Leanne Morgan comes into the photography studio with her daughter and makeup artist, Tess. It’s the week of Christmas, and we’re squeezing in an interview and photo session before 2023 brings Leanne’s busiest year yet with her Just Getting Started Tour.
“I have a team of people in L.A. who do everything for me, but they aren’t on the road with me, so we schlep our own luggage,” she says, smiling and pulling bags from the car’s back seat.
“People think it’s glamorous,” says Tess, “but it’s not.”
Tess, 25, the youngest of Chuck and Leanne’s three children, was supposed to be doing other things in other cities and not schlepping her bags into The Central Collective the week of Christmas. Tess went to school in Manhattan for makeup in television and film, and she was all set to move to L.A. when the pandemic hit. She got rid of her apartment and took the last flight to Knoxville out of New York that night, which marked the start of two years living at home again.
“Let’s do a little Whitney Houston!” says Leanne, now in her first dress of the shoot, ready to be touched up. Tess connects her phone to the speaker in Shawn’s studio, and now we’re all singing along to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
“Either book a party with me now or see me in Vegas later!”
After Whitney Houston was Gloria Estefan and George Michael. When we’d snapped the last photo, we settled down for the interview, starting with: “What were you like as a little girl?”
“Oh, I was a ham,” she says. “I wanted to entertain and take classes, but my mom didn’t get her driver’s license until she was 40. I knew by 10 that I was going to Hollywood. I didn’t know it would be stand-up, but I wanted to be like Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball. I didn’t see myself as a serious actress but certainly as a comedian.”
It was a lofty dream for a kid from Adams, Tennessee, a town known for the Bell Witch. However, a few from her high school class of 42 shared her passion, and they formed a theater group that helped cultivate her need for performance.
“We started doing improv,” she recalls, “and that was one time in my life where something felt so right.”
Leanne followed a boy to the University of Tennessee, breaking up three weeks later. Bad timing and lack of direction prompted her to soon drop out. She would return to UT at 23 and graduate with a degree in Children and Family Studies, a proud Vol For Life.
When she met her husband, Leanne was still trying to discern her purpose. Wife and mother, but what else? College coursework required observing people, a skill that serves her well now in comedy, but where would she funnel her energy for telling stories and making people laugh?
“We’d moved to Bean Station and my husband bought this mobile home business where he’d buy used ones, redo them, and sell them. I was very lonely and didn’t know anyone, even though I could talk to people. I was pregnant with Charlie, and I wanted to stay home with my babies,” she says. “My good friend from UT sold Premier Jewelry, so I started selling jewelry to make a little extra money. That was God’s way of giving me people. I’d schlep that big case everywhere to talk about jewelry, but I’d talk about hemorrhoids and breastfeeding and the fact that Chuck couldn’t hear the baby crying. I said once, ‘Either book a party with me now or see me in Vegas later!’ Can you believe that?”
Leanne went on to tell a story about making a woman laugh so hard at a jewelry party that she peed on the couch. Premier Jewelry got wind of her storytelling and asked her to speak at their regional events, giving her a serious boost in confidence. She went all-in with comedy, knowing she’d have to start from the ground up.
Next up? Zanies in Nashville. Leanne called and asked if she could open a show, and they said yes, billing her before Billy Gardell of “Mike & Molly.” The Morgans soon moved to San Antonio, opening a new wave of opportunities for Leanne, like Chick Schtick Night at the Cap City Comedy Club in Austin. Even when they moved back to Tennessee in 2004, the opportunities kept coming.
“It was always a contest, like Funniest Mom in America. I got in on a small tour called Southern Fried Chicks, and that seasoned me. Chuck was working for Clayton Homes, and I didn’t want to not raise my kids, so I was mostly working on the weekends,” she says. “But I wasn’t making a lot of money, and I wasn’t making traction with the industry.”
And then, suddenly, she was. In 2007, Leanne was approached by ABC/Warner Bros. about a sitcom in which Paula Deen would play her mother. She signed the deal, and all roads seemed to finally point to Hollywood – until the writers’ strike in 2008. Leanne was devastated to lose the project before it ever began, particularly since she viewed this as her shot, that long-sought-after ticket to L.A.
Still, she kept a toe in the industry with occasional specials and smaller deals while raising her three children. Maggie, their middle daughter, said in an interview that they just saw Leanne as their mother and that, yes, she was funny, but Mom might as well be working at Target for all they knew.
A Lane to Herself
This is the pattern that continued for a decade – fundraiser gigs, Nick at Night contests, local spots – which left time for motherhood. But now it was 2019 and her oldest was out of college, married, and expecting the first Morgan grandchild.
“My manager at the time said there was a Dry Bar Special, and no one will see or care about it, but maybe we could get the film from it and get more jobs. So, after doing a luncheon in Dubuque, Iowa, if that tells you where my career was, I went to Salt Lake City to do that special. I did some old material that I hadn’t gotten on film. I’d gotten a spray tan and new jeans from The Loft. I felt like it was terrible. I was rusty, and I was nervous because I don’t like being filmed,” she says. “But they put that thing out and I think it’s gotten 50 million views now, and then I started watching what Jim Gaffigan was doing with social media.”
Using the money she’d earned from the Dry Bar Special, Leanne hired social media managers. By the end of 2019, she was booking weekly gigs and needed an agent to manage it all. Then, Outback Presents, the live entertainment promoter, offered Leanne a 50-city tour, and it sold out.
“I couldn’t believe it. I mean, what in the world? I pinched myself, but it felt right. My manager at the time had never seen anything like it. Chuck couldn’t fathom what was happening either. I’m in my 50s! Then they gave me a 100-city tour,” she says. “I came to Nashville to talk to their marketing team, and I asked them, ‘Are y’all sure?’ They said there’s nobody in your lane. My heart was beating out of my body. I was riding a wave.”
The first night of Leanne’s Big Panty Tour was set for June 2020, and those old feelings from the 2008 writers’ strike came flooding back with the pandemic shut-down. On the precipice of something amazing, it just went away.
“Even though I was thinking, Oh my Lord!, I knew it would be all right. So, I started doing back-porch videos with no makeup on. My social media grew from 25,000 to 1.4 million,” says Leanne. “It was a horrible time for my career but it also kinda helped my career because people were at home sharing my stuff. I think people were angry and hurt and freaked out, and I thought nobody needs to hear about this mess, so I just talked about my chicken casserole.”
Her Big Panty Tour was indeed rescheduled, and she wrapped the last show in late 2022. Then came the Netflix special, which was filmed over a long weekend in Lexington, Kentucky, and airs this month. Now, Leanne is in the middle of her Just Getting Started Tour, with a full weekend of shows in Knoxville on April 15 and 16 at the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum.
She’s Just Getting Started
Leanne believes this journey was meant for her, and there’s more to come, such as a book coming out in 2024. The little girl with the big dreams is soaking it up, relishing sold-out shows and unwavering support, especially from her hometown.
“I truly want to thank everyone in Knoxville. There were low times, but Knoxville always made me feel like I was in the game,” she says. “I don’t want to move. We have it so good here, and word’s getting out. We live in the best place in the United States.”
Still, as success sweeps in, Leanne hasn’t lost sight of her other important role: Grandmama.
“It’s spectacular. I have truly loved being a mama, and my kids are fun, but this baby, Charles Wilbur, who just turned two… I don’t even know how to describe it,” she says, smiling. “I’m never going to make him mind. I’ll give him whatever he wants. When he cries, I feel like someone is stabbing me. I sit on planes and stare at pictures of him, with another boy due in June. I’m just so tickled.”
Laugh more at LeanneMorgan.com