It took Leanne Morgan 18 years to become an overnight sensation on the comedy scene.
Morgan, formerly of Grainger County, has spent nearly two decades building her act, in search of the right audience.
It appears she finally found it.
Thanks, in part, to a massive social media push, Morgan’s brand recognition has shot through the roof. She sold out three shows at Knoxville’s Bijou Theater in minutes and she’s been booked for a 100 city comedy tour scheduled through the summer. She’s one of the hottest things going in comedy right now and she’s not really sure why.
“I thought early on in my career, I always felt like I had it, something big was gonna happen. I’ve had three development deals with major networks. Huge writers, Sony Television and ABC and Warner Brothers,” she said. “I’ve been to the biggest comedy festival in the world … I’ve had a lot of nifty things happen to me. But I got to a point where I thought I wasn’t going to make and that was OK.
“And this happens. It’s just been a blessing. Like God says, “Here you go girl. Here’s this gift … I think of it like icing on the cake.”
Morgan said she’s thought about quitting many times, but something positive always happened to bring her back. In fact, it’s a minor miracle she was able to have such a sustained career based out of Knoxville while raising a family. But as the kids have grown – she says she’s looking forward to being a grandmother at some point – Morgan decided to lean into the grind.
“I worked my tail off all last year, I travelled a lot,” she said. “I just wanted to be able to find my audience who wanted to come see me at a theatre. What everybody wants is to find is your audience who come to see you specifically not just people at a comedy club who might not know who you are.”
Morgan hired a social media team and they put out a clip that went viral which was quickly followed by another. Morgan went from 25,000 followers on Facebook to 600,000. Her Instagram following exploded. And just like that, she started selling out shows in places where she couldn’t get arrested.
“It was like a spark that caught it on fire, people were sharing it so much,” she said of the original clip, a riff on going to see old rock bands like Def Leppard or Journey. “It was just about aging and going to this concert and it just resonated with people.”
But it’s more than just getting someone to click on a digital heart or share a laugh with the faceless internet horde. Morgan is connecting with people like she never has before.
“I know that I’m out here doing these shows and the women say ‘Oh my gosh, we would be best friends,” she said. “There’s a lot of people suffering and they say ‘you just got me through a hard time,’ and I think ‘Lord, I just told a story.’”
Morgan’s heavy, sugar-wouldn’t-melt mountain accent makes her comedy seem Southern, but her themes are more universal than that. She talks about her life, her family and her husband. She works clean but doesn’t shy away from adult themes.
“I do think I’m authentic. I talk about what is real. I’m southern but I don’t think of myself as redneck. I’m really not a southern comedian,” she said. “I just really happen to have an unusual accent from a farming community in Tennessee, which I think helps to spin a yarn. I don’t come across as mean or depressed – it’s just not my shtick. I think in times that are so depressing maybe that is what people are looking for.”
“I didn’t come up in New York and L.A. that makes a difference. I think that’s probably hurt me in some ways,” she said. “I’ve never been at the cool cafeteria with the cool kids. I was never at the Comedy Store in L.A. and I’ve never been in that scene … I was lucky that I was unusual and unique that I could do it from Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Maybe there’s some irony that her success comes at a time when shows are being cancelled all over the country because of the coronavirus. Morgan’s shows will be affected, too. And she spent much of the winter flying all over the country. But her worries right now are not for her career – sold out shows will be made up when things return to normal - but for the communities that are being affected.
“It’s scary,” she said.
Ultimately, Morgan suspects that there’s something in her comedy that fits well with what people need right now. In a way, it’s as if she’s always been in the right place but now she’s there in the right time.
“I’m the same. I haven’t changed. What’s so different now?” she asked. “It’s wild. It’s wild. I can tell how people look at me and they start to cry and they say the sweetest things. They say, ‘you’ve given me so much joy.’ It’s hit something with people.
“My tone must give them some kind of uplifting,” she said. “I can’t believe it. I don’t think I deserve it.”