In April 2017 Lashonda Lester was on the verge of the sort of comedy career everyone who picks up a microphone dreams of. In two short weeks the Austin by way of Detroit comedian would record her Comedy Central Half Hour. It was the beginning of a long career, almost ten years after she first started telling jokes. And then, on April 6, she suddenly passed away.
Now, two years after her passing, the outside world finally gets a chance to meet the Queen of Austin Comedy, on her final album Shondee Superstar. This nearly 50-minute performance makes two things abundantly clear. One, Lashonda Lester was a rare talent with a preternatural gift for razor-sharp storytelling. Two, it’s a profound tragedy we won’t get to hear her talk about the world for the next few decades.
Lester’s delivery is laid back to a point of being disarming at times. There’s a cliché that stand-up is supposed to be like a one-sided conversation with the audience, but Lester’s stories truly feel like a close friend holding court. Even the funniest comedy records rarely leave you smiling between the laughs, but Shondee Superstar has such a warmth you can’t help but grin along with each revelation.
These are obviously prepared jokes, packed with little tags and surprise punchlines between even the biggest laughs. But her laid back conversational vibe occasionally feels like a brilliant bit of improv. She’s comfortable playing in silence to build to devastating laughs, before unleashing quick bursts of detail that wreck the crowd.
Touching on everything from being falsely accused of slut-shaming to geopolitics to cryptocurrency and her own health problems, Shondee Superstar is never predictable. Take the bit about her love of McDonald’s. At first, it seems to be merely a bit about beloved comfort food and people’s snobby opinions about it. She lets the crowd know she doesn’t care what they think, warning, “fuck you for judging me for liking McDonalds. You could tell me McDonalds was made from missing kids and I’d be like ‘So? Have you had the biscuits?’”
The comfort food quickly becomes the foundation for a story about a bad reaction to a medication. Comedy fans have heard hundreds of stories about bad drug reactions. Rather than mining the familiar territory of “oh man I said something weird” Lester’s bit is about unwanted empathy from a place where everyone knows her. Zooming past surface-level observations about the moment, Lester finds surprising details that are as cathartic as they are funny.
Her stories make up the vast majority of Shondee Superstar, and hopefully they’ll all find long-term homes on comedy radio. The fearlessness she has when discussing her health problems, including kidney failure, are occasionally hard to hear posthumously. But never wallowing in suffering lets her find the joy in even mundane experiences. Lester reflects a boundless curiosity ready to interact with the world around her, from a cranky hospital roommate to a classroom full of high school kids.
When she focuses on more traditional material like her family, shitty jobs, or cultural deja vu Lester is frustratingly just as brilliant. Her fears of a building conflict with Russia reveal a mind that never forgets. “I’m a child of the ‘80s,” she explains. “The Russians are not to be fucked with. Anybody who will wait in line for 14 hours for a bowl of porage ain’t got shit to lose. That shit ain’t even got butter and sugar in it.”
It’s hard to listen to Shondee Superstar and not wonder what would have happened if she’d had the chance to follow the opportunities that were coming her way. What would her talk show be like? Would she want to just keep telling jokes? What would her next album be about? This is such a lovely introduction to a voice that’s both purely unique and universally relatable. Even the rare moment of truly gross humor is surrounded by a deeper story about the personal shame of CEOs who ruined hundreds of people’s lives. It’s art.
Many posthumous albums are odds and ends, fragments collected after someone’s gone to give one last look at their legacy. Shondee Superstar was intended to be an album and we’re lucky to experience Lashonda Lester like this. If the world is only lucky enough to have one album from Lester, it’s a blessing that its a recording of a complete show. Listening to the album it’s clear why her peers called her the Queen of Austin Comedy. It’s tragic she never got a chance to become Queen of the World, but Shondee Superstar shows she sure as hell had what it took to take that crown too
Lashonda Lester’s Shondee Superstar is available online via Stand Up! Records. You can rent a video version online via Vimeo.