AISHA’S HILARIOUS HOMECOMING
By Paul Freeman
When the time came for vivacious, versatile Aisha Tyler to tape a Comedy Central standup special, she decided to come home. The Fillmore in San Francisco was the venue.
You can experience the exciting hilarity on her DVD and via download, “Aisha Tyler Is Lit: Live at the Fillmore.”
“I love San Francisco and think it’s highly superior to any other place on the planet,” she laughs. “That’s where I grew up and started doing standup comedy, at the Holy City Zoo. And that’s where my favorite crowds are, the smartest, most sophisticated crowds.”
This was Tyler’s first comedy special. “Not that it’s your magnum opus or your last work, but it does feel like the culmination of years of grinding it out and paying your dues. I wanted to do something that would be really personal. Coming home was the most personal thing I could think of.”
Doesn’t thinking of this as a culmination mean pressure? “There’s always pressure for a comedian. It’s a uniquely safety-net-free job. If you fall, you hit the ground. So you get used to it.”
During her set, Tyler hit on a number of topics. “I’m not a political comic. I’m a socio-political comic. So I do a lot of stuff about popular culture and the way that we relate to each other culturally, sexually and ethnically.
Sex is a key subject. “I try to put a thoughtful, elegant, sophisticated spin on how men and women relate to each other. It’s a male-friendly show. There’s no gender wars going on in my act. We’re all in it together.”
She’s displayed many facets in her career. In addition to being a comic, she’s an accomplished actress. You’ll remember her from “Ghost Whisperer,” “Friends, “24” or the flick “Balls of Fury.” Tyler voices agent Lana Kane in the FX show “Archer.” She wrote the book “Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl.”
She’s also made her mark on talk shows and hosted E! Channel’s “Talk Soup.” Six-feet tall, gorgeous, glamorous and razor-witted, Tyler makes an indelible impression.
In her youth, though she attended San Francisco’s J. Eugene McAteer School of the Arts, show business did not appear to be a viable career choice. Her parents - mother a teacher, father a photographer - emphasized education. She attended Dartmouth, studying government and environmental policy. Though involved in improv troupes, Tyler planned to become a lawyer.
“Lawyer, comedian - same thing,” Tyler quips. “You get paid to get up and tell massive exaggerations and minor lies.”
At university, she met and married her college sweetheart, attorney Jeff Tietjens. But performing was her passion, so she followed her dream. “Once a comic, always a comic. It’s in your blood.”
Tyler was pragmatic enough to hold a day job. “A good corporate day job allows you to make lots of free flyers for your show.”
The couple lived in Oakland for a while. “My husband is white and we used to get harassed constantly for being a mixed couple. It was like going back in a time machine. It was really odd.”
One day they visited S.F.’s Castro District during Gay Pride Week. “This guy gazelled past us in thong, heels and nothing else. No one even batted an eye. We thought, ‘If no one’s going to stare at that guy, no one is ever going to pay attention to us.”
So they settled in San Francisco. Eventually, her work necessitated a move to L.A. She’ll soon direct and star in her original action-comedy screenplay.
Of her career’s diversity, she says, “As an artist, it’s all about staying challenged. Some people like to find a comfortable rut. I always want to be in a situation where I’m a little scared about what’s going to happen next. That makes it exciting. I want to be pushed creatively.”
Tyler’s “Swerve” book encouraged young women to find a positive self-image. She exudes self-confidence. “I was a very uncool, gawky kid. I was so tall. Also I went to a private school in Berkeley. I was the only black kid for a long period of time.
“People always want to fit in. But not fitting in makes you develop a sense of self that’s not dependent on other people’s opinion of you. I realized could just be myself. That evolved into a self-confidence.”
Her parents divorced when she was 10 and Tyler’s dad raised her. “I had a very empowering, old-school father. He was supportive and loving, but he wasn’t a coddler. He knew the importance of independence.
“He made me resilient, which is great, because the entertainment business is an unending stream of rejection. My father’s philosophy was, if somebody punches you in the mouth, you get right back up. You don’t complain. You just keep getting up until they get tired of punching you in the mouth. Then you push them out of the way and keep going. That upbringing helped helped make me brave.”
She spends free time volunteering for such causes as the Trust for Public Land, Red Cross and the Kanye West Foundation, which provides opportunities to under-served children.
“Maybe that comes from not having a lot growing up. I feel grateful for my life and what I’ve been able to accomplish. I guess with that comes some attendant guilt. That’s okay. Guilt can be a motivating emotion.
“As an actor or celebrity, one of the perks is that sometimes you can give back just by showing up or lending your name to something. But I try to do more than that. It’s a big part of my life. And I hope, as I get older, it will be an even bigger part.”
Tyler has ambitious goals, but won’t let them dominate her life. “You have to realize that life sweeps you along. Sometimes you think you’re going to follow one path and the door closes. You have to be flexible enough to see that another door is opening up, just out of your sight line. So don’t panic.
“I don’t want to be one of those people who never enjoys the moment. I was raised in the Buddhist tradition and I believe in trying to be as present as possible. As a culture, we’re so into what’s next, all the time. We’re always feeling inadequate, because there’s something we haven’t accomplished, rather than enjoying what we have. I truly am grateful.”
Those who catch her performances are grateful, as well. Check aishatyler.com for her latest stand-up dates.