Q&A: Fearlessly funny comedienne Lianna Carrera

Comedienne Lianna Carrera is simply unique. She grew up in the South (as the daughter of a Southern Baptist Minister) with a deaf mom and brother, and came out as lesbian to her family when she was 18. Her comedy springs from the juxtaposition of her non-orthodox childhood with her non-orthodox point of view, a melding of spirituality and sexuality that is hysterically funny and startlingly thought-provoking.

She is a rising star, and one to watch. From performances at Nashville’s Tennessee Performing Arts Center, to stages in South Africa and Ireland, and eclectic venues across the U.S., Lianna fearlessly shows that different can be inspirational.

I had a chance to ask her a few questions, and her responses confirmed her great compassion and thoughtful approach to her life and career.

O&AN: What is your mission in life?

Lianna: [Laughter] Let’s dive right in, shall we?

Well…I thought about saving this one for last, but I think it is so important that I wanted to ask it first.

Only razzing you, I think its great!

I guess I find “mission” to be a funny word, because to me it denotes an agenda. I don’t have an agenda. I have no plan for worldwide domination other than to continue to give people permission to laugh, and to maybe right a few wrongs along the way.

I guess I do have a few mantras, though. And one of them is definitely to meet people where they are. My job is simply to carry a space with me that invites people to come along. Whether that’s through dialogue or simply laughing with an audience at a show, or even afterwards with a hug; I think that sense of connection between an Artist and her audience, when it connects, is pretty rad. And I truly believe it starts with offering as authentic of a gift as possible. That means no mission, no agenda, but rather creating a space away from the agendas, and the missions, and the stuff that clogs our better senses, to just relate to each other as human beings. It’s in that space that we find again what makes us laugh.

I can tell that you have a pretty clear idea of what you are about, not just in your career, but in life, and it seems to color how you interact with everyone, online and in real life ---

--- Um, you know, I’m really glad to hear that…one of my favorite quotes is, “The very act of wanting to love, negates it.” To extend that sentiment, the very act of wanting to be anything, negates it. So it’s this wider idea that if I continue to simply be who I am, not who I want to be, or who others want me to be; but to take strides to be myself without apology, it’s my hope that I continue to attract people who appreciate that authenticity and hold that to be of utmost importance in their lives as well. I know my best comedy comes when I’m being extremely honest about my experiences and my friendships grow when I’m authentic and who I really am with them as well. Because at the root of everything we desire, it is to know ourselves, to find ourselves, and to be accepted as we are, where we are. If I can give permission to someone else to do the same, then not only is my craft well served, so are my “real-life” interactions, as you put it.

You were pretty young when you got into comedy. What was the spark that made you say, 'Yes! This is me! This is what I want to do?'

I am kind of big on quotes… but another quote comes to mind, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you had better make them laugh.” My a-ha moment came when I realized that as a comic, I would have the opportunity to tell people the truth in a way where people would want to listen. This idea of presenting the truth in a funny way is a common thread in the fabric of comedy that comes long before me, but it is one that I really appreciate.

A few influential films, TV shows I can think of The First Wives Club, The Golden Girls, Saved, The Jeffersons, I Love Lucy, Mrs. Doubtfire, Roseanne, The Bill Cosby Show; what you have here is just a handful of comedies that continue to have the ability to deal with real-life issues that not only transcends, but resonates with millions of people. My a-ha moment comes not in making people laugh…though that’s a wonderful bonus…my a-ha moment comes in the realization that the greatest honor in the world is to be a comic, because it means I get to tell the truth.

Who has been your greatest influence on your stand-up career? Who in comedy do you look up to?

I’m huge on black comedies. My father, even though he was a Southern Baptist Minister, would keep a stack of black comedies and sitcoms hidden in his room. That means I grew up watching In Living Color, The Wayans Brothers, The Original Kings of Comedy, Martin, Friday, Moesha, The Nutty Professor(s), Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and Living Single.

Outside of that, I practically slept in the pews of churches. I saw ministers preaching every Wednesday and Sunday, with Chapels on Thursdays. Those guys are hilarious! They get you with a hook, they make you laugh, cry, pause, think….

It is with this weird blend of presentation that you get, Lianna Carrera.

And it is quite a unique blend, I must say! To date, what has been your favorite gig?

It’s a close call… I’d probably have to say the Capitol Comedy Club in Dublin, Ireland. Not because it’s particularly exotic but because I seriously had just come from an awesome yet tumultuous experience performing comedy in South Africa and I was a bit afraid of the international audience. The Irish people are just the friendliest folks. I drank my very first Guinness after the show at the same club that I played that night. That’s just one of those memories I know will last me a lifetime. I knew then, I was right where I was supposed to be.

I understand that you appeared at Tennessee Performing Arts Center.

I did!

What was that like?

Pretty unreal. The theater sat over a thousand people and it was for sure the first time I had ever played in stadium style seating. I stood on stage for the first 15 seconds complaining about the dang light shining in my eyes. When I realized that it wasn’t going to change, I did my show. I actually was hired to perform by a non-profit organization in TN that worked with providing services for the Deaf in the area. I signed a contract before my gig that if I cursed even once, or talked about anything controversial, that I wouldn’t get my check at the end of the show. It was a pretty harrowing experience. I got my check though.

Atta girl!  You have such an eclectic list of places you have performed, from chapels to thousand seat auditoriums. Are there any stages that are more comfortable to you?

That’s hilarious. No stages are comfortable to me. None. Zero. Zilch. If I am a lesson, let it be this: Use what scares you as a marker directing you toward where you should go. Prepare and show up, don’t be afraid, get out of your own way. Live. If you wait to be “comfortable” you will never, ever do it.

Wow, it’s amazing how effortless you make it look. The stage fright certainly doesn’t show. Changing the subject just a bit: how often do you get to come to Nashville?

Not nearly often enough.

What kind of ties do you have to Nashville?

You mean besides the Pfunky Griddle? What a fun breakfast spot! That place kills me though because I’m not the best cook. I need help, almost every single time I am there. Usually there’s a guru twelve-year-old chef nearby that further makes my pancakes look like a former shell of deliciousness. In all seriousness, Nashville remains to be one of my favorite cities. I’m a bit of a country music fan, too, so all that honky-tonk culture is a bit of a treat for me. I’ve also got very good friends who grace your city. Sometimes I think about how I could live in Nashville and fly to auditions in LA.

Maybe you should! We hate to lose you to the West Coast! Kidding, of course. How is LA treating you?

Wonderfully! I’ve been there about eight months now, I have a rad loft, was recently signed by a great manager who believes in my work and what I’m doing, I live above a Honduran bakery that sells fresh rolls of bread for a quarter each. Every day I walk outside and see sunshine and palm trees, some native to the land, some imported from around the world. I had such preconceived notions about LA before I got here and I’m so happy to say that most, if not all of them, have really been shattered. LA gets a bad rap in the media, a stereotyped place, for sure. I’ve found it to be a wonderful home. I am meeting plenty of talented and salt-of-the-earth folks with dreams just like mine. It’s tremendously rewarding.

Well…as long as the city treats you right. So, you grew up as a “PK” (preacher’s kid), and I’m sure you have had some moments of personal crisis struggling to merge your sexuality and spirituality.

Briefly, yes.

How did you do it?

Well, the first thing I did was walk away from faith all together. I either didn’t want to deal with it, or didn’t think I could. I thought “they” had the control of the conversation. There were too many of them and the numbers were behind them, with me not knowing where to turn or even if I wanted to turn; I walked away. I knew there was zero chance that I was straight, I knew that in my heart. So what in the heck was I supposed to do about it? I truly put my faith on a hiatus.

It wasn’t until several years later when I began to see how the Church treated my GLBT friends who wanted to stay in the church, that I cared to learn more about this debate that’s going on in the church. It truly started as accidental advocacy work, because I had the right background and the right knowledge and vocabulary to help my friends on both sides of the aisle relate. I became a mediator of sorts.

I’d have to admit it’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve returned back to being a person that claims faith. It is a far cry from the limited God and the Faith that I was taught growing up. My faith is very much based on love, on spirituality, on stillness, oneness, transcendental meditation, contemplative prayer, etc.  I still claim to be Southern Baptist, but mostly to piss them off. I mean, the Southern Baptist Church is the fastest shrinking denomination currently, and I figure they need all the help they can get [laughing].

How did your family handle your coming out process?

My father told me the most important thing in the world was that I followed my heart. My mother was distraught, ex-gay counseling was sought but I never attended. I was lucky enough to be working a part-time job after school at a psychologist’s office, with psychologists who were able to help me avoid agreeing going through such a destructive therapy. I thought that if I did, and I made it through, I could help others see that it couldn’t be changed. I know now after my brief dealings with Exodus International, just what I would have been signed up for. And I thank God for His provision, guiding me away from what would have been completely destructive to my soul.

That is scary thought! Thank goodness you were able to dodge that bullet. What would you say to a kid with similar issues in a similar environment?

The course of my life changed because I was affirmed at the most vulnerable moments in my life. When I came out to my childhood doctor, she came out to me. When I came out to my father, he told me he didn’t know if it was a sin or not but that I needed to follow my heart. When I was afraid of generational differences, I came out to my Abuela, who told me in no uncertain words that I was a child of God. She offered me the wedding set off of her finger, the same wedding set she had been wearing for fifty years. She said she had hoped I would find a woman to love me as much as her and my grandfather loved each other.

And even in my youth group, when members of the staff “disagreed” with my “decision” God still spoke through their music, using them to comfort my little heart. “Child, you are more precious than silver, Child you are more precious than Gold, Child you are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares with you.”

There is nothing more powerful that I could tell a child than to affirm them. To let them know they are loved. I’d encourage them to seek resources, to read a lot, to let go of the notion that they have to ‘defend’ themselves. You don’t. There are a lot of people who agree that you’re okay in the eyes of God and I’d remind them that God loves them just as they are. I’d apologize for that being controversial. I’d remind them that the fact that two sides of this debate on whether or not being gay is a sin even exists is a sign that they should be around to participate in it. 

So what makes you cringe? As a comedienne, as a Christian, as a person? What makes your blood boil?

Labels. Labels make me cringe. And not the kind you think. I stand in the middle of a lot of different cultures. Deaf, Hearing, Straight, Gay, Liberal, Conservative, White, Not White, etc.  And the beauty is, so do you, probably.

We are so much bigger than the cultures that intersect the fabric of our lives. Even if you could summarize who you are in one sentence, why would you want to?

Christians aren’t as shitty as the reputation they get, and gay people aren’t whatever these far-right hardcore Christians think we are. There is middle ground filled with reasonable people that have a hell of a lot more in common than not. Someone believing differently than you does not make them wrong or a threat, or in need of being labeled. Recently, people have been quick to label me a “Christian artist” or quick to label me as “a lesbian artist” -- me claiming faith does not make me a Christian artist or not a Christian artist, and me being gay doesn’t make me a lesbian comic, all of these things simply add up to make me a robust human being. If it gets you in the seats, that’s fine, but I guarantee that’s not why you stay. I believe we’re more than that. I believe my audience is more than that.

What would happen if we stopped putting labels on each other and we all dared to simply be? If instead of fearing someone and walking away from them, we sat down at the table with them until we understood them so much, through and through, that we take their vulnerability and we let it envelop our hearts and our souls and our beings to the point where we respect the hell out of that person for taking the time to even share? The fact that we continue to act like we’re privileged over any minority, that we’re somehow above anyone that’s different than us, the fact that we try to normalize our notion of natural based on a limited life experience and world-view, that we continue to act like there’s more that divides us than unites us…that people keep misusing love, abusing faith, and discouraging hope -- all of that, that’s what makes my blood boil.

What is coming up for you? I enjoyed your Vanderbilt gig with Jennifer Knapp. Can we expect to see more projects with you two in the future?

That was a blast. As far as additional projects… I would love that. And we have discussed a couple of ideas. The idea of comedy and music has honestly been really unexpectedly, pretty rewarding for me. She’s also got a lot of advocacy stuff going on that interests me greatly, with my background in the church. I’m actually joining one of her Inside Out Faith Series events in Lynchburg, VA.

As far as what’s coming up next for me, outside a very few specific road gigs that I have my eye on and will agree to, I’m staying in LA to really work on my television career. It is my hope that I land a show that will break me nationally so that I can go back on the road and sell more tickets with national exposure under my belt.
Ok, final question, I promise—but it’s a doozie…What is your favorite cookie? [Laughter] I’m sorry, I can't resist after your blog in Huffington Post Comedy about “sex-ed for Christians”.
I’m a chocolate chip girl. I know, very missionary of me. If it helps, I enjoy them melty.

I think you have made me blush! Lianna, thank you so much for your thoughtful answers. I can’t wait to see you perform in Nashville again! We wish you all the best in your life and in your comedy career. I know I will be watching closely.

You're welcome, Jessica! Thank you! Looking forward to it.

You can find Lianna online at Facebook and Twitter.

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