Taking on Music Row

Chonda PierceBy Chonda Pierce10 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Life Is Funny Until It’s Not: A Comic’s Story of Love, Loss, and Lunacy by Chonda Pierce


As I began the new phase of my life as a stay-at-home mom, I decided to try to do everything 100 percent perfectly. Be a mom, a wife, hold yard sales—not necessarily dressed as Raggedy Ann—cook the meals, everything. And then a miracle happened. Maybe Jesus did look at my credit score, and maybe He said, “Hold on everybody. I’ll get back to making the blind man see in a minute. This girl really needs help now.”

Lo and behold, the church my mom was attending announced they needed a minister of music and a church secretary—or maybe Mom told them they needed one! Mom and Jesus always were a powerful combination. Either way, I got the job—for the exorbitant salary of fifty dollars per week. I played the piano and directed the choir, and David and I taught the teenagers in Sunday school class. It was a massive megachurch that had … wait for it … as many as eighty people in attendance on Easter Sunday!

One window closed and another opened. A very small window, but a window nevertheless. And for a woman used to crawling into a Chevette through the hatchback, it was big enough. Between what David was making, my fifty-dollar weekly salary, and my occasional Minnie Pearl routine for different groups at $150 a pop, we felt prosperous. Okay, maybe not prosperous, but we were fine.

During that same season, I got a call from South Central Bell. They had a big corporate event in Dallas and wanted to set up their next convention in Nashville. They asked me to take the stage as Minnie Pearl so the audience would get the Nashville country connection. I was supposed to introduce the president of the company.

I did my Minnie Pearl routine, then got my cue to wrap up. I introduced the president and … silence. Twenty thousand people stared at me while I stared toward the backstage waiting for the company president to show up. Finally, after what seemed like fifteen minutes but was probably more like a minute, he walked on stage. Apparently, he was unaware that there is nothing more anticlimactic than a big introduction followed by nothing. We were losing the crowd’s attention and patience every second. So, I took my Minnie Pearl hat off and pulled a piece of paper out of the top of it (my cheat sheet) and started to ad lib. But not as Minnie. For the first time on stage, I was just Chonda. As he walked toward me, I said, “Oh, there you are. I’m so glad you’re here. There’s a call here on my phone bill. I know I did not make this call. I figured you were the man to see.” The crowd roared laughing.

As silly and simple as it seems—THAT was the breakthrough moment in my career. I didn’t get free phone service. I didn’t get a bit of a standing ovation. But what I got was sheer unadulterated instinct. I trusted my own comedic instincts in front of an audience, and they liked me. I was Sally Field with an accent. They liked me, they really liked me. That moment clicked and got me thinking maybe, just maybe, I could do comedy as myself.

Most comics take the same path. Class clown, open mic nights, build a routine, go to comedy clubs like the Laugh Factory, the Improv, the Comedy Cellar, Mr. Giggles in Omaha (I made the last one up), finally become an emcee, and become a regular. Then they go on the road three hundred nights a year and land a TV special, a sitcom, or a late-night show. Jay Leno, Chris Rock, Rodney Dangerfield—they all took those steps. Of course, Chonda had to take a different route. I never worked out an act in a comedy club. I was just looking to make a living for my family, and talking worked best. Besides, me in a comedy club working in a dark room with glasses full of alcohol clanging? My mother would have shown up and dragged me out of there.

Right after that Dallas event, my brother invited David and me to join him and his wife, Doris, at a church convention where he was preaching in Florida. What a deal! Free hotel room, the kids could swim, and we figured we could sing some of our old songs together. We didn’t hesitate for a second before saying yes. Mike said, “Bring your Minnie Pearl dress; they have a family fun night on Friday, and you can do that thing you do.” That thing I do? No one got it. That thing I did was bringing in $150, which was $115.43 after taxes.

I didn’t want to miss out on the free stuff or time with Mike, so I packed my Minnie gear and off we went. The head of the convention seemed delighted that I had my Minnie Pearl outfit with me. “Take the whole show for yourself,” he said. Wait . . . me? I had a grand total of about fifteen minutes worth of stories as Minnie from Grinders Switch. How was I going to entertain for an hour? Despite my trepidation, I took the stage armed with just my mouth. I boldly belted out a “Howdee!” and did my Minnie routine. After about fifteen minutes, I then started to talk about growing up as a preacher’s kid who sat on the “Second Row, Piano Side” and everyone started laughing, including me.

In case you didn’t grow up like I did, your natural question is, “What is second row, piano side?”

Besides being the routine that launched my career, here is the summary. And yes, there might be a quiz at the end of this chapter. In the churches I grew up in, there were strict rules that nobody challenged. Things have changed since the late 1960s and early ’70s, but back then, there were three primary rules for church services:

Rule #1: Piano on one side of the pulpit, organ on the other.

Rule #2: If the preacher is married, his wife must play the piano.

Rule #3: The preacher’s kids must attend church.

You could not miss church for any reason. You could be wearing a body cast, and they would wheel you in and stand you up against the wall. Oh, and one subset to that rule: Children had to be 100 percent quiet and perfect.

Well, Rule #3, Subset A didn’t work with me, so Mom would make us kids sit second row, piano side. That way, the minute I acted up, she could come over and smack me. Forget Usain Bolt. The all-time record for fastest human being is held by my mother. She’d be playing the old hymn “Victory in Jesus.” I would get restless between the second and third verse. Somehow, she would leap from the piano bench, lecture me, smack my hand, and be back at the piano without missing a note.

The Florida convention audience ate that story up, so I continued.

Order your copy of Life Is Funny Until It’s Not: A Comic’s Story of Love, Loss, and Lunacy by Chonda Pierce