Breakthrough: Tiffany Haddish

Breakthrough: Tiffany Haddish

January 17, 2020
There’s a story Tiffany Haddish has told on a few different talk shows: She was living in her car, down on her luck, when comedian Kevin Hart gave her money to get a hotel room and make a list of what she wanted to accomplish. She later told Stephen Colbert that she accomplished pretty much everything on that list, and will pay back the people who helped her get where she is. It was simple advice, but the concept of writing a list to call things into existence is a common method of goal-setting. It’s the kind of concrete, achievable idea that Shonda Rimes outlines in Year of Yes—and the story makes its way into Haddish’s memoir as well.

The Last Black Unicorn is a testament to both Haddish’s hard work and her gift as a storyteller. It was on the talk show circuit to promote the movie Girls Trip that Haddish charmed the world with her hilarious stories—and landed a book deal to turn them into an engaging celebrity memoir. Haddish narrates as though she’s speaking to a new friend. Her candid and utterly charming style keeps you captivated as she talks about her most significant relationships (the chapters are named after people in Haddish’s life), while her work in comedy is always swirling in the background.

The memoir’s first major breakthrough comes from a teacher. Haddish was smart and had the ability to get other students to help her with her homework, since she had trouble with reading. However, this was no indication of her intelligence—she could immediately memorize anything someone said to her and copy it down. When her teacher finally noticed and pulled her aside, she tried to fight the accusation, before ultimately accepting help.

Haddish doesn’t pull any punches about the difficult of growing up with an abusive family and in the foster care system. In the chapter Family and Foster Care, she describes watching her mother, who struggled with mental illness, attempt to care for the family. Haddish’s fear and desire to be loved recalls the quiet tragedy of A Child Called It by David Pelzer, a searing memoir of child abuse. The breakthrough came in realizing that she wasn’t at fault for the way her mother treated her. Her mother was angry with Haddish’s father, angry about her situation, angry about everything. Instead of projecting forward to her future success, Haddish sits in the discomfort of these various experiences.

The biggest turning point appears in the chapter Ex-Husband. Haddish starts this chapter by admitting it took a while to realize how wrong everything was. When Ex-Husband rolled into her life, Tiffany was looking for a divine sign about love. With the benefit of time and distance, she describes his behavior with the understanding that recalls Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. She gently steps back to tell the listener when things are getting hard, or will continue to be hard.

The last section of the memoir is devoted to the star’s comedic rise. Although comedy was always in the background of the story, it comes to the fore as Haddish gains professional success, and it’s fascinating to hear her talk through the construction of a good joke with the same technical know-how of Tina Fey in Bossypants. As is common in comedy, Haddish’s career has often been a mixed bag, even in good times. And her experience navigating the boys club of comedy—particularly with promoters who attempt to subjugate women and derail female comics’s careers—can be maddening.

Like a lot of celebrity memoirs, Haddish’s has an arc that ends in success. She isn’t dismissive of the experiences that made her, and is careful to explain that they still affect how she moves through the world. And her narration is a wonderful testament to her brilliance as a performer and storyteller, making The Last Black Unicorn a fantastic view into what makes Tiffany Haddish so engaging as a stage presence.

Julia Rittenberg is a Brooklyn-based nerd and writer. During the day, she helps plan fan conventions.

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