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Comedian Leslie Jones in New York on Jan. 10, 2020. Image Credit: NYT

When Louis CK returned to the Comedy Cellar nine months after confessing to sexual misconduct, many criticised the club in tweets and articles, and a few protested and walked out of shows. But the only star comic to stop performing there was Leslie Jones.

She started spending more time at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side near her home. “They took his picture down,” Jones said of that club, adding, “Mine’s up.”

Over lunch in the Flatiron District, Jones, who has talked to the Comedy Cellar’s management about her disappointment but has returned to the club after a long stint away, said it was a personal decision. “I knew girls,” she said, pausing and holding a stare, “and they got to walk into the club and see him talking to the owner. That ain’t cool.”

Using a metaphor she returned to a couple times in our two-hour interview, Jones said she no longer cared about rocking the boat: “I am at the age when I will get off the boat and get on another damn boat.”

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Leslie Jones Comedy Special 2019 Image Credit: Bill Gray/Netflix

Last year, she exited the biggest yacht in comedy, ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and when asked why, Jones paused, uncharacteristically cautious: “I’m 52 and tired. ‘SNL’ is a hard job. It’s 100 hours a week,” she said. “Also, it’s an institution. I get bored. And I want to do different things.”

So she is, with movie and television projects in the works this year (the ‘Coming to America’ sequel and a reboot of ‘Supermarket Sweep,’ which she will host), along with a just-released special, ‘Time Machine,’ a dynamite hour on Netflix directed by the showrunners of ‘Game of Thrones,’ David Benioff and DB Weiss. They were her third choice, behind Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams (both were booked).

Onstage and off, Jones is not short on swagger. “I want to be the next Johnny Carson,” she said. “I want ‘The Tonight Show’ really bad.”

But what about Jimmy Fallon? “I love Jimmy, but Jimmy is going to leave in a minute,” she said. “And who are they going to possibly fill that spot with?”

After clarifying “except Seth Meyers,” she answered her question with a roar: “ME!” She then flashed a stern face that pushed defiance into a deliriously funny kind of self-parody.

Jones thinks a lot about funny faces. She has studied the greats — Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, who she said had “the best faces in the game” — and developed her own go-to expressions from hours of testing in front of a mirror.

There’s the withering glare that writers on ‘SNL’ would write into scripts as “the Leslie Look.” It was inspired by the exasperation of her late brother, while a photo of her father serving during the Vietnam War is the model for her most unhinged expression, eyes popped out, one more than the other, a glance she uses to intimidate audiences and tame hecklers.

When Jones kills at clubs — and she can lay waste to an audience in a way that few others today can match — it can seem like a force of nature, the work of raw charisma and a tornado of energy. But make no mistake: She’s a veteran student of her craft, honing her act since 1987 when she started telling jokes onstage as a Colorado college student in a contest before moving back to Los Angeles. However, she describes her new hour as a reintroduction. Since rocketing to fame on network television, she has an entirely new audience, one that’s far whiter than the crowds she played to early in her career.

When asked about the difference, Jones said white audiences are “so much easier,” before cackling and assuring me she loves the high standards of her black fans. “You know how they say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?” she said. “If you can make it with a black audience, you can make it with anyone.”

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Leslie Jones Comedy Special 2019 Image Credit: Bill Gray/Netflix

The funniest moments in a Jones performance are not really the move from set-up to punchline but the radically extreme pivots between emotions. No comic alive travels a greater distance between confidence and vulnerability. In her most ambitious bit in the new special, she dramatises texting a boyfriend, veering from angry dismissals to heartbreak and desperation in mere moments. “It’s not easy to date Leslie Jones,” she said.

As a famous black woman in comedy, Jones has taken more abuse than most. After the sexist controversy over a gender-reversed ‘Ghostbusters,’ which she starred in, Jones became the target of trolls. Her phone was hacked, and nude photos were spread across the internet.

Jones quickly turned this incident into comedy on ‘SNL,’ but she said that the intensity of the backlash got to her, briefly. It didn’t make her stop sending nude photos. “I remember the person I sent it to was like, ‘You ain’t learnt yet? You learnt nothing,’” she said, letting out a booming guffaw.

And when the trailer for another ‘Ghostbusters’ was recently released, she saw it as vindication for the worst critics. “It pissed me off,” she said. “It feels like, ‘They did it wrong, and we know you guys were upset about that little girls’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ so we’re going to do it right now.’”

She added that her movie was hurt by studio interference and an edit that took out 20 minutes of strong material, and she wished she had spoken up in protest. “If I was the Leslie I am now, I think it would have went different,” she said, shifting her face into not exactly the Leslie Look but something adjacent. “Big franchise, don’t rock the boat,” she said. “I wish I would have rocked the boat.”

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Don’t miss it!

‘Leslie Jones: Time Machine’ is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: