She ready. So sayeth current comedy queen Tiffany Haddish by recruiting former Minnesotan Tracey Ashley for a string of specials featuring stand-ups that deserve to join the A List.
“If you didn’t know Tracey Ashley already, you’re gonna know her now,” Haddish declares on the first episode of her series, “Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready,” now streaming on Netflix.
The case for this being Ashley’s time only gets stronger with her return as a writer to CBS’ “The Neighborhood,” one of last season’s most successful new sitcoms.
But observers of the Twin Cities comedy scene knew the 51-year-old comic had potential more than two decades ago, when she was working her way up the ranks at local clubs.
“The least surprising thing for me is seeing her on a billboard in Times Square,” said comedian Tim Harmston, who is performing at Sisyphus Brewing on Friday. He was in awe of Ashley when he first started doing stand-up at Acme Comedy Co. in the early 2000s. “I don’t know what took so long for her to get the national recognition. Everyone in Minneapolis comedy knew it would happen at some point.”
For Ashley, the success is bittersweet. Yes, it’s great to be working on a hit sitcom and being championed by the likes of Haddish and Tracy Morgan, who hired her as an actor and writer for his TBS series “The Last O.G.”
But she’s been ready for a long time. Is this really her moment?
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Ashley said by phone last month while the “Neighborhood” writers took a lunch break. “People have been asking me, ‘How do you feel? Why aren’t you jumping for joy?’ Well, I’m a comedian that’s been working for 21 years. We’re always prepared for the rug to be pulled out from under you.”
It didn’t help that Ashley got a late start. The Georgia native had been a cruise director for seven years when she dropped anchor in Minneapolis in the late ’90s to live with a boyfriend.
When the relationship dissolved, Ashley, who barely knew a soul in the area, decided to stay. Acme became her new home. Much of her material at those early open mics played off her role as a stranger in a strange land.
“I talked a lot about how a Southerner saw Minnesota,” she said. “I was shocked about how everyone talked about the weather all the time. Then after living there a while, I got it.”
One of the regulars who immediately took notice was Pete Lee, now a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Lee believes his colleague’s experience on the high seas gave her more confidence and poise than the vast majority of novices.
“Her first time didn’t seem like her first time. She knew right away how to make people laugh,” said Lee, who would end up being an usher at Ashley’s wedding. “The moment I saw her at that first open mic, I thought: ‘I want to be friends with her.’ ”
Another early fan was Louis Lee. The Acme Club owner always has favored stand-ups with a distinct point of view. Ashley’s emphasis on being a Minnesota outsider fit the bill.
“There’s this stereotype that black comics have to be more urban and more dirty,” Lee said. “There were people who tried to steer her down that route. But I always told her to keep working on who she is, to listen to herself. That’s why I liked her.”
Support from both Acme and the Mall of America’s House of Comedy was instrumental in her development. After she failed to win a title at Acme’s annual amateur contest, The Funniest Person in the Twin Cities, the boss pulled her aside.
“He told me, ‘I want you to keep going. You have star quality.’ No one had ever said that to me before,” Ashley said. “Louis also gave me advice about the life of a comedian. ‘Don’t get into the bad habits like all the partying and drinking. Have some fun, but always remember what your goal is. You can’t function as a club comic if you can’t function in life.’ I owe him so much.”
Eventually, Ashley needed to branch out. She quit her job as a sales representative at WCCO-TV and hit the college circuit.
It was during one of those gigs that she caught the attention of Wanda Sykes, who helped her snag a spot on a 2013 OWN special and an opening slot on Morgan’s 75-city tour.
“I was talking a lot onstage about being married to a white man, which was accepted on college campuses, but less so in places like Mississippi and Memphis,” said Ashley, who describes her spouse as “socks and sandals white” in the Netflix special. “But Wanda and Tracy kept telling me not to worry about that. I had to tell my truth.”
Her past experiences are serving her well on “Neighborhood,” a sitcom about a Caucasian family from the Midwest adjusting to life next door to a gruff auto mechanic (Cedric the Entertainer), who worries that his onetime exclusively black block in Los Angeles will turn as white as Connecticut.
“I know a little something about gentrification,” Ashley said.
She also knows that, as well as things are going in Hollywood, she needs to keep touring as a stand-up. Making a triumphant return visit to Minneapolis is high on the to-do list.
“My big dream is to sell out an entire week at Acme,” she said. “That’s the least I can do for Louis.”