Comedian Chonda Pierce lives for making others laugh.
The five-time Emmy-nominated performer known for her fierce wit, southern charm and Christian values has spent over two decades on stage, poking fun at herself and connecting with her fans. It came as a surprise then when the star’s heart-breaking documentary Chonda Pierce: Laughing in the Dark released late last year.
A deeply personal, moving look at tragedy, mental illness and the resilience of the human spirit, Pierce’s film followed her family as they dealt with the death of the comedian’s mother, a painful separation with one of her children and the loss of her husband all over the course of three years.
“I would have much rather have had a better documentary, a happily ever after,” Pierce tells Guideposts.org of the film.
Still, she chose to put her life in front of the camera because she hoped her experiences might inform others.
“When we sat down in the editing room, what we had was a story of survival and hanging on to your faith when it is the most difficult,” Pierce explains. “It was just apparent that it could be helpful for people going through so many different types of drama.”
For Pierce, drama has never been in short supply.
Raised in South Carolina with a preacher for a father, the comedian remembers her mother dragging her to community theater as a young girl.
“She just knew I was always such a little ham,” Pierce jokes.
In college, while other girls were auditioning for leading roles and love interests, Pierce only had one goal: to make the crowd laugh. She got a job at a theme park called Opryland U.S.A. impersonating comedy legend Minnie Pearl. If there was ever a doubt that comedy could be a career, it was erased during those six years on stage.
“I always say comedy sort of found me,” Pierce says. “I just fell in love with hearing people chuckle. I fell in love with the healing that it was for me and my life.”
For the comedian, laughter has been the greatest medicine. When she was diagnosed with depression she decided to share that battle on stage by being completely honest about her own experience with the disease.
“My deep depression never showed up until much later in life,” Pierce says, explaining how menopause and some issues from her childhood may have contributed to that initial downward spiral.
She went to rehab which armed her with a set of tools she uses to this day.
“Find a doctor that understands these things,” Pierce advises anyone else suffering. “Find a great counselor. Keep moving and keep making an effort to feel normal. God gave every one of our systems in our body finite, incredible ways to work and when one of them breaks down your body will let you know. Pay attention to what your body is saying.”
She also wants to help erase the stigma that surrounds depression.
“People won’t get help because they don’t want to be told they’re crazy,” the comedian says. “Well I always tell people ‘The whole stinking world is crazy, so join the club.’”
Her journey with the disease has been so life-changing that the comedian and her brother started the Branches Recovery Center, which offers counseling and treatment to those with depression, anxiety and addiction, regardless of their ability to pay.
“Being from a middle class family, it was all we could do to cut and scrimp to get that bill paid,” Pierce says of how expensive her own treatment was. “So we said let’s find a place and hire some incredible people and begin to pray that God will send us a way to provide for the people that need this that can’t pay.”
The center may be Pierce’s proudest achievement.
“You always wonder what your legacy is going to be,” she explains. “My brother and I have things that we’re so blessed to see God remedied from such a dysfunctional childhood and that’s one of them.”
Still, she views the work she does on-stage as the greatest way she can help others heal. Her latest project – a three part one-hour series called Stand-Up for Families airing on the Dove Channel — is one aimed at bringing the home back together.
The comedian has paired up with other performers known for their dedication to “keeping it clean” in order to bring a show to TV that will have kids and their parents rolling on the floor.
“We [wanted] everybody [to] share the couch and be together,” the comedian explains.
Whether it’s baring her soul on stage, helping others heal from illness or just providing an hours-worth of laughs for families on TV, Pierce is grateful God’s given her a job that brings others joy.
“I think that comedy is such a tool to open the heart, to loosen up the muscles, to loosen up the brain,” the comedian says. “I love that my job works at letting the walls down so that before I leave the stage we can leave people with something pertinent, something more than just a laugh. God knew how important it would be to laugh because he said it is a great medicine and when used properly, it is the greatest of medicines.”
Chonda Pierce Presents: Stand Up for Families airs May 3 on the Dove Channel.