey management (Ray Rio);  Irvin Arthur; and Ellen DeGeneres. And, of course, without Lorne Michaels, Adam Sandler, Mike Shoemaker, Al Franken, David Spade, Tim Meadows, Chris Rock, the Wayans and all of the writers on Saturday Night Live you probably wouldn’t be in exchanges with me today.