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Tiffany Haddish talks growing up in foster care and how she learned to be herself in comedy

Tiffany Haddish is on a roll with a national stand-up tour coming to Clearwater this weekend. Bring a new, unused roller bag suitcase or duffle to be donated to Fostering Hope Florida, and you’ll get to attend a meet-and-greet with the comic. 
Tiffany Haddish is on a roll with a national stand-up tour coming to Clearwater this weekend. Bring a new, unused roller bag suitcase or duffle to be donated to Fostering Hope Florida, and you’ll get to attend a meet-and-greet with the comic. 
Published Aug. 30, 2017

Growing up in foster care, comedian Tiffany Haddish knew she was special.

"My grandmother used to tell me: 'The state of California is paying me a lot of money to make sure you don't die,' " Haddish, 37, said by telephone. "I could've taken that in a negative way but I took it positively: Yeah, I'm valuable. There must be something great I'm supposed to do here."

Apparently Haddish's destiny is making people laugh. So far, so funny. She's currently on a roll with a national stand-up tour coming to Clearwater's Capitol Theatre this weekend, co-starring on NBC's The Carmichael Show, a Showtime special She Ready and being the breakout star of Girls Trip, a $100 million sleeper hit and still counting.

Her bittersweet memoir The Last Black Unicorn is due in December. The ending is much happier than Haddish's beginnings.

"Last week I was reading (galleys) and I just started crying," Haddish said. "There's some stuff in there that's kind of dark, hard to deal with. I was, like, I don't know if I should put this out. If I'm crying, I know other people are going to cry.

"Then I get to the next paragraph and I'm dying laughing because of how I process it. I guess it's a tearjerker and a knee slapper."

The book's title describes how Haddish felt in foster childhood, different and unique. Her father left early and her mother was severely brain damaged in a car accident, separating 8-year-old Haddish and three younger siblings into foster care and uncertain futures.

"I remember being in the system until I wasn't worth anything (in state funding)," Haddish said. "When I talk to some of my comedy buddies now they'll say: 'Tiffany, you ain't never been afraid.' And I'm thinking to myself: 'Well, you obviously never knew me.' "

Being funny became Haddish's means of coping with a series of new families and classmates. It also got her in trouble for disrupting classes, leading to a life-changing ultimatum from a high school social worker: Either sign up for psychiatric therapy or attend a camp sponsored by Laugh Factory comedy club. At 17, she chose the latter.

"I was still learning who I was as a young lady then," Haddish said. "Now, I'm not afraid to be myself. Not afraid of too much of anything. Back then I was so scared of everything. … Now I couldn't care less. I enjoy me."

Haddish's comedy is equally bold: frat house raunch, fashion model fierce. In shows, she shares her grandmother's double entendre advice, explains the science behind a distracting sexual sound effect and offers fashion tips to the Ku Klux Klan.

Our conversation occurred a day before a white supremacist rally sparked violence in Charlottesville, Va. Haddish isn't likely to shy away from that topic, as she seldom shies from anything.

"As I matured, as I got comfortable in my skin, my comedy has transformed, for sure," Haddish said. "Especially the things I talk about that I'm sure a lot of comics would never talk about, like being in the foster care system. Like being in a very bad marriage. Like getting revenge on somebody and possibly incriminating myself."

Ah, yes. The ex-boyfriend who did Haddish wrong, whose brand new Air Jordan shoes became her toilet of vengeance. That's another true story in her act.

"I did it," she said defiantly. "Now that I think about it, who's going to go to jail for pooping in a shoe? They have to do some DNA testing on that."

Haddish knows her humor isn't for everyone. Haters remind her all the time online. Sometimes she replies, as when a troll suggested Haddish becoming a congressman's baby mama would be a better career move.

Haddish thanked the troll for "thinking I'm sexy enough and intelligent enough to get a congressman" and encouraging her to have children. "But that's not my choice right now," she said.

"I've been working for this for years. … I'm loving the fruits of my labor right now. Making people laugh, it's my drug of choice, my everything."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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