Who’s the most popular female stand-up comedian in America? Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman probably come to mind. But Chonda Pierce also belongs on that list.
The Kentucky native performs her signature brand of Christian-inspired humor to sold out houses across the country, including a recent Southern California stop in Pomona as part of a 50-city tour.
Pierce's mostly female fan base is attracted to her wholesome, cheerful, "family values" comic style. But make no mistake, this "Queen of Clean" — as fans call her — is hardly scared to get a little risqué. She talks very openly about sex, the human body and embarrassing foibles in her routine.
The religious-leaning crowds love it.
"There's a lot of comedians who don't have a moral compass," said Pierce in a pre-show interview on her tour bus. "As for me, my moral compass and my faith and what I do all blends together. I can't take my hat off — Today I'm mom, today I'm a comic. My faith transcends everything that I do and everything that I am. I still step on people's toes and I still get in trouble, but at least I get paid to! (Laughs) God is good!"
As a kid, Pierce jumped into performance by mimicking the Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl. It was Pearl who taught Pierce that a person who speaks with a country twang is just as lovable as anyone else. That might sound obvious, but it was an important lesson to learn, says Pierce.
She had a tough time as a kid, growing up in the South as the daughter of an ultra-conservative preacher. Her dad was a man-of-the-cloth who suffered in silence from bipolar disorder and turned to drinking and abusive behaviors.
As blessed as Pierce says she is career-wise, mental health issues, family troubles and addiction are still very much a painful, ongoing part of her adult life. Pierce unashamedly tells people the full truth about herself — in books, on-stage and even in a recent tell-all documentary film. She maintains that keeping away any stigma that surrounds mental health is ultimately healing and healthy.
"I'm just coming out of two years of the darkest, deepest grief," Pierce said. "And a [documentary] that revealed so much about me, I couldn't believe it. And I didn't ruin my own career yet. That's the biggest surprise!" (Laughs)
Pierce herself struggles with clinical depression. Her sisters, mother and husband have all passed away. Her daughter often excludes her from family gatherings with her grandchildren. Given a little thought, it appears there's not much for Pierce to laugh about. Or is there?
"I have outed myself in every way possible for my failures," Pierce said cheerfully.
"But I have revealed all there is to [know] about me. There's a great peace that comes with that. And love that I have for myself. And then you can love others more."
That honesty peppered with laughter and transparency is what draws scores of people to Pierce. To reach as many fans as possible, she plays a wide assortment of venues — from church halls to concert halls. In January, she'll even perform at a Presidential inaugural ball in
On a recent night in Southern California, Chonda's fans came out en masse to Purpose Church in Pomona. Melody Aardema sat right up close to the stage with a friend. The pair had lugged along a small stack of books, DVDs, and CDs for Pierce to sign after the show.
"I just found healing in her words," Aardema said.
For some 20 years, Aardema's family has endured tough times with her son's bipolar disorder — a condition that almost ripped the family apart. But she said Chonda's words keep her going.
"I think the darkest moment was when our son decided to separate from us and we hadn't heard from him in years," Aardema said. "That's not how it's supposed to be. So when it happens you're [in a] rough patch. You are feeling alone. And like [Pierce] said, you are taught not to air your laundry. And then you realize God is there and other people are going through things. And I think Chonda helped me realize this was never God's plan."
"We have learned how to stuff and hide who we are so well," Pierce said. "No wonder the world is in such upheaval and political tension and racial tension.
"At this point in my career, I've placed a mirror in front of the Christian market for so long, I get to tell us to lighten up. We aren't [presenting] a good picture of who we are out there in society. I get by with saying 10 times more than any priest or rabbi out there!" (Laughs)
Pierce's comedy act is part prayer service, part Oprah show and part concert — with a girls-night-out-slumber-party vibe.
For Pierce, the goal is clear: to remind people that even in the darkest of places, there's always room for light and laughter.
"I think when my shows sell out, this is just a sad time in our world and we all need a laugh!"
Click on the media player above to hear the full interview.