Chonda Pierce, who’s often billed as comedy’s answer to a country musician, got her start impersonating her forebear, the country comic (and Grand Ole Opry staple) Minnie Pearl — and she still makes use of Pearl’s bits of industry wisdom. “Minnie Pearl taught me that you could be clever and funny and have a country twang and people will still love you,” Pierce says, in her own Southern twang, during a visit to the TIME office.
And people do: earlier this year, the Recording Industry Association of America certified Pierce as the top-certified female comedian, in recognition of her eight gold and four platinum DVDs. Her next DVD, Girl Talk, arrives in stores Dec. 17, has emblazoned across its case the blurb “RIAA’S BEST-SELLING FEMALE COMEDIAN OF ALL TIME!”
But Pierce also knows that, despite her sales numbers, she’s in many ways an outsider to the comedy world. Search for her name on a comedy site like Splitsider and you’ll come up with a blank — but she’s okay with that.
“I used to stand and lament and say ‘Wow, I wish I could get into the Ice House,’ in L.A, when I’d just finished a show at the Kodak down the street and filled it up,” she says. “There’s always that thing we think we’re not getting to do that must be better than where we are. At this stage in my career, where I am I’ve become very very content with and I like it.”
At a time when pop culture can seem monolithic, Pierce’s story is helpful reminder that there are actually several monoliths going up at the same time. Just as it would be possible for a pop-music listener to miss almost all of what’s going on in country music, with a few exceptions in crossover hits — not to mention all the other genres — it would likewise be possible to be completely unaware of country comedy.
But, while comedy often seems to orbit around famous hubs like the Largo, the Upright Citizens Brigade, Saturday Night Live and Louie, it has another life elsewhere. Pierce lives in Nashville, not New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Her material is 100 percent clean and strongly influenced by Christianity. (Her upbringing was so conservative that she had to hide her radio; she says her inability to dance was how she wound up telling jokes instead.)
The big ad for her new DVD on her website specifically mentions that it’s for sale at Christian bookstores and at Walmart. She’s open about her own struggles with an abusive father and, later in life, depression; her shows tend — on purpose — to end on a note that’s more church and less Comedy Cellar.
But, according to Pierce, it may well be that the very thing that has kept her out of the mainstream comedy spotlight is what has helped her sell so many DVDs and albums.
“I was asking these wonderful people from the RIAA who gave me this award for being the most female comic whatever, how that could be because there are so many great comics out there,” she says. “They said that a lot of people don’t buy comedy. You see a show, you like it, you laugh, you go home. But one of the things that I think has been a big selling point of my career is that I leave my audiences with a little bit more than just laughs.”
Girl Talk, true to form, is not just about the things girls talk about (Spanx, going to the bathroom in large groups) but the things that she and her mother, who died recently, talked about. Its message is about the importance of saying “sorry” and “I love you” while you still have time.
And even though it can take a bit longer for her rapport with audiences not used to “country comedy” to set in, Pierce has a saying for that situation too: “A laugh in Nashville’s just as good as a laugh in New York City. It’s just that here sometimes people are laughing at me instead,” she says. “But Minnie Pearl said, ‘You’ve got to love them — and they’ll love you back.'”