Laughter has always been like medicine for comedienne Chonda Pierce.
The Tennessee native first felt its healing power after she got a job impersonating Minnie Pearl at Opryland as she finished up a theater arts degree at Austin Peay State University.
“They put me in a show that was the history of country music,” Pierce explained during a phone interview from her Nashville home last month. “I couldn’t dance a lick because I’d grown up in a very conservative home ... but I got that job. My director thought I had a decent sense of timing. I guess I was the cut-up in the cast.”
At the time, Pierce, newly married, still was haunted by her parents’ divorce and the death of both of her sisters, who died within 18 months of each other when Pierce was 16. She also was scarred from a childhood of abuse.
“You talk about one confused young girl,” she said. “I know that falling in love with my husband was the biggest miracle. When you’ve been abused like that, you don’t want to be around men. ... The second miracle was getting a job where the laughter really was a medicine to me. I thought life stunk. It truly was a reprieve, every day at work, hearing people laugh. And I had to do it five times a day, six days a week.
“I think that probably set a precedent in my life that more than wanting to be that comedic superstar, I wanted to dish that medicine out.”
Pierce, who will perform at Tree of Life Ministries, at a date to be determined, has followed that path for the past 25 years, performing her comedy in venues both big and small in addition to writing books and producing and acting in films.
Known for keeping it clean in her stand-up act, Pierce said she narrowly avoided going an edgier route with her material when she returned to church after years away.
Prior to that, “I went to [church to] make my mother happy on Easter and Christmas. I went because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “I was probably headed down that whole comedy route, and then I found Jesus and it stuck. … In the middle of growing up spiritually, a career took off. And I’ve been growing up ever since, right smack in front of my audience.”
That journey has had its ups and downs, and Pierce has never shied away from being honest with her fans, including after the 2014 death of her husband, David.
Pierce stopped touring, but “once in a while, I would still have to work, like every widow does.”
She said she had “some long talks with God,” wondering why she hadn’t found a regular day job. It just didn’t feel right to stand up on a stage, going through her routine, when she was in such pain.
“I decided that that is so fake, [that] I would just tell the truth to my crowd. And for a long time, I would laugh and chuckle and funny little stories would come along, and I would tell them: ‘This is hard. This is what life is. Life is hard.’
“It just resonated with people. I think a whole new part of my being, part of my career, part of my heart, grew. I grew up spiritually. I grew comedically. To figure out how to navigate that, to be funny when you don’t feel funny, it takes some work.”
Eventually, she tapped into what she calls “those divine appointments [when] crazy stuff happened.” Like the time they lost her husband again, she said: “We couldn’t find his marker, or where we buried him [at the cemetery].”
“Women would roll and widows had permission to chuckle about … the stupid things people say to widows. And people would just laugh. And I love that. I love that laughter has a way of bridging the impossible. It just bridges all kinds of divides.”
Pierce’s most recent project took her off the road and back to her hometown, Ashland City, Tennessee, to film the comedy “Roll With It,” which she wrote, produced and starred in as a small-town waitress who enters a karaoke competition to save her home from foreclosure.
“I wrote a story a long time ago. It’s the last story my husband and I wrote together,” she said. “That little script got passed around for awhile and lo and behold, I got a call one day.”
As the film went through the normal development process, Pierce said she worked hard to ensure it stayed true to her “Queen of Clean” brand.
“I’m very protective of my audience,” she said. “… I don’t want to do anything that’s offensive to my crowd.”
In the end, she said, it was a give-and-take process, where she learned to let go of something “very dear to my heart. … So I had to really learn to relax and that was hard for a woman whose been in charge of her career for the most part, for 25 years.”
Shooting in her hometown, where she and her husband went to high school and were married, was a nice perk.
“I want to bring a little income to my tiny little town, and some enthusiasm out here,” she said. “… There’s two traffic lights.”
Then, a pause.
“There’s a Chonda Pierce Boulevard coming,” she added, laughing. “I’m pretty sure.”