Tiffany Haddish on How Judaism Guides Her Choice of Roles

6 minute read

A new genre of comedy has emerged: the funny whodunnit. Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building hit big with streaming audiences last year. Now we have another entry in the burgeoning genre, this time from producing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the minds behind 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie: Apple TV+’s The Afterparty, which premieres Jan. 28. The show centers on the murder of a pop star (played by Dave Franco) who is found dead at the afterparty for his 15th high school reunion. Tiffany Haddish plays a quirky detective investigating the murder. In each new episode, she interviews a different suspect. The possible murderers are portrayed by an enviable troupe of funny people, including Ilana Glazer (Broad City), Sam Richardson (Veep), Ike Barinholtz (Blockers), Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) and Zoë Chao (Love Life).

The Afterparty is a romp. Still, the rise of the murder-comedy may seem rather dark. But Haddish is no stranger to mining life’s tragic moments for art. While she may be best known for Girls Trip, she recently starred opposite Oscar Isaac in a rather somber Paul Schrader film, The Card Counter, about an Abu Ghraib interrogator-turned-card player.

In her standup, too, Haddish has mined the more difficult moments in her life. She spent time in foster care as a child and, in a quest to find out more about her past, discovered she had Jewish roots. She was Bat Mitzvahed on her 40th birthday and still celebrates Shabbat dinner every Friday. The late-in-life religious ceremony served as the basis for her standup record Black Mitzvah, which recently won a Grammy.

Haddish spoke to TIME about her spirituality and how her moral compass guides her through what jokes she feels she should and should not make as an influential comic.

You play a detective investigating the murder of a pop star at his high school reunion afterparty. It’s a whodunit but also a comedy. Was there a lot of improv?

Yeah, they let me add icing on the cake. Like, I brought these cute little trinkets to the interrogations to make the suspects feel more comfortable. In one scene, Ike [Barinholtz, who plays a suspect] and I were messing around, and I was really getting mad at him for talking mess about Steve Urkel, who I had a crush on. And that’s in the show.

Wait, you had a real-life crush on Steve Urkel?

Girl, for years. Him and Mr. T were the only Black men I know of that had their own series.

Did you know who the murderer was from day one of shooting?

No, I didn’t find out until two weeks before we shot the finale. I just hadn’t read the script, I think. [Laughs.] And I was like, “What?” ’Cause I was set on one person, but it was not that person.

You’re coming off a dramatic film, The Card Counter, with Oscar Isaac. What made you want to return to comedy?

Lord and Miller. I love Phil Lord. I love Chris Miller [who created The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street and The Afterparty]. I want to do whatever they want to do, as long as it doesn’t compromise my morals.

Where do you draw that line?

Anything that I feel promotes hatred or extreme violence. I’m super against certain horror films. Right now, I’m shooting a Disney one, The Haunted Mansion, but it’s more in the thriller realm as opposed to the demonic realm.

And like a sex scene that’s not tasteful or when I’m exposing all my private parts, I just feel like that’s not me at this point in my life. That probably won’t be me at any point in my life, but who knows?

There’s been a debate recently about what comedians can say. How do you make that call?

There’s morality and ethics in comedy. I personally believe you can talk about anything, but how are you talking about it? Are you asking people to pay attention to other people’s experiences? Are you promoting love? Or are you promoting hate and violence?

If someone wanted me to play a role where I had been doing drugs, does that character get cleaned up and off drugs. Do you show the hardships of doing drugs? Or are we glorifying it. If it’s a character that pulled herself up by her bootstraps and got out of that life, I might be into it. But if I’m a dope dealer that’s just tearing down the community and not suffering any consequences, I don’t want to be a part of that.

In Black Mitzvah, you discuss having a bat mitzvah at 40. I think for many teenagers, the bat mitzvah is their last serious experience with the Jewish faith. What’s your post–bat mitzvah experience been like as an adult?

I give at least 30 minutes every single day to reading and learning. I have Shabbat dinners on Fridays. I hang out with my rabbi. I’m always asking questions. I’m getting emotional, but I think the things I’ve been through in life, I wouldn’t have been able to get through without my loyalty to God.

I feel like I would have appreciated my bat mitzvah experience more as an adult.

I wish I had done it when I was a teenager. That was a tumultuous time in my life. I was [in foster care]. I was moved around. All these adults were paid to be in my presence. Which, it’s actually kind of messed up even now, as a successful adult, people are paid to be in my presence.

Anyway, I wish I had a rabbi to talk to then, and a mama and daddy to make me go to Hebrew class. I remember when I was that little 12-, 13-year-old girl feeling excited to go to school because it was the only thing that was normal and the place I felt safest. I’m sorry. I feel like I’m in therapy! Anyway, I believe I’m here now to facilitate joy.

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