Editor's note: Austin comedian Lashonda Lester, named the 2016 Funniest Person in Austin, has passed away. Here, Brently Heilbron, host of PBS comedy series Stand Up Empire, remembers the beloved comedian.
How do we mourn a Queen? Lashonda Lester has passed away from complications due to kidney failure. Even the phrase “passed" doesn’t seem appropriate. Royalty is not something that exists in past tense. That is the trouble with losing an icon. Through the greatness, there was a mother, a wife, a friend, and the current Funniest Person in Austin.
Lashonda Lester is a native of Detroit, as she put it, “the Murder Mitten.” Lester was the youngest of her group of friends but also the fiercest. As a child, it was Lester who wouldn’t think twice about hopping on the outside of a passing train just to get across town.
That’s a fitting analogy to how Lashonda Lester lived each phase of her too brief life. Like a train. Fearlessly full throttle. The story of any stand-up comic is often a nonlinear one. The beacon is faint and the path is circuitous. Lashonda Lester certainly lived too many lives to sum up here. She was the publisher of a magazine; a wrestling manager named “Miss Electricity;” and even worked as a Detroit pimp which, as she put it onstage, she “stumbled into thinking I was applying to a different job.”
Her first foray into stand-up was not an auspicious one. Onstage, she did the one thing you’re not supposed to do in Detroit, mock the auto industry. The head of the United Auto Workers stood up and booed her off the stage.
After arriving in Austin, Lashonda met and married her husband, had a son, and planted her roots once again. She also indulged her passions as a film buff with her stage series “Weird Hollywood Tales.” Through the years, her voice became stronger and people began to take notice. 2016 was a big year for Lashonda, who appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, PBS’s Stand Up Empire, and won the coveted Funniest Person in Austin contest. She was the first African-American woman to do so.
Shortly after competing in the contest a year earlier, she collapsed one night after performing.
She was rushed to the hospital and was told her kidneys were shutting down. What followed was an intense period of surgery, dialysis, and healing. Throughout her health struggles, her spirit remained strong and her beacon grew brighter each day. To pass the monotony of dialysis, she began to work at stand-up with the determination and focus of an athlete. Finally the moment came where she took the crown of Austin’s Funniest. Sadly, she will not be around to pass the crown to 2017’s winner.
She was gracious to everyone and yet you knew just how she felt and where you stood with her. You don’t make it in the wrestling world by being demure.
Lashonda Lester was slated to appear at Moontower Comedy Festival in April. Sadly, she was only two weeks away from filming her first comedy special for Comedy Central. Two weeks away from the world knowing what we know. Two weeks. Tragedy is comedy plus reality.
How do we mourn a Queen like Lashonda Lester? Perhaps we’re all just lucky to have caught a glimpse of the reign.