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In Riverdale, N.Y., I grew up in a pretty serious environment. How serious? My father’s idea of an idyllic Sunday afternoon was to curl up in the sun parlor with a copy of the Constitution in one hand and a legal pad in the other, preparing his next speech or broadcast. (He was news pioneer Fred W. Friendly, portrayed by George Clooney in 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck.) Now don’t get me wrong — I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. But my gut response was to go the other way. I spent hours in my room, memorizing routines by Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson. Between dinner-table battles over the First Amendment, I was famous (at least in our home) for doing a decent Cosby imitation.
Little did I know that I’d eventually be privileged to work as a producer with some of the greatest African-American comedians and actors of our time: Denzel Washington, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Sam Jackson and the late Bernie Mac, among many others.
But who is the next African-American superstar, and where will he or she come from? From comedy, which historically has helped neutralize racism and reduced white fear.
In the world of comedy, whether it’s movies (Pryor’s classic Here and Now) or HBO specials (Lawrence’s You So Crazy) or series TV (Sanford and Son, The Bernie Mac Show), the stars honed their acts for years on the road before they reached the big screen. Well before he could legally order a drink, Murphy got his chops at clubs like the Comic Strip in New York and Lawrence at places like L.A.’s Kings Wood. Saturday Night Live became a launchpad for everyone from Murphy and Chris Rock to Tracy Morgan and Kenan Thompson.
But how relevant are those clubs today, and how much do they influence the pipeline that leads to stardom? With the advent of YouTube, Funny or Die and Hulu, the living room can become the main room. And in this attention-deficit, quick-fix world, they need to be funny fast. Take a look at Jay Pharoah’s Will Smith imitation, and you quickly get the feeling you’re watching a future superstar. But will the suits bet the millions necessary to make and market a Jay Pharoah studio release? Trust me, in this environment, It’s not an easy call. Even in this hyperspace world, the process is gradual.
Brandon Jackson (Tropic Thunder, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, and Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son) is a gifted actor-comedian following in those tireless giants’ footsteps. He travels the country honing his stand-up. On our movie, I loved watching Martin mentor the kid — giving him advice on how to shape his act and land a real connection with the audience. And Brandon recognizes and respects the trailblazers: The son of a preacher, he can cite verbatim routines from comedy legends like Pryor, Rock and Dave Chappelle.
Throughout my career, family, friends and strangers on airplanes have asked how this white Jewish kid from New York wound up working with so many African-Americans. I tell them all the same thing: not because of their skin color but was because they’re some of the funniest and most talented people on the planet.
It’s never easy to recognize the reach of these stars. In 2000, The Original Kings of Comedy earned $38 million domestically alone, never playing on more than 1,082 screens. Imagine how much it might’ve made on 2,000 screens. Hindsight is always 20/20, but the studio might have missed the brute strength of the grass-roots following Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey and the late Bernie Mac had built. Tyler Perry earned his enormous following in the same way, from the ground up, and Lionsgate has mined the audience to the fullest extent possible.
Throughout showbiz history, there has never been a shortage of African-American comedic talent. It’s a natural resource — grounded in the unique African-American experience — that keeps replenishing itself, even if the pipeline has thinned in terms of opportunities. From Redd Foxx to the Wayans brothers to Tracey Morgan, the spring flows. It’s hard to forecast who will be the next comedy superstar, but two things are certain: We will see that their comedy chops were carefully honed in a lot of small, dark clubs infused with bad lighting and hard-core heckling, and more important, a lot of folks — be they black, white or Chinese — will be reduced to tears from laughing so hard.
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