In Black Mitzvah, Tiffany Haddish Overcomes the Double-Standards For Female Comedians

Pop Culture

In Black Mitzvah, Tiffany Haddish Overcomes the Double-Standards For Female Comedians

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Tiffany Haddish has been in show business for over a decade. Yet her life can be neatly divided into two sections: The one she lived before her appearance in 2017’s career-defining Girls Trip, and the life she now enjoys as an upshot of the film’s unprecedented success to the tune of over $100 million. It’s this second half that serves as fodder for Black Mitzvah, Haddish’s debut Netflix comedy special, which is both a celebration and an uncensored peek at Haddish’s newly-minted fame.

In Girls Trip, the actress turned in a performance in the truest sense of the word, one that went beyond just fulfilling the rigour of inhabiting a role. It’s the same distinguishable quality that she brought to this year’s excellent Tuca & Bertie, an animated Netflix comedy series that underlined the anxieties of an adult friendship between two 30-year-old bird-women. In the show, Haddish voiced Tuca, whose cocky, defiant, and avoidant personality felt like a natural extension of Dina in Girls Trip. Even here, Haddish’s turn is enriched by her dexterity as a performer: The role technically required the actress to only use her voice but there are still scenes where you can almost feel her acting with her whole body. 

This dazzling physicality finds its crescendo in Black Mitzvah, which dropped on the streaming platform yesterday to coincide with the comedian’s 40th birthday. In under an hour, Haddish unleashes her inner comedic performer at full throttle. She raps, pole-dances, impersonates, skips, and goes on breathless monologues with such fluidity that it is impossible to take your eyes off her. For instance, one of the special’s best bits comes 15 minutes in, after a small mishap that Haddish has with her microphone. As a production crew rushes onto the stage to readjust the mic pack on her lower back, touch up her makeup, and mop the stage, Haddish elevates a completely unscripted moment to a stunningly improvised one. “I’m about to be molested up here,” she quips as the crew fusses over her, compares the mic pack to a hard dick, and yells, “That’s right white woman, sweep these floors!” to uproarious laughter.

There are parts during the hour that blindly depend on the comedian’s trademark flippant delivery and her endearingly manic energy. Haddish, naturally, is up for the challenge. She paints frighteningly visual cues for the entertaining anecdotes about her sex life. At one point, the comedian claims that a penis is just a “vagina that fell out”. Yet the best utilisation of her hyper-kineticism is her flawless bit on vaginal yeast infections. She illustrates her predicament in grotesque detail, eliciting laughter by pandering to the ridiculousness of it all. Her directness while tackling unpleasant topics is impossibly charming, giving off the illusion of informality similar to hosting a sleepover with your best friend. In that sense, Haddish earns the viewer’s laugh by first earning their trust.

To be a woman in comedy is about always being on the defensive.

But, much like a Taylor Swift single that comes after a highly-publicised breakup (or a Kanye West interruption), the main purpose of Black Mitzvah is allow Haddish to reclaim her narrative. The central set-piece of the hour is the comedian presenting her side of a widely-reported incident, that sullied her reputation and put a doubt on her comedic talent. Back in 2018, the comedian went on stage visibly hungover and bombed a New Year’s Eve show in Miami. Haddish was forced to apologise once the news of her disastrous set grabbed headlines and became viral almost overnight. Black Mitzvah is clearly designed as a response to that night. The comedian hands out an all-access pass to behind-the-scenes of that incident, replete with Instagram proof, mining laughs out of her own humiliation with a self-awareness that would have been unnerving if it wasn’t so damn funny.

What elevates this entire sequence – and the special – from just being a cleverly-disguised PR move is the point that Haddish makes with it. The story includes the comedian name-dropping the list of celebrities (Kevin Hart, Oprah Winfrey, and as a cheeky aside, Martin Luther King) who called her after the set to console her. The phone call that she admits stuck with her the most was from Sinbad who confided in her that he had bombed sets too, implying that she isn’t the first comedian to have a bad set. Most often, people don’t notice it, he said, but the attention that she got for it is proof that she is a star. What is left unsaid is that the hate that she got for that night, is also because she is a woman.

It’s easy to read this as a humblebrag. Yet it’s underlined with a sobering commentary on the finite number of chances afforded to a woman in the male-dominated trenches of comedy. The pressure for a female comedian is never just about being funny or landing a near-perfect punchline. Instead, it’s about being repeatedly funny repeatedly, without any off-days. It’s built on the fear that your achievements (Haddish, for instance, was the first African-American to host Saturday Night Live and won an Emmy for it) will readily be put under the scanner the moment you have even one record of failure against your name.

To be a woman in comedy is about always being on the defensive. It comes down to triumphing over the creatively restricting limits put in front you, becoming a struggle more often than it is a luxury. Black Mitzvah works as a flawless indictment of this selective amnesia: Tiffany Haddish begins her hour by setting out to justify her talent, but ends it by illustrating why she really doesn’t need to keep proving her worth.