Why you should care
Because this is some funny — and enlightening — shit.
Just minutes from some of the recent unrest in Baltimore are streets with prominent plantation-style houses, reminders of the city’s past. In one such home, Meshelle Foreman Shields, known to the world as “The Indie Mom of Comedy,” is cooking dinner.
It’s Taco Tuesday. Vegan Taco Tuesday. Wearing a white V-neck that reads “Female Comics Rock,” tight jeans and her red-dyed braids pulled high into a ponytail, she stands at the oven stirring rice and beans. Sprawled out on the kitchen floor are her 8-year-old son and shaggy white rescue dog, Hendrix. Why Hendrix? “We wanted to compromise, so we named him after a black man white people like.”
Meshelle, who spent much of her childhood in those rougher neighborhoods for which Baltimore is infamous, is a master at code-switching, pivoting from Ebonics and urban stand-up to corporate gigs and PTA. With the motto “keep it tight in the waist and cute in the face,” Meshelle is an unapologetic suburban soccer mom who wears push-up bras and girdles. She’s also a former doctoral candidate in psychology, with a knack for lightening the intellectual mood (but, as she frequently flaunts to audiences, if you don’t get her humor, she ain’t got time to explain it to you). Riffing on motherhood, marriage and fried chicken, Meshelle made it to the finalist stage in 2007 on Nickelodeon’s Search for the Funniest Mom in America. And she’s also going to be an unlikely commentator on “The Hidden Brain,” NPR’s podcast about social sciences, when it launches this summer.
White people give you respect … even if you’re not funny, but black audiences always think they’re funnier than you.
Larry Lancaster, Baltimore comedian
Then last year she took the “Outstanding Solo Performer” award at the Midtown International Theatre Festival for her one-woman off-Broadway sketch-cum-stand-up show, Diary of a MILF. In this particular case, the F stands for “follow,” and the plot takes audiences through the comical chaos that is a day in her life, in which she sings and plays — in Eddie Murphy style — a bevy of characters, from kindergartners to teachers, during the madness of the Christmas holidays.
“She reminds us we’re not just mom jeans — or, in my case, sweatpants,” says her director, Rain Pryor, the daughter of Richard Pryor. “At the same time, she’s telling the story of the intelligent black woman, which we don’t hear enough.” That’s her thing. And she’s got company in newly mainstream comics, like Sheryl Underwood and Mindy Kaling, whose voices would once have been relegated to the identity-politics bin. It goes beyond the stage, too: She nabbed a prestigious Soros Fellowship several years ago, which she used to start a program that helps teenage black girls trace, via DNA, their African heritage back multiple generations in the hope that it will give them their own pride and direction. “I want them to know you’re bigger than a fried-chicken box,” Meshelle likes to say.
And she wants the world to know she’s more than just a mom. “I’m not going to lose my swag behind no husband and no kids, but I can look into this audience and see that some of y’all just gave up,” she says in one of her shows, looking hot in a tight red minidress. Meshelle is part of a larger movement of women taking on stand-up: Chelsea Peretti, the women of Broad City, even Oxygen now has a stand-up reality show. But they beg enough of the “10 Female Comics You Need to Know” headlines. Comedy critic Dylan Gadino agrees: “We need to stop treating female comics as if they’re some kind of novelty.”
For Meshelle, she had never planned on pursuing the stage, saying she only “laughed to keep from crying.” After college, she worked with babies who had been exposed to drugs in utero. When debriefing with her co-workers, she’d reframe the gut-wrenching scenes they faced day after day as humorous social commentary. They eventually entered her into a comedy contest. And the rest is a million laughs.
In a time when YouTube comics are making it big overnight, Meshelle, for the most part, has gone it the old-fashioned way, from open-mic nights to corporate gigs to the Los Angeles stage. These days it might be more common for comics to come up through social media, but without the hours logged onstage and the ability to work a crowd, they often disappear as quickly as they came. As some of the greats — Jay Leno, Bernie Mac — have told her, you make it big when you stay onstage, making the Indie Mom’s 17 years in the business like five days in stand-up time.
And nothing girds you like a black gallery. “White people give you respect for getting onstage even if you’re not funny, but black audiences always think they’re funnier than you. You have to make them shut up,” says Larry Lancaster, another Baltimore comedian. Color aside, Meshelle’s not what critics would call a “comic’s comic,” says one such critic, adding that she’s not a skilled joke writer. But, says Gadino, “she’s super likable” and can work any crowd, which often goes further.
At least she’s not at risk of writer’s block — thanks to her kids. Like the time her son yelled what she thought was, “Mom, I’ve decided I want to get it in the butt!” Really he was saying he wanted to get in the but, which, she figured out eventually, is “tub” spelled backward. “I can’t make this shit up,” says Meshelle. “It writes itself.”