By Matt Levy
Comedy has been undergoing a seismic shift these past few years and, in 2020, new and exciting voices are finally getting a light shone upon them. One of the most vibrant and bombastic new comic personalities is New York-based improviser and comic actor Kaili Y. Turner. Turner, a member of UCB’s first all-female Maude team Grown Ass Women is edgy, electric and lives by the joyful ethos “Throw glitter no matter what!”
Onstage you can’t help but marvel at her outsized, larger than life characters — she’ll make you bust out laughing AND think all at once; sometimes with just a silly facial expression. Having grown up Black and Native American, Turner was raised between the rez and the city and uses these unique experiences few other performers have had as a potent comedic weapon.
In fact, when Turner asked a group of friends what to submit for her SNL packet, her good friend earnestly replied, “Honestly, you’re way edgier than SNL’s bland shit, but who cares they need to be edgier. The world has changed. They need to start addressing race more.”
As a result, in the interim before Kaili becomes a huge star, she’s using that distinct voice of hers on a variety of projects. In quarantine alone, she’s created the theme song to her pilot Fk’d Up & Fabulous, produced UPP or Urban Puppets Place (the adult urban answer to Sesame Street) and created an online comedy festival called LMFL. That’s not all. She’s lent her voice to the scripted comedy series LowTide and she and her sister are starting a podcast called Sista Talk that will feature anecdotes, advice, interviews and will be guaranteed comedy and To Karen, with Love a Brooklyn based sketch she’s in won Best Sketch Team in the 2020 Jersey City Comedy Festival. This really is her moment and we’re all in on the ground floor.
She’s been preparing for this moment for years though. If we go back to Turner’s childhood, we’ll see that her writing and performing career began when she started acting out at an early age. Kaili thinks this inherent need to entertain was because she didn’t have siblings too close in age and needed a way to express herself. So, she would make faces and create characters. Turner would ask her friends would you still be my friend if I looked like this after distorting her face into wild, unrecognizable expressions. Who knew that was early career training?
Born a Leo in Boston, MA and raised between Mashpee (Indian Country) and Boston, Kaili was one of many which was very difficult for her. She often had to play mom to her siblings while having no real authority and doing a lot of fending for herself. Raised by a single mother and a father whom she jokes, “doesn’t like going to the doctor like most Black men and uses a lot of basketball life analogies which are hella annoying sometimes, ” she didn’t have the easiest time in her formative years. Luckily, her cousins and friends made it better. They always found the fun in anything, no matter the situation. Kaili, often the ringleader, would make her sisters, cousins and friends act as members of girl groups, where they sang popular songs along with Kaili originals. These “bands” would choreograph and put shows together for whomever they could. This includes neighbors, friends, friends of friends and the time she made her television debut in the background of when her dad was being interviewed by the local news.
Although she was already funny, Kaili’s first love was music as evidenced by the girl groups she formed. At school, she dreamed of being a a singer inspired by voices like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Long after the girl groups and just a few short years before her comedy career began, Turner went to UMASS Boston for undergrad studying theater arts and minoring in Dance before moving to Brooklyn and going on to receive her MFA in Acting from the Actors Studio Drama School. The acting bug bit her hard and she trained to become a working thespian inspired by famous faces ranging from Angela Bassett, Viola Davis and Halle Berry to Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, and Ron Cephas Jones.
Still, she knew in her heart of hearts that she was a comedian. As a teen, she found herself doubled over laughing at Redd Foxx, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Bernie Mac, Dave Chappelle, Paul Mooney, Monique, Melanie and Sommore. Turner wryly noted, “Looking at this list I feel like all my favorite comedians loved to swear which makes sense because it’s also one of my favorite past-times.” She was a comic and there was no way around it.
So, after Turner completed acting school, she began sharpening her comedic skills taking improv, sketch, character and puppeteering classes. She astutely added, “I’ve researched comedy like I’m preparing for my life dissertation. I’ve watched comedy specials, shows, spent hours looking up my favorite actors and comedians to find out where they studied. I’m a lifelong student of this comedy thing!”
However, she doesn’t work alone. Turner often collaborates with her hilarious homegirl Arlene who is funny even when she’s not trying. Other favorites of hers include Alexis AKA the Black Lucille Ball, her boy Martin, the whole To Karen With Love Crew, E. George Perry, the Rock the Bells Comedy Crew and #TeamFierce. These people are her tribe and show up in every comedic project she does. She’s built a comedy family.
She has created a family of her own though too. Kaili added that the coolest thing she’s done outside of comedy is have a baby with no drugs involved. Turner shared, “We all want to have babies natural, but the way that pain hits in wheeeeewww let me tell you.” Unfortunately for Kaili, her nurse was incompetent (her words!) and didn’t call her midwife until it was too late. Kaili continued laughing, “I don’t know how they do it in other countries. Multiple kids, no drugs BUT you heal so much quicker and it’s better for the baby but never again. My first son I had ALL the drugs.”
The family has lived a life of adventure since. One such escapade took place last winter when Kaili took her son and brother snowboarding while she was eight months pregnant. The two men had never been and it had been years since Kaili herself hit the slopes but she wouldn’t be going downhill while having a baby onboard. She tagged along because she dreamed of glory for her son atop that white powder. Years before, she wanted her young son to shred and even bought him a board that he never got a chance to use. This time around, Turner lent her brother some of her gear and off they went to try and tame the snowy mountains.
Day one. They head to the lesson, her sibling and son geared up; Kaili tagging along for support. Less than an hour in, her son is crying. He’s sick, he’s cold, he wants to wait in the car. So, she did what any loving, supporting parent would do. Turner told that child “a three-day pass is hella expensive and he wanted to come so I had him get his ass back on the mountain because in life you can’t just give up. Especially when I paid my hard earned money.”
He moaned and groaned and trudged back up. He fell so many times and Kaili secretly almost peed herself laughing. However, by the end of day three, her son was looking like a semi-pro and going down the big mountain without an instructor. He definitely still fell mad times but they kept going fractured bones, bruises and all. Now that is how a comic teaches lessons; Turner goes to show that with a little bit of tough love and a lot of laughter, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.
When she isn’t perched on a wintry mountain or onstage at a legendary comedy club, Turner can be found these days living in a two-bedroom in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The family just moved there in October so it’ll be awhile before the feng shui is exactly how she wants it. In this house, Kaili wonders about the state of the world often. She told me she ponders, “Why can’t we do better? WTF is it going to take? How are Repubs and Dems so evil?” Then, she offered this salient point saying, “White imperialism isn’t going to leave free will. If you are an ally you gotta work everyday at being an ally, you’ll make mistakes, remain open and listen to BIPOCs.” She’s absolutely right and this is exactly the message comedy needs in 2020.
Even in the sorry state of the world, Kaili is more in touch with herself than ever, and has finally figured out where her happiness comes from. She knows that what makes her smile are her kids’ happiness, nature, being around the people she loves and cares about, seeing her friends on Zoom, sitting on the rusty porch swing in the backyard when the weather is nice, roller skating, curling up with a good book (at the moment, she’s reading Children of Virtue and Vengeance the sequel to Children of Blood and Bone), twerking on the front porch blasting music with a blunt in hand (Kaili does say, “Water and weed are the best combination”) and her son’s laughter. It’s the little things.
Now that she knows herself so well, she has a vision for her future. In five years, Turner sees herself staffed and starring in her own show, living bi-coastal, doing more remote work, and taking well-deserved time off for self and family. However, this wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t look back to the moment where Kaili had her proudest moment in comedy.
It may seem like a distant memory now but Kaili remembers the rush of that first performance on the UCB Hell’s Kitchen stage with her legendary group Grown Ass Women. The room was packed, Kaili’s two sons were in the audience and watched as their mummy made history as she and her team gave the performance of a lifetime. That was the moment that she started making comedy for the present and now these days, she’s making it for the future.
This is just the beginning.
For more Kaili content, you can find her on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram. If you’re looking for her projects on Instagram, you can check out the series Fk’d Up and Fabulous, podcast Sista Talk and her puppet series I Am Queen Onika.
Finally, it should be noted that Kaili has exquisite taste. If you want to binge what Kaili’s been consuming these past few months, here are a few of her favorites to give you a taste of what she’s been watching, reading and listening to:
Books: The autobiography of Assatta Shakur, Coldest Winter Ever, Children of Blood and Bone series.
TV: Living Single, In Living Color, Martin, Married With Children. These days, Kaili watches what she calls Ratchet TV like Love and Hip Hop, Marriage Bootcamp, I’m a T.I. Sipper (Lovely Ti Youtube), All-American, Blood and Water, I May Destroy You, Umbrella Academy.
Music: H.E.R, Kendrick, JCole, Summer Walker, Drake, Jhene Aiko, A Tribe Called Red.