How Leslie Jones Survived 25 Years Of Struggle, Found Success In Her 40s


So many celebrities these days seem to be overnight successes, but there are years of work that happen before a star is born. Leslie Jones, now known for her years on Saturday Night Live and her roles in movies like Ghostbusters and Sing, struggled in the industry for over two decades before getting her big break. 

Jones’s Start In Comedy: ‘I Was Terrible’

Jones started doing stand-up comedy in 1987 after a friend signed her up for a “Funniest Person on Campus” contest at their school, Colorado State University. After winning the contest, Jones decided to leave school and head to Los Angeles.

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“I went, ‘F*ck college, f*ck basketball, I’m funny,’ and I dropped out. The next week, I was back in California,” the California native said in a 2015 interview with The New Yorker. Once there, she started performing at comedy clubs in the area, but had trouble finding her groove as a comedian. 

While performing on a bill with Jamie Foxx, Jones got booed off the stage. “I was doing jokes about white churches versus black churches, and imitating my uncle’s stutter,” the comedian explained. “I was terrible.”

Watching Foxx perform gave Jones a taste of what a real career in comedy could be. “It was, like, a religious feeling, watching him,” Jones shared. “I had never seen a real comedian before, at least not in person.”

Foxx had his own words of wisdom for the up-and-comer:  “You could be good, but you don’t have sh*t to talk about yet. You need to get your heart broken, have some bad jobs—live life for a while.”

Jones took this advice seriously, and didn’t perform for the next six years. Instead, she took jobs as a cook, a waitress, a salesperson, and even a justice of the peace. When she started performing again, she continued to work part-time day jobs. 

“I was the funniest waitress Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles ever had,” she laughed. “Customers would be, like, ‘Didn’t I just see you on BET?’ I’d be, like, ‘Yep. Breast and a wing or leg and a thigh?’

A Helping Hand From Chris Rock

Jones spent years working in what she called “sh*tty chitlin-circuit-a** rooms, where you’re just hoping the promoter pays you.” Around 2010, the comedian decided to stop “only doing Black clubs.”

“I knew how to relate to that audience, and I was winning where I was, but I wasn’t moving forward,” Jones explained. She started asking for spots at a famed club by the name of The Comedy Store, where comics like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey got their starts. After a few sets at the club, Jones decided to address the fact that she wasn’t getting the prime-time spots. 

“I went to the booker and I threw the race card at him,” Jones remembered. “‘Why you won’t let me go up at ten on a Friday? ’Cause I’m black?’” The booker gave her a prime-time slot, and she killed. 

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In 2012, Chris Rock caught one of her performances at the Comedy Store. After her set, he told her, “You were always funny, but you’re at a new level now.” Jones replied, “You’re right, but I’m not gonna really make it unless someone like you puts me on.” Rock took his phone out and added her name to a list he had compiled of “Funny people.”

A year later, Rock was having dinner with Lorne Michaels, the creator and showrunner of SNL. At the time, the show was looking to diversify their cast and add a Black woman to the cast. “You should look at Leslie Jones,” Rock told Michaels. “She’s the funniest woman I know.”

Jones booked an audition and did her stand-up act, including a joke she wrote in 1987. “It’s the closest I’ve come to a perfect joke, but it took years before I was talented enough to perform it,” the comedian shared. 

She didn’t end up getting brought on as a cast member, but Michaels invited Jones to join the SNL writing staff. During her first few months as a writer, none of her sketches made it to air. “As a comedian, it’s, like, ‘I’m bombing. What am I doing wrong?’” she said of that time. “At least they still paid me.”

Success At 47

In 2014, Jones was promoted to the cast as a featured player. At age 47, she was the oldest person to join the show as a cast member. From there, the comedian blew up, appearing in viral sketches and even scoring Emmy noms for her work on the show. 

Hollywood came calling as well, and Jones soon started showing up in movies like Trainwreck and Ghostbusters. She also became a reliable host for events, like the 2017 BET Awards, the 2021 MTV Movie & TV Awards, and covered the Olympics in 2016 and 2018. 

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It can be easy to get discouraged, especially when you’re pursuing something like a career in the entertainment industry. Many would have given up, but Jones is proof that hard work and determination will always pay off in the end—no matter how old you are.

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