Keenen Ivory Wayans on Dave Chappelle, In Living Color and Jehovah's Witnesses
As much an icon of African-American comedy as Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy, Keenen Ivory Wayans pioneered a new style of televised sketch comedy with In Living Color, introducing mainstream Americans to the stylish humor of early '90s black culture. The show also launched the careers of Jim Carrey, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx and several members of the incredibly talented Wayans family.
Keenen Ivory Wayans will perform six shows at Comedy Works this week.
Now back on the road, working out material for his 2014 tour with brothers Damon, Shawn and Marlon, Keenen Ivory Wayans is returning to standup, the medium that launched his career in the early '80s. Before performing six shows at Comedy Works this week, Keenen Ivory Wayans caught up with us to talk about his history in the funny business, witnessing Charlie Murphy's "Rick James, bitch!" fight, and how to move forward with audiences.
Westword: Do you think growing up in a strict Jehovah's Witness household had any influence on you becoming a comedian?
Keenen Ivory Wayans: I don't think religion has as much impact on me, because my mom was not a Jehovah's Witness, and she would point out all of the funny and contradictory things about religion. So we had a unique, side-eye view on religion.
My dad was the Jehovah's Witness. My mom was not, and there was always conflict about that. And that was part of the humor of my house. The clashes that ensued were priceless. My mother was brilliant. My mom was one of the funniest people when she was angry. I think that impacted us more than anything. Growing up, when we got mad we tended to think funny.
So did that stay with you through adulthood, the instinct that when something made you mad, you found a way to make it funny?
Absolutely. And that's our family philosophy: Don't get mad, get funny.
You've talked about giving what was described as "comedy lessons" for your younger brothers Shawn and Marlon. What did those entail?
Yeah, when I was living in L.A. they would come out and stay with me, and when I would go out for the night, I would put them in front of the TV and make them watch things like Monty Python, Zucker brothers and Richard Pryor. And then when I would come back I'd quiz them. "Okay, tell me what was funny?" or "Tell me why this worked."
They were really young -- only ten or twelve years old -- but they were so into comedy they could understand what was funny.
What were you doing at the time that brought you to L.A.?
I was just starting out. I was doing standup and all those guys were my comedy heroes, so I wanted to pass them along to my brothers in case they wanted to pursue it.
I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the TV comedy industry was dominated by white people at that time. So was there really any representation of black culture in sketch comedy when you were coming up that you could relate to?
Oh, not at all. The dream for a comedian was always to be on Saturday Night Live or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We all had the same dreams -- we just didn't all have the same opportunity.
What was the reaction when you eventually pitched In Living Color? If that particular culture or style had never been tested on TV before, I imagine there was some resistance.
Well, what happened was, I had done Hollywood Shuffle with Robert Townsend, and that made some noise; and then I made I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, which was very successful. And then Fox approached me about doing something for their network. They didn't have any ideas; they said you could do whatever you wanted.
And again, the dream was to be on Saturday Night Live, so when I got the chance to do whatever I wanted to, that's what I chose.
With I'm Gonna Git You Sucka you took the same format of Airplane! and injected it with a lot of hip hop, and pimp fashion, jokes that people familiar with black culture would find funny. Was that the same idea with In Living Color, to take the format of SNL but bring in this other style and culture that had never been shown on TV before?
Yes, that was the idea. It was to put my spin on a tried-and-true comedy genre. Like you said, that's what I did with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka -- I was very inspired by the Zucker brothers.
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