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.
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.Keep reading for more from Keenen Ivory Wayans.
In Living Colorintroduced an incredible lineup of talent to America. Were a lot of those comedians people you'd known from around the clubs, or did you do auditions and just happen to end up with such outrageously good comics?
Most of the cast were people that I already knew, either from auditioning or around the clubs. I would say everyone except for Kelly Coffield and T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh. I knew David [Alan Grier] and Tommy [Davidson] and Jim [Carrey] and, of course, my brothers and sisters. So it was a very small-knit family of folks that I already knew.
Was there any sketch comedy around in the clubs? Or improv? Or was it just Hollywood actors and stand-ups?
No, there was none of that, especially for African-Americans, at that time. It was just straight stand-ups. I think people were more versatile with what they did in their stand-up, with singing or impressions. So there were all these really funny people that I knew, who didn't have a showcase.
Historically, whenever a controversial section of black culture gains a mainstream success, there is a backlash from political groups working for the societal advancement of African-Americans. Were there any protests against In Living Color from any of these groups?
Oh, yeah. There were a lot of criticisms of not only In Living Color, but everything that Spike Lee did, that Robert Townsend did. Whenever there's forward motion, there will be people who don't necessarily understand it or appreciate it. You're gonna have controversy, but it is what it is -- change is not something you're gonna stop. You're either going to be a part of it or it's going to pass you by.
Growing up in the whitest section of rural Iowa, I watched In Living Color obsessively. I'd record it on my VCR and play it back during the day. It seems hard to comprehend in post-Internet 2013, but I'd never been exposed to that style of African-American humor, the gay characters or the religious satire before. A lot of American TV audiences hadn't.
Yeah, it was a great moment: There was a building of a bridge between cultures, and we introduced mainstream America to hip-hop. And along with Married With Children and The Simpsons, we launched the Fox Network.
Dave Chappelle's Oddball Festival was recently in Denver, but before he arrived here he had a scuffle with a Connecticut audience that was shouting requests for impersonations of his TV show characters. While on stage, he recounted a story of Damon Wayans dealing with the same thing -- how everyone was shouting "Homie the clown!" at him, referring to the character he played on In Living Color. Toward the end of the show, were you starting to feel boxed in by the previous success of certain sketches?
It doesn't box you in. Eddie [Murphy] dealt with that, too; with people yelling "Buckwheat!" at him. When people love what you do, it's on you to go, "Hey, that was great, but here's something new, and I hope you appreciate this, too." And if it's good, they will. It is a bit of a nuisance, but it's not a negative. It's like, :I love that you loved that, but here's what else I've got for you."
While we're on the topic, it's worth noting that with Chappelle everyone wanted to see him do the Rick James impersonation. Though you had actually done a very memorable Rick James sketch years earlier on In Living Color. What did you think when you saw his Rick James?
I thought his take on it was really funny. Why it was so funny to me was because I was there when it happened.
What, the fight with Charlie Murphy?
Yeah. I was standing right next to Rick when Charlie smacked him. So it was doubly funny to me. And I was at the table with Eddie and everybody else making fun of Charlie right before he went to kick Rick James in the chest. So just knowing the intimate details of the whole story, and then seeing them do it, it was beyond funny to me. The way he did it was just brilliant.Keenen Ivory Wayans will perform six shows at the downtown Comedy Works 1226 15th Street, starting October 3 and running through October 6. Tickets are $35; buy them and get more information at comedyworks.com.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.