What happens to a moment deferred?
Does it slip through the cracks of YouTube, never to be replayed?
Retire to the island of old tweets to shrivel in the sun?
Or does it quietly gather a viral army of followers too big to ignore?
The secret may lie with Amanda Seales, a comedian (and actress, and singer, and poet and painter) who after nearly a decade is finally undeniably having a moment.
Perhaps you caught her schooling CaitlynÂ Jenner during Katy Perryâs âDinner andÂ Discourseâ last year? How about her scene-stealing one-liners on HBOâs âInsecureâ? Or her appearance on âDef Poetry Jamâ? The stint as an MTV VJ? The guest appearance on Q-Tipâs last album? Opening for the Roots? Delivering that unapologetically black stand-up set on âLate Night With Seth Meyersâ?
âIâve had a couple of breakouts,â said Seales, 37, during a recent interview at the Watergate Hotel.
âSmart Funny and Black,â the live black-pop-culture game show Seales dreamed up in her living room, has landed in the plush and rarefied halls of the Kennedy Center. The show is a live Quidditch match of wits mashed up with SNLâs âBlack Jeopardyâ sketches and a three-piece band.
Confused? Basically itâs quintessential Amanda, whom for years the entertainment industryâs gatekeepers just didnât âget.â She bursts onto the stage wielding a microphone and gold lamĂ© leggings, the eveningâs âheadmistress.â During the show, two famous funny folks (Tiffany Haddish, Estelle, Bomani Jones and Angela Rye have been guests) compete in games written by Seales for the title of âMaster Blackspertâ by debatingÂ categories handpicked by Seales such as âbaby hairâ and âin da streets Barack Obama.â The showâs tagÂline: âBy any joke necessary.â
Itâs a celebration of blackness, and itâs been sold out for weeks. Thatâs because of Seales, who hasÂ more than a half million followersÂ onÂ social media, where she loves being her âauthentic selfâ and her frequent posts â callingÂ out racists, bad boyfriends and her domestic shorthair ÂLando Catrissian â have bolstered her career as a truth-teller who tells jokes.
The popular comedy tour is aÂ big frigginâ deal, okay? This isÂ also a familiar runway for Seales â being wheels up, poised for takeoff.
âWhen youâre so multitalented,â explained Sealesâs friend Bevy Smith, the SiriusXM host and fairy godmother to many, âitâs very hard for the entertainment industry to get it because they like you to have one note until they tell you you should try something different.â
Seales was first poised to break out in 2004. Then a 23-year-old hip-hop head from Orlando, sheâd been hired to host âSucka Free Sundayâ on MTV2. It was her first brush with fame and paying rent when the rentâs due. The buzz was palpable.
Broadway star Brandon Victor Dixon, Sealesâs âbrother fromÂ another,â tried to prepareÂ her for what was coming. âAre you ready?â she remembered him asking in an intense stage whisper.
âIt was so dramatic,â recalled Seales between laughs. âAnd I was like, âFor what?â And he was like: âFor. Your. Time.âââ She cackled. âAnd within a year I was laid off â but it was a moment!â
It took Seales 10Â years to get back to that level of fame. âTenÂ long subway train years,â she said. In between she made her own music, painted politicalÂ art, produced funny Web series about pop culture and gave college lectures about street Âharassment. (Seriously, that MTV money paid for the last semester of her masterâs in African American studies at Columbia University).
âIâm an artist through and through,â she said. âMy thing about creating things is that it has to do two purposes: It has to serve me creatively but also has to serve the people.â
In 2011, another moment came. Hip-hop didnât feel like home anymore. So she decided to dive into comedy for real. She changed her stage name from Amanda Diva (âit just felt stupidâ) to her government name, Amanda Seales.
âI have a theory that when youâre lost on the path, go back to the beginning and try the maze again,â she said.
If there’s one thing Seales does not do, her friends say, it is wait for permission. At least not anymore. One network executive told her that she was “just another dumb talent” and that she seemed more like a “sidekick” than a lead. After being told by countless others that they simply didn’t know what to do with her, Seales had yet another aha moment.
âI donât need to change. I just need to diversify my realness,â she explained at a question-and-answer session two nights beforeÂ her big show in Washington. The crowd, gathered at the Wing, reacted with snaps and umm-hmms.
The Georgetown pit stop was a testament to just how diverse Sealesâs particular (and quantifiable) brand of realness is.
On social media, sheâs about authenticity. Really. Thatâs not a studio line or a gimmick. âI reallyÂ just be in my house,â she explained to the crowd at the Wing, referencing her prolific âPSAsâ in the form of no-makeup Instagram videos about âempowering your egoâ and self-care. âAnd Iâm single, so thereâs time.â
Spend even a short amount of time with Seales and you can see why folks either love her or â well, she doesnât really care about the other side of that proposition. The unfollow button is there for a reason. Her Instagram bio: âIâm not 4 everyone.â
âI really mean that,â Seales told me later.
She might not be âeverybodyâsÂ favorite box of cereal,â said comedian Roy Wood Jr., another friend, but thatâs the point. Seales has âbuilt a careerÂ on swimming the other way,â he added.
âAmandaâs that relative who could come to Thanksgiving dinner and say, âHey, yâall, I got something to say,â and everybodyâs like, âUh-oh.ââ
So how exactly do you define someone who is a “a multi-hyphenate self-generator,” as Seales’s agent, Mark Gordon, calls her.
Seales is a one-woman show in the most literal sense; sitting across a couch from her, the space somehow feels crowded. Her face can cycle through a dozen expressions in as many seconds. She does voices (her Caribbean mom, the white girl, the publisher â yes, sheâs coming out with a book). But she doesnât code-switch. Thatâs not part of who she is.
âAmanda doesnât like to be filtered,â said Valeisha Butterfield Jones, the global head of women and black community engagement at Google, who hasÂ known Seales since the two were coming up in New Yorkâs hip-hop scene.
Less than 10 minutes into Sealesâs âSmart Funny and Blackâ show at the Kennedy ÂCenter, the comedian had already put the white people in theÂ theater on notice. âKnow your place,â she tells them. The show, a celebration of black culture and black people, doesnât exist to âsoothe your guilt,â Seales added.
Then she took the crowd on a nearly two-hour road trip through African American popular culture and history. There were singalongs, shout-outs and sidesplitting laughter. Seales is headmaster, preacher, choir director, storyteller, ringleader. In her house, everyone knows the words to the âA Different Worldâ theme song and everyone can hit that high note at the end.
By the time the third season of âInsecureâ airs (the premiere is Sunday night on HBO), Seales will be nearly 20 shows into her âSmart Funny and Black: Lituation 101â tour. Of the 23 shows, 21 were sold out.
Is that success to her?
âExactly what Iâm doing is what success looks like,â she said. âI get to create on my ownÂ terms, on my own timeline,Â andÂ Iâm able to support myself and my mom and my catÂ comfortably.â