Growing up in a poor, inner-city neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, Illinois, Adele Givens listened to comedians telling jokes on television and the radio and dreamed that someday she would be one of them. Though her life was not always easy, her sharp intelligence and quick wit enabled her to turn her pain into humor and to use that humor to comment on everyday events and social issues. When friends encouraged her to enter a local comedy competition, Givens won the contest and introduced her raunchy, street-smart comedy to a young African-American audience that was eager to see urban hip-hop culture reflected in their entertainment.
Swept up in an explosion of confrontational urban black comedy that gained tremendous popularity during the 1990s, Givens began a successful career performing in comedy clubs and comedy shows on cable television, which soon led to appearances in television series and films. Though enjoying her success, Givens has maintained a strong commitment to her own integrity, carefully choosing material and roles that promote respect and positive social change. As her career has progressed, she has begun to combine her comedy writing with her love of poetry to step beyond standup comedy into the art of spoken word performance.
Givens was born and raised in a largely black working-class neighborhood in the urban center of Chicago. She learned to face life's difficulties with laughter from her mother, Nellie Bell, who she described in an interview by Darryl Littleton in his 2006 book, Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African Americans Taught Us to Laugh, as the "funniest lady you ever heard."
Her parents had moved to Chicago from Kentucky, and occasional visits to her grandmother in Kentucky became an escape from the poverty and violence of an inner-city childhood. Television and radio were also escapes, and young Adele often tuned in to comedy acts, watching and listening carefully, learning which jokes worked and which did not, trying to imagine how she might perform her own act. She especially longed to be on the radio because she was insecure about her looks; there she could be both public and hidden.
For many years Givens only performed her humorous commentary for family and friends, but in 1990, friends persuaded her to enter a comedy competition sponsored by Crown Royal. Givens not only wowed the audience in Chicago's Regal Theater on February 3, 1990, but won the contest and became immediately addicted to performing. She quickly left her job as a Social Security clerk and launched headlong into a career as a standup comic.
She was soon performing regularly at comedy nightclubs and standup venues around town, meeting other young African-American comedians, such as fellow Chicagoan Bernie Mac. In 1992, she was invited to appear on a new kind of comedy show, HBO's Def Comedy Jam. Def Comedy Jam was produced by Russell Simmons. Simmons was an African-American businessman who had founded the hip-hop record label Def Jam in the mid-1980s, and had pioneered other hip-hop-influenced businesses, including Phat Farm, a trendy clothing line.
Hip hop describes a broad range of urban youth culture, including rap music, graffiti art, break dancing, and fashion. Though hip hop is closely identified with African-American youth, other youth of color, especially Latino youth have been central to creating it. Simmons' Def Comedy Jam brought a confrontational and spontaneous hip-hop consciousness to standup comedy and featured young African-American comedians performing outrageous, and often obscene, comedy acts. The fresh, uncensored nature of Def Comedy Jam appealed to audiences and won the show the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Freedom of Speech Award in 2006.
Givens quickly became one of the most popular performers on Def Comedy Jam, earning the nickname, "Queen of Comedy." Taking her material from the issues in her life, she wrote constantly, always making sure that her hard-hitting and bawdy jokes had a serious and constructive point. Targeting such issues as sex discrimination, abusive relationships, and celebrity culture, Givens punctuated her biting observations with her trademark line, "I'm such a f***in' lady!" She used her own rough language as fuel for her comedy, as when she mimicked a self-righteous preacher who chastised her for her foul mouth only to reveal his own hypocrisy. "Whenever I get on stage, I try to teach through my word," she said in an October 2004 interview with Gezus Zaire of the Cleveland, Ohio, Call and Post. "It's always message-laced and I hope that…I make you laugh and think."
Givens' success on Def Comedy Jam, on tour, and on the DVD releases of the program led to more job offers. She made guest appearances on several TV series, including Martin, Moesha, and The Steve Harvey Show, and, in 1998, got a recurring role on the Tracey Ullman comedy/variety program Tracey Takes On. Also in 1998, she was cast in her first film role in The Players Club, directed by rapper Ice Cube. In 1999, she fulfilled her childhood dream of performing on radio when she returned home to Chicago to co-host the New Howard "Crazy" McGee and Adele Givens Morning Show on WGCI.
In spite of the success of Givens and a number of other African-American female comedians, comedy—especially black comedy—continued to be dominated by men. In 2000, Givens, along with comedians Mo'nique, Sommore, and Laura Hayes, set out to change that reality. During the 1990s, African-American entertainment promoter Walter Latham had produced a hugely successful comedy tour called The Kings of Comedy, featuring many of the most popular black comics in the industry, including Bernie Mac, Chris Tucker, D. L. Hughley, and Martin Lawrence. In 2000, Latham produced The Queens of Comedy Tour, featuring the four female comedians and their hilarious routines.
The Queens of Comedy played to sold-out houses throughout the United States, and Latham brokered a deal with the cable network Showtime to make a film of the show. The Showtime Queens of Comedy debuted on January 27, 2001, receiving the year's highest ratings for any network special. Along with boosting their careers, the Queens of Comedy became a place of friendship and support for the women on the tour.
Given's has continued to hone her act and develop her career, performing in the Platinum Comedy Series for HBO and being the only woman comic on the 2003 Crown Royal Comedy Soul Festival Tour. In 2005, she was cast in the Queen Latifah film, Beauty Shop. The same year she was nominated for a Platinum Mic Stand-Up Award at the Black Entertainment Television Comedy Awards.
Givens continues to perform her thought-provoking, in-your-face style of comedy at clubs and festivals throughout the country. Though she loves performing, she is deeply aware of her responsibility as an artist and is conscientious about choosing roles and material that are respectful both of herself and her audiences. "I'm from the west side of Chicago and … I know how to hustle and survive without compromising my principles," she told the Bean Soup Times. A poet as well as a comedian, she has gradually added spoken word, or poetry performance, to her act. Givens is married, and she adopted her brother's sons when he was unable to raise them. Her role as a mother has made her even more determined to perform material aimed at making the world a better place for her children. When not on the road, Givens lives with her family in Kentucky, the place where she felt safe as a child.
At a Glance …
Born Adele Givens in 19(??) in Chicago, Illinois; married, children: two (adopted).
Career: Royal Crown Comedy Competition, Chicago, winner, 1990; comedian, 1990-; actor, 1998-; WGCI Chicago, The New Howard "Crazy" McGee and Adele Givens Morning Show, 1999-2000; Queens of Comedy Tour, 2000; Crown Royal Comedy Soul Festival Tour, 2003.
Awards: Bean Soup Times, Funniest Female Stand up on DVD, for Funniest Female in a TV Series, 2005.
The Player's Club, 1998.
Beauty Shop, 2005.
Def Comedy Jam, 1992-97.
Tracy Takes On, 1998-99.
The Hughleys, 2001-01.
Comedy Central Presents: Adele Givens, 2002;
Littleton, Darryl. Black Comedians on Black Comedy: How African Americans Taught Us to Laugh. Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2006.
Call & Post (Cleveland, Ohio), October 21-28, 2004, p. 7; June 29-July 5, 2006, p. 2B.
Chicago Defender, February 8, 1990, p. 21.
Chicago Sun-Times, November 4, 1999, p. 47; February 3, 2000, p. 41; March 1, 2000, p. 49.
Essence. September 1993, pp. 84-9.
Jet, January 22, 2001, p. 32; June 2, 2003, p. 44.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 17, 1996.
Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington), October 27, 2000, p. I12.
"Friday Comedy: Adele Givens," National Public Radio: Tavis Smiley Show,www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1496551 (July 6, 2007).
"Giving Props to BET, Love to Chicago and Inspiration to the World," Bean Soup Times,www.beansouptimes.com/Adele_Givens.htm (March 6, 2007).
"Interview with Adele Givens," AOL Black Voices,http://blackvoices.aol.com/black_entertainment/movies_features_reviews_trailers/festivalcircuit/2006-abff-interviews-ty-hodges (March 6, 2007).
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