Few performers have careers as varied as that of Marlon Wayans. An actor with a filmography that veers wildly from genre to genre, including outliers like the heart-wrenching Requiem for a Dream, he specializes in ribald horror parodies and high-concept comedies that require elaborate special effects make-up, like White Chicks and Little Man. A consummate entertainer, in recent years Wayans has followed in the footsteps of his famous siblings and branched out into standup. As the premiere date of his new NBC variety show I Can Do That approaches, Wayans will be in full-on grind mode as he rolls through Denver for three days of headlining shows at Comedy Works South this weekend. In advance of that run, we caught up with Wayans to discuss his wide-ranging career, his new program and his long journey to standup comedy.
Westword: So you're right in the midst of shooting your new show?
Marlon Wayans: Yes, sir.
How has the experience of working on that show been so far?
It's been great. First of all, I'm blessed with a great cast of people. Ciara, Alan Ritchson, Nicole Scherzinger, Joe Jonas and Cheryl Burke, Jeff Dye is a really funny guy; they're all really fun people, with great personalities. We have a good time every week. It's a different kind of show. i wouldn't call it a reality show, or even a competition show. It's more like a variety show. It's so entertaining. Some of the acts these guys have to perform are incredible. And with the comedy, I took a different approach to hosting, with more of a late-night approach where I comment on what's happening. I want to keep it fun throughout, so we're always laughing and always enjoying ourselves. I'm there to portray the audience's point of view.
Is this your first time working in this sort of variety format?
Oh, absolutely. It's been a good time. I'm really learning a lot and having a lot of fun. NBC's really allowed me to do me, which was one of the most important things to me in terms of doing this show. I was afraid that they wouldn't let me be me, that I couldn't be funny. I was worried I'd just be reading lines from a teleprompter, but that's not the case. I'm able to bring me to it, so I'm happy about that.
So, I was scanning through your imdb page and the roles are all over the place. There's a lot of comedy, obviously, but there are serious dramatic roles and action, too. Was building a diverse body of work something that you've always intended to do with your career?
My whole career I've tried to have versatility. I'm trained as an actor. But I grew up in comedy as young producer and a young writer. Later on in my life, I started doing standup. So I just want to be more well-rounded when it comes to the art of comedy, and the science of comedy. The more you do, the more you learn and the better you get. I think I'm better now than I was two years ago. Every time I do a set, every time I hit a stage, I get better.
So when did you start doing standup again? Had you been on stage before that?
The first time I went onstage was when I was like seventeen in college. I went up a couple times, and then quit. I wanted to be a writer and a producer. So I quit standup to do that. I tried standup again when I moved out to L.A., when I was about twenty. Then I quit after going up about fifty times because I decided that I wanted to be a writer, producer and actor. So I quit to focus on writing and ended up writing sketches for In Living Color. Then I got the role of Richard Pryor. When I was getting ready to go in and audition, I was like, "If I'm going to play the greatest comedian ever, I need to get my ass onstage." So I went on that journey and you know, I'm not doing the movie. But I'm still blessed and thankful for Richard because he got me to take standup seriously. So now, for these past few years, I've been doing standup and I've only gotten better as an overall comedic performer.
What have you found that you like about standup as opposed to your other endeavors?
Because it makes you responsible for your audience. You're the only one responsible. And you get their immediate reaction. You know if something's funny or not funny right there in the moment. You know when you've gone too far. It just helps you create in that small window.
There's nowhere to hide. Did you find it challenging to get back onstage those first few times because you already had so much recognition? Did people have certain expectations of you?
Definitely. But you've got to be fearless. You've got to go through the process of a new comedian. Just because I'm Marlon Wayans doesn't mean that I don't have to go through that process, it doesn't stop me. Sometimes the more pressure, the better. Diamonds grow under pressure. So it was just about taking the pressure and doing the work.
But it seems like the anonymity helps. If some anonymous comic bombs, people aren't surprised and no one remembers. People will remember if Marlon Wayans bombs.
Bombing is part of the beauty of standup. Bombing is a part of the joke, part of the process. If you're afraid to bomb, you're never going to get good. You've got to be fearless and just go up there and do what you do. If I have a bad set, that's okay. I can go home and fix the joke. Sometimes, you listen back on that tape and you can see where it didn't work. I went too far, but if I bring it back to the middle and animate this here, maybe that one joke that bombed could become my best joke. You can't be afraid to bomb.
Are you working out new jokes at these shows coming up?
Sometimes. Like Thursday nights I'll usually try out some newer stuff and maybe do a longer show because most of the time it's just the one show that night. I'll even do brand-new stuff, but I try to use guest sets in town to really refine material. I refine it that way, when people aren't paying money to see me. When people pay to see you, sometimes they want to see more refined stuff. So you've got to give them a combination, do the jokes you refined but still be in the moment.
Are you working toward doing an hour-long special or album in the near future?
Not yet. I think this year I might actually put together my first special. I've got a lot of material. But just because you've got a lot of material doesn't necessarily mean you're ready for a special. When I do a special, I want it to really be special. I don't want to do something that people will forget about. I want to do something that will make people say, "Man, that shit was hilarious" long afterwards.
Anything you want to mention before we have to wrap up?
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Tell people to follow me on twitter @MarlonWayans. Other than doing these shows, I Can Do That is my main focus right now, man. Just hosting, producing and working with the great talent we have on that show. People will be surprised. It's a really funny show. It's people with no egos just having a good time.
Marlon Wayans will be at Comedy Works South at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16, and at 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. on Friday, April 17 and Saturday, April 18. Ticket prices vary; the late Saturday show has already sold out. Go to the Comedy Works website to check showtimes and buy tickets.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.