Thirty-one years. Zero African-American women. Then came Lashonda Lester.
On May 16, the capacity crowd at Cap City Comedy Club dropped into silence, anticipating the moment outgoing Funniest Person in Austin winner Danny Palumbo would announce his successor. When he did, the crowd exploded.
Out of 220 comics and 15 rounds of elimination, Lashonda Lester was crowned the Funniest Person in Austin. As she took the stage, she looked slightly taken aback, her stride momentarily lost with emotion.
“Oh, wow,” she exhaled, regaining her composure, “I didn’t think I was going to do it. I thought I would have to beat up the judges this year.”
The audience laughed. Lester took a deep breath.
“This has been a very trying year for me,” said Lester, who is originally from Detroit. “I suffered kidney failure right after last year’s contest. Y’all are gonna make me cry.”
She then launched into a passionate defense of comedians.
“Y’all don’t understand, we work so hard for this. We’re writing all these jokes and telling them in front of four people. I love my Austin comedy people! I promise I won’t embarrass the crown. Thank you (FPIA finalist) Maggie Maye, girl! Black girls rock!”
As is tradition, Palumbo placed the crown on Lester’s head and draped a red gown around her shoulders.
Mornings with a machine
Fast forward to August, and the Funniest Person in Austin is in her pajamas at a South Austin dialysis clinic. “Damn, son, are you early?” she greets me, half joking, and apologies for being so dressed down. I’m instructed to stay in the waiting room until she is properly hooked up to the dialysis machine. The door finally opens, and I’m escorted to the throne of a queen.
Lester, tethered to a dialysis machine that looks and sounds like an early mainframe computer, is scheduling her days with a nurse. Today: Dialysis in the morning, show at night. Bad blood out, good blood in. She is just days away from a major surgery and the tech speaks in hushed tones. “She’s like my family,” the tech tells me, “and we take care of our family here.” Lester is having a surgery to have an artery and vein connected. It’s a big operation and bigger recovery. The end result will make it easier to get dialysis from her arm, decreasing the risk of heart damage.
After competing on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2015, Lester collapsed due to stomach pain and was rushed to the emergency room, thinking her appendix burst. A doctor told her she had chronic kidney disease. “It’s a slow process. You just ignore the symptoms. When I couldn’t remember jokes and started to forget punchlines, that’s when I knew something was wrong,” she said. She was immediately prepped for surgery to start dialysis two days later. “I was ready to die. Hell yes, I was. ‘I am not going to spend my life hooked up to a machine. This ain’t gonna to be my new normal,’” she recalls thinking. She’s interrupted by an insistent whoosh of the machine. Lester sighs at her metal partner. “Now, it’s my new normal.”
After the initial surgery, where doctors inserted a chest catheter, it took a while for Lester to venture back out into the comedy world. “I just couldn’t do it, mentally,” she says. At the urging of fellow comics, Lester slowly began to come to shows as a spectator only. “I really thought people had forgotten about me.”
Not so. Soon after Lester’s diagnosis, a GoFundMe page was set up by fellow comic Kat Ramzinski. “People were excited about helping out someone who they adore, and our comedy community showed that, as well as her fans and family,” says Ramzinski. “Shondee won’t sugar-coat, and she stands up for what she believes, even if it’s not the popular opinion. Shondee makes us all feel lazy, and that’s the sign of someone who you should strive to be like. I want to be like Lashonda one day.”
Lester uncharacteristically cried when she heard about the active GoFundMe, which has raised nearly $6,000 to go toward her ongoing care.
During this experience, Lester said she kept thinking, “I know there is something funny here. I just can’t see it now.” As a wife and mother, her focus was on simply staying alive and sorting through the monthslong bureaucratic health care maze. When she did start performing again, any sense of fear was gone — things started clicking. “Every show hit. It didn’t matter the makeup of the audience. Black, white, old, whatever. They were all my people and I felt that.”
Instead of fighting the boredom, she began using the tethered time to write, edit and research material. Something new was happening. A beacon began to glow brighter. The prize. The contest. She began to prepare like an athlete, and her mental state became important. The competition would be fierce, but Lashonda Lester had a mission.
“Any F.P.I.A. judge would agree that it’s a difficult task having to select one single comic as the funniest,” says Lietza Brass, executive producer of the Moontower Comedy Festival and one of the judges during the 2016 contest, “but this year was different.
“Lashonda landed her set like an Olympic gymnast. Her cool and unwavering style was just unstoppable that night. Even with this year’s comedic talent being at an all-time high, Lashonda was clearly the one.”
The morning after she won, she wore her crown and cape to her dialysis appointment.
This was the “Miracle on Ice” moment. Patients cheered for her. Nurses cried. A tech nicknamed her “Hollywood.” Out of the pain, fear and monotony of dialysis, a queen was in their midst.
It hasn’t all been movie moments. As any patient with a chronic illness will recognize, pain is accompanied by resentment and anger. She missed her grandfather’s 90th birthday party because she couldn’t go two days without dialysis. “It’s been real hard on my husband,” Lester says. “He’s tough, and we do what we got to do.” Lester’s 10-year-old son knows she’s sick but that’s about it. He also isn’t aware of Lashonda’s F.P.I.A. win. “I’m going to let him be a kid,” says Lester. “He’s been through enough. He just knows that Mom gets dressed up at night.”
Later that night, I would see that Lester dressed up and untethered.
Nights with an audience
We are in a makeshift comedy club in the basement of a Magic Time Machine in San Antonio. The room is all red velvet and Christmas lights, equal parts “Stranger Things” and “Twin Peaks.” Lester is about to go on stage. She scans the crowd, a practice she says determines which setlist she’ll use. This is a key thing about her: Every word is authentically hers, yet seems handpicked just for us.
The comedian preceding her is Luke McClory, who is impeccably dressed. When Lester headlines, McClory is her regular feature act. It takes a lot to hold your own on the same stage as Lester, and McClory is quick witted with a bite as sharp as his suit.
There will always be comedy clubs in basements as long as there are comedians. For all the glitz of the network tapings, the capacity crowds of colleges and upscale clubs, there is truly nothing like the intimacy of a room like this. Comedians from Louis C.K. to Seinfeld still return to clubs like New York’s Comedy Cellar. There is nowhere to hide from an audience’s reaction. Performer and audience member are separated by only a mic stand. Real work is done in the trenches.
The emcee is bringing up Lester. This is always the most pregnant moment for any comic, the moment of maximum potential. The emcee is listing credits — Fox’s “Laughs,” NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” PBS’ “Stand Up Empire,” Funniest Person in Austin.
Lester sets her drink down on the obligatory stool provided, brushed back her long hair and dives right in: “Can’t never get no hot young dudes to buy me drinks, always old dudes. Not really old like elderly, but old enough to still say ‘bosoms.’ Men always think they know what I want. Had an old dude tell me, ‘I know what you like. You want a tall glass of whiskey.’” Lester frowns and swiftly disarms this crowd. “Do I look like I’m about to rob a stagecoach or something? Because that is what you drink after you shoot up a Wells Fargo horse. For the record, I like drinks that are both fruity and exotical.” The crowd howls as she clarifies, “That’s frooty with two o’s, because I don’t mess around.”
One thing you notice about Lester performing is how little performance there seems to be. There is something effortless about the transition from offstage to onstage. There is no on and off switch, there is only the sound of the instrument. Margie Coyle, co-owner of Cap City Comedy Club, which hosts the F.P.I.A. contest, agrees. Coyle, who has overseen the contest’s growth from 30 comics to more than 400, says Lester was one of the blue chips going in. “She has such a strong personality, a strong character,” Coyle says. “Lashonda has the unique and perfect thing going, she can be herself on stage and be funny. Someone who talks just as they are and just as they would but their stories, delivery, timing and method is just funny, because they’re funny. You don’t feel like the comic is putting on an act. That’s what Lashonda can do.”
Lester’s near 45-minute set is an open book. When she brings up her hometown of Detroit, there is a solitary “Woo!” from the audience. “Sweet,” Lashonda says. “Someone else that made it out.” Lester delves into her brief dalliance as a wrestling manager named Miss Electricity, then pivots into the harsh truth of being a successful madam in Detroit. The story of her job interview alone has the audience in hysterics. At this point, she speaks candidly about her health.
After the show, the source of the single “Woo!” approaches Lester. It’s her childhood friend, Sabrina Bacon, reunited after over a year. They embrace and immediately begin laughing. Stories start flying of their childhood in Detroit, where they would hop trains to get across town and play. “She was the youngest but the fiercest,” laughs Bacon. They reminisce about Lester’s first time on stage in Detroit, where she insulted the United Auto Workers and was booed off the stage. “Lashonda was hilarious as a kid, but I was surprised she did comedy as an adult because…” Lester interrupts: “Life happens! You’re supposed to lose your sense of humor!”
Lester and McClory wrap up a second set midnight showcase set and leave the cellar at 1:15 a.m. Both McClory and I are getting a little bleary eyed and are not exactly thrilled about the long ride home when Lester characteristically reminds us to stop whining. She herself has to get up at 5:30 a.m. for dialysis, which means she probably will be getting no sleep. “Besides,” she reminds us, “I ain’t missing out on Buc-ee’s.”
We arrive back in Austin around 3 a.m. Later that day, Lester will repeat it all over again: early morning dialysis and headlining a sold-out show for the incoming freshman class at UT.
Even with comedic dreams and another major surgery on the horizon, Lester doesn’t flinch. Her F.P.I.A win was no accident and certainly no charity. In comedy, nothing is given freely. Whoever the next Funniest Person in Austin is will find the crown fortified by the grace of a queen. While she may only reign for a year, Lester will always be regal.
See Lashonda Lester and other Austin comics in the documentary “Funniest,” which will have its world premiere at 9:15 p.m. Sunday at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center as part of the Austin Film Festival. The film, by Katie Pengra and Dustin Shevlak, focuses on six comedians who participated in the 2015 Funniest Person in Austin competition. Learn more about the Austin Film Festival, which opens Thursday with the premiere of writer-director Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” in Friday’s Austin360.
You can also see Lester in action when she performs at Cap City Comedy Club on Tuesday. Learn more at capcitycomedy.com.