Right out of the gate, Aida Rodriguez’s stand-up begs the question, “Am I allowed to laugh at that?” In her raucously funny sets, Rodriguez excavates her difficult childhood, plumbing punchlines out of unimaginable heartbreak. As a child, Rodriguez was kidnapped twice—once by her mother, who took her from her father in the Dominican Republic and brought her to America. The second time, Rodriguez’s grandmother and uncle took her from New York City to Florida in an effort to protect her from her mother’s romance with a murderer. That uncle, a gay man, was later murdered in a hate crime. Rodriguez also speaks candidly about the challenges she overcame to achieve success in the white male-dominated world of stand-up, including racism, misogyny, and raising two children out of her car. This is Rodriguez’s genius—using comedy to turn pain into progress, to give voice to the voiceless, and to laugh instead of cry, as she puts it.
This month, Rodriguez stars alongside five other comedians in They Ready, a new Netflix anthology series spearheaded by Tiffany Haddish. In six half-hour episodes, Haddish spotlights six female comedians on the rise, all of whom she befriended through working together in comedy clubs or on television. Rodriguez came to the series not only by virtue of her formidable talent, but through her long friendship with Haddish, whom she’s known since they came up together as young, aspiring comedians. In fact, when Rodriguez arrived to this interview, she was fresh off a personal phone call with Haddish. Before They Ready, Rodriguez’s biggest credits were Truth Serum, her podcast exploring the intersection of celebrity and culture, and Last Comic Standing, on which she placed ninth. Esquire sat down with Rodriguez to discuss advocacy, inequity, and how to find the funny in what seems patently unfunny.
ESQ: When you talked about your long friendship with Tiffany, you said, “We made a pact that whoever goes first throws the rope back. She threw the rope back.” What has that advocacy meant to you?
AR: It’s always been what I stood for, and it restored my hope in the business. When it comes to people of color, we’re always led to believe that there’s only room for one person at the top. We fall for that out of fear and insecurity. We don’t want to shine the light on somebody else, because we’re afraid that the light might be taken away from us. Tiffany and I have always talked about that in our friendship. We decided that we were always going to look out for one another. I never doubted that she would do it, but the timing of when she did it was remarkable—she had just been launched into stardom and had so many things going on. You’ve seen all of the people who’ve gotten those big deals on Netflix. How many of them have you seen take six people with them? I’m in awe of her.
ESQ: How are you throwing the rope back for other comedians? What does that look like in practice?
AR: I try to bring my own openers when they let me. A lot of clubs don’t let me bring my own openers yet. A lot of times, they don’t want two women or two people of color in the show, God forbid. Especially with young women, I’m always available to put in a word with promoters and say, “You should look at this person. She’s really funny.” Throwing the rope back is creating opportunities. I write my own movies because I’m a filmmaker at my core. When I wrote, made, and distributed a movie, I laced it with comics, because I think comedians are funny. They have stories. They’re dark. They’re performers. Everything I do, I’m going to always incorporate my community.
ESQ: It hasn’t been out long, but how has They Ready changed your life already?
AR: You know, the way it’s changed my life is that it’s given me some peace on the grief and the loss that I felt when I lost my relatives. They live on in these stories. People have been sending me messages, saying, “My grandmother was crazy, too!” Specifically within the Latino community, a lot of LGBTQIA+ people have contacted me saying, “Thank you for fighting for our community and telling people this story,” because my uncle was murdered in a hate crime. He was my world. He will live on forever, and I will make sure that those who took his life are brought to justice, and that we use that as an example to save lives. It’s changed my life spiritually more than anything else, because I understand this machine of Hollywood and fame, and you get caught up in that—you lose your sense of what’s important and what’s real. I try my best not to get caught up in that, because I know how one day they like you, one day they don’t. One person can kiss a cat on YouTube and then they’re the star. I like to talk about social issues through my personal experiences, and for people to say “thank you for speaking up on that” has been humbling.
ESQ: A big theme of your set in They Ready is turning hardship into humor. How do you turn that pain into comedy? How do you find the lightness in the darkness?
AR: You can cry about it or you can laugh about it. Those are your two options. You can say, “Woe is me. This happened to me,” or you can say, “A lot of bad things have happened to a lot of people, and they need a voice.” For me, that’s what it’s about. It’s not about exploiting my family, but using my personal experiences to release other people from shame, because we’re so riddled with shame and guilt. We have to learn to say, “This happened to me. It’s happened to other people. It’s not my fault. People are only people, and we all make mistakes. Let’s forgive, and let’s move on.”
ESQ: Even as a child, did you have that impulse to make light of painful experiences as you were living them?
AR: I did. People ask me if I hated my mother when she came back. The answer is no. I was just relieved. I adored my mother. Even as a young child, I knew that my mom had experienced some awful things in life that led her to where she was. My mother was only seventeen when she had me, and that was in a time where there was no “Me Too” movement, no Twitter, no advocacy. There was no shining a light on the horrible things happening to people. So I’ve always strived to be loving towards the people in my family. I’ve always adored them and all of their imperfections because they all made sacrifices so that I could win. Even as a little kid, I always adored them.
ESQ: You also make a lot of jokes about racism and misogyny. What do you think is the role of the comic in dismantling systemic injustices?
AR: I can’t speak for other comedians, and I don’t like to police other comics or tell them what to do. But I myself think that comedy deserves a spectrum, and that there are all kinds of comedians for different things. Some people just want to go to a comedy club and laugh. They don’t want to think about misogyny and racism; they’d rather hear this guy talk about FedEx. We need those comics. We need the people that just release us from the everyday struggle. Then there are those of us who want to use comedy as our platform for what we value. If you’re going to do that, then don’t dip your toe in the pool—jump in, use that comedy, use your intelligence, and let’s turn this table over. Let’s talk about the things that are real in our lives. Because if not, then what are you doing? I don’t think all comedians are obligated to do that, but if you call yourself one of those comics, then educate yourself, inform yourself, and make sure that you are not putting the wrong messages out there through humor.
ESQ: Speaking of misogyny, when you competed on Last Comic Standing, you were subjected to online criticism about your wardrobe and your appearance. How did that make you feel?
AR: I get that all the time. People say, “Go back to modeling,” as if the modeling industry would have me right now. Or, “The reason she’s getting this opportunity is because she’s pretty,” or, “She must have slept with somebody to get where she’s going.” None of that is true. There’s so much hypocrisy in comedy. They want you to be a woman. They want you to be funny. When you host the Oscars, you’ve got to be a woman, you’ve got to be funny, and you’ve got to wear a gown. But when you wear a dress in preparation for that while you’re on stage, then you’re a rebel, or you’re utilizing your femininity or your sexual charm. Why can’t we just be who we are? There are plenty of comedians who wear suits when they go on stage, and nobody is criticizing them for wearing suits. Nobody’s saying, “Look at this guy! He’s trying to look handsome onstage.” It’s annoying, and I ignore it. What I do is I work really hard on the comedy, so that when I wear what I wear on stage, you’re not thinking about it, because I’m doing my job.
ESQ: You’ve said, “I don’t tell jokes. I just tell my business.” Is there any part of your business that’s off limits? Is there any line between who you are onstage and offstage?
AR: There are a lot of things that I don’t talk about. When I talk about my children, people ask me, “Are your kids okay with this?” I have their full permission to do it. Often, they’ve helped me write the joke. They understand what they represent, and they know what they mean in my life. Releasing other parents from the tension of parenthood is on their agenda, as well, because they say, “I know a lot of parents who must feel like that. My friends and I talk about this.” But some people in my life don’t want to be front and center, and I respect that.
ESQ: How do you protect your privacy when you’re putting your business out there as it relates to your family?
AR: I protect my privacy by not exploiting the parts of them that they don’t want to share. I don’t post my kids on Instagram and Facebook every other day. I don’t put their handles on the stuff that I do. They’re not in the entertainment business in that way, and they deserve to have their privacy. I do protect myself because I live a very private life. When I’m not onstage, when I’m not working, when I’m not on set, I’m just at home being Aida. That is off limits. That’s why you don’t see a lot of, “I’m at a restaurant,” or, “I’m at the mall” from me. Not just for my privacy, but also for my safety.
ESQ: You’ve talked openly about money and about pay inequity. As you were coming up as a comedian, how did you balance those two imperatives: the desire to get exposure versus the need to demand your worth?
AR: One thing that freed me was that I had a full-time job at a brokerage. I was also a full time comic, which meant that I never slept because I was always working and learning the business. I’m a Virgo, so I have to analyze everything and break it down to its simplest form to understand that comedy is a business. Until you make money, you don’t matter. You can be the funniest person on the planet, but if you’re not making the industry money, then you don’t matter. I had to really understand what that meant, because for me, compromising who I am was not an option. I had to understand that I was putting in a lot of hours. I was creating opportunities. I was bringing people to shows, and that’s worth something. My time is worth something. Tiffany would say to me, “You have to understand that every time you get in your car and drive an hour and a half to do a show, you are spending money. You cannot pay to do comedy. It has to pay you, or else you’re a volunteer.” The key was understanding the business of comedy and strategically creating a career where it would bring value to the industry in a way where I didn’t have to compromise who I was.
ESQ: What’s your advice for comedians who are just starting out?
AR: I always say that the first thing you need to perfect in comedy is you. Be comfortable being you. You always go as yourself, because you will eventually show up anyway if you don’t. So be yourself. Dedicate yourself to the craft, not to the fame, because if you’re good at the craft, the fame will come. Comedy is selfish. Comedy is that lover that doesn’t want to share you, not even with your mother. You have to be so dedicated to it that if you give it everything you’ve got, it will give it back to you tenfold. My advice is be enough for the funny, be in it for the story, be in it for the love of the craft. All of those desires that you have will show up for you, but comedy has to be at the top of the list.
ESQ: What will you take away from your experience with They Ready?
AR: I am humbled to be in the presence of such great women who have such amazing stories. Comedy is so competitive; they always pit women against one another. Behind the scenes, this group of people was so loving and supportive. There was no competition. Even now, we still say, “Go, Flame, go!”“Go, Shontay, go!” It’s not fake. It’s not for the cameras. That’s what Tiffany wanted, and that’s exactly what happened. That’s what she fed into this project. As a result, it’s flourishing because of her. Tiffany and I were in April’s wedding last year. I made some new friends. I’ve known everybody involved, but not in this new, close way. Now we’v shared something special that will be with us forever.