Remembering Shirley Hemphill from 'What's Happening!!' – Inside Her Life and Career

Tichafa Chidzonga
Jul 07, 2020
11:30 A.M.
Share this pen

The late comedian, Shirley Hemphill, won over audiences when she went from being a standup comedian at local comedy clubs to a television star on 'What's Happening.'


Recently Snoop Dogg paid tribute to the late comedian Shirley Hemphill. The rapper shared a photo of the actress in honor of her 73rd birthday. He wrote, "Happy c. Day. To big Shirley."

Born in Ashville, North Carolina, the actress starred on "What’s Happening," and the show's sequel, "What's Happening Now." Her success earned Hemphill her own show, "One In a Million," in 1980. It was short-lived and only aired for a few months.


Snoop Dogg's post had many people reminiscing about Hemphill. One fan commented, "what's happening in heaven. Happy heavenly birthday."

Hemphill played the role of a waitress named Shirley Wilson. Another user teased her character's infamous personality and wrote, "Shirley didn't take no mess." Rapper, Fat Joe, expressed his adoration for the actress.

Fat Joe commented on a promotional portrait of Shirley Hemphill | Source:


In an interview with


in 1980, Hemphill revealed that she no aspirations of going to college after high school because she wanted to help her mother out financially. 

However, she landed an athletic scholarship to Morristown College in Tennessee, where she completed her studies in Physical Education in 1967.


While working ar a factory making nylons, Hemphill used comedy to entertain her family until someone suggested that she send a recording of some of her work to Flip Wilson.

After borrowing a recorder, she recalled that Wilson responded by sending her back her own recorder, a dozen roses, and a letter of encouragement. After meeting him, she moved to Hollywood, where she worked during the day at a fast-food restaurant while doing standup comedy at night.


She was mentored by Richard Pryor while working the comedy scene in Los Angeles at places like the Laugh Factory. After "What's Happening" was canceled, it taught her an important lesson about the being an actress, she explained:

"It helped me prepare for [One In a Million], which is business. Ain't no ego-stroking; it's just give me the money and let me do my job!"


Hemphill fulfilled her dream of providing for her mother, whom she lived with. She was responsible with her money and had an accountant and manager to help her with her wealth.

Hemphill died in December 1999 from kidney failure. Before her sudden passing, she supported other comedians like Rosie O'Donnell, who credited the "What's Happening" star for helping her get her first paid job. After the news of Hemphill's death, O'Donnell paid tribute to her during one of her shows.