Marlon Wayans: On Comedy and In Defense of Offense

Comedy Features Marlon Wayans
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Marlon Wayans: On Comedy and In Defense of Offense

Marlon Wayans has done a lot of things during his 30-year career. He’s an actor, a screenwriter, a producer, and a comedian who has starred in dozens of movies and TV shows, including the current sitcom Marlon. One thing he had never done, though, is release a stand-up special. That changed last week.

His first stand-up special, Woke-Ish, just came out on Netflix, and it features some really funny jokes. It also features some jokes that are so far from wokeness that Mr. Wayans should probably be embarrassed to put his name on the show.

We reviewed the special separately (look for that later this week) and I’ll let the Paste coverage speak to the material. What I have to speak to is the issue of what makes this so disappointing. Marlon Wayans has a career that few people of color have accomplished in Hollywood. He’s a role model for so many, and his work ethic and broad skill set are a bright shining light that should serve as a beacon for others. The problem is that Marlon Wayans has chosen to squander some of that good will, and I find it perplexing because he seems like he’s—for lack of a better phrase—smarter than this?

I briefly interviewed Mr. Wayans about the special and his career. You can read that interview below. I would prefer to let the comedian speak for himself here, but I’ll also offer that it seems like his process for this stand-up special twisted things in a bizarre way. He road tested the material across the Deep South and wound up cutting 30 minutes of Trump-based material but wound up keeping some transphobic jokes and other bits that are shocking to see in 2018. He stands behind the material and I overwhelmingly hope that he finds a new feedback system that helps him progress towards the wokeness he wants to embrace.

Paste: You got to play Ripcord in a GI Joe film. How do you set that up and do people doubt that you have the range to do something like that? Sorry to open with a GI Joe question.

Marlon Wayans: People think you don’t have the chops to do things they haven’t seen you do. Absolutely. As a producer I get why you have to do that. You don’t assume. You work your way into consistency. It takes time and effort. Seize the day and don’t turn down any opportunity. You work towards getting all the parts you’ve ever wanted.

Paste: How do you set up a show like Marlon? What work do you have to put in to have a show that’s just about you and your outlook on the world?

Wayans: It took me 45 years to be Marlon. I can do a show about my life and that’s a journey you take as an artist and a person, and you have to learn to act. It took me writing 13 movies and getting them made, seven years of doing stand-up whenever I had a free moment, it took all those TV shows. That’s how you learn characters and what about your life is relatable. It’s not the jokes, it’s the story.

Paste: What do you think of yourself as? A stand-up or an actor or something else entirely?

Wayans: What do you do with the guy that can do everything? You let him do everything. I never get bored because I do a little bit of everything at a time but I also focus my attention to get things done. I’m a stand-up first… when I’m doing stand-up. I want to be the great stand-up comedian who is performing what the writer writes and that the producer side makes happen. I want to make people laugh and be this personality that allows me to present without a fourth wall. I do characters because I come from sketch. The way Prince was an artist who got better and better at guitar and then drums and bass and then producing—that’s what I look at as a performer. I want to be credible in comedy but also drama and broad comedy. I want to feel like I belong in these worlds. It’s a hard journey. I want to sell out the Garden and Radio City Music Hall. But that starts with humbling yourself to hit coffee shops and dive bars and open mics and perform for six people. I did that for seven and a half years until I had enough for a special.

Paste: Where does an idea start for you?

Wayans: Inspiration comes from random places. I’ll be reading something tragic in the news and thinking “I find something funny about this” and I think how I’d write a sketch about it or a movie about it. It used to be the performer first but now it’s the writer. When I’m in an interview I think about how to construct what I want to say, even before I say it. I think in terms of the structure of the conversation. I don’t do material when I go on Fallon or something. I have a funny conversation.

Paste: Where do you find time for stand-up? Where did you test your material?

Wayans: I try to take two days a week and hit up Ha-Ha Cafe or Comedy Store. I’m usually just off work and I’m tired but I have material and I go work it. While I’m filming a show, I’ll still work the weekends. I’ll work my stamina. Three shows in a night, get on a plane, be at rehearsals for the show. If you get used to red eyes and table reads and performing as soon as you land then you become a beast. That fine tuning and that kind of volume requires you pushing yourself past your breaking point. My dad is always telling me to rest, but I know what this industry takes and I know where I want to go.

Paste: What is your standard for wokeness?

Wayans: It’s playful but deep. Is it this or is it that? This special talks about divisive issues like race and gay rights and what’s happening with Obama and Trump. These topics that are in the zeitgeist. They can start an argument. You’re woke but also you’re giving them jokes. You’re woke so you’re deep but just deep enough to give them these jokes that make you laugh so that you can think about these things.

Paste: Is White Chicks due for a renaissance?

Wayans: I would love to do White Chicks 2. But back to wokeness: You know there’s that guy who says “I gotta see Black Panther the night it comes out!” But then you find out he watched the bootleg. So he’s woke-ish.

Paste: You make a joke about the rapper Future in this special that’s a very specific reference. Do you like getting hyper-specific on things or do you worry about the timeliness?

Wayans: I think about things that are now. You do it in a way that everyone can get how ridiculous it sounds. I think Future makes sounds like when you stub your toe on a piece of furniture in the middle of the night, and everyone has stubbed their toe in the middle of the night. You make an inaudible sound. So you make a pop culture reference and you take it deeper. If you watch Bugs Bunny, he was talking about things that were relevant in 1950. Now, a bomb exploding in Daffy Duck’s face is always gonna funny. The way it is animated has more texture. If I tell that joke and white people don’t laugh because they don’t feel included, then if I tell it in a way that somebody never heard that song can understand and they’re laughing? Now that’s a good joke.

Paste: Do you feel like you might be telling jokes to white people on a time delay? Like, they’re really going to get that Future reference in a year?

Wayans: Everyone is on a time delay. Some white people know hip-hop better than I do. Culture has shifted. Pop culture is not black. It’s not just one culture. Urban is not defined by color, it is defined by flavor.

Paste: What do you think about the jokes about Caitlyn Jenner? Do you think those also age and get better over time?

Wayans: You always gotta take risks. You have to take risks and hope that people know what you’re talking about. It’s about trying to digest all the things that are coming at us. If we don’t agree, at least we can see what each other is talking about. That laugh is what bonds us. You don’t have to agree with what I’m saying but as long as you’re laughing then we’re bonding. In regards to the Caitlyn Jenner thing, I’ve learned that some people are just very sensitive. If you mention Obama or Trump—when I did my show I had a 30 minute section on Trump. I toured it through the South. I took it from Atlanta to Nashville to Kentucky. I was in the deep South because I wanted to talk to people with the Make America Great Again hat. When I did my Martin Luther Queen, I did that in San Francisco where your audience is mixed. And I would see where to take this joke so gay people after the show would say, “Hey, I liked the message of what you’re saying.” And I asked my daughter about the material too. I was very sensitive about the approach, but some people are just sensitive. If I mention Caitlyn Jenner and you walk out of the room, then you didn’t have the balls to sit there and listen to what I was saying. I’m not saying I hate Caitlyn Jenner. I’m saying that I do not find that person attractive. And I have every right to feel that way. And here’s what funny about it. I didn’t say all transgender people are not good looking. I said that particular one was much better looking as a man. And if you’re too sensitive to hear the joke, then I also learned maybe I’m not the comedian for you. I’m still going to tell the jokes I want to tell.

Paste: What did you learn by touring and testing this material?

Wayans: There are some very sensitive people out there. As comedians we have to learn to be sensitive as well. Sometimes it’s not them; sometimes it’s you. It all depends on what your mission is as a comedian. My brother Keenan told me that I should try to tell one joke that makes the whole world laugh. Being inclusive with your material is important to making as many people as possible laugh. Mockery is great when it is flattering. There has to be a way for everyone to laugh at it and with it. You tour these little pockets of the country, and overseas, to find a way to tell a joke that makes the majority of people laugh. There’s still going to be sensitive people but as a comedian I want to be a little bit sensitive too, because I want to be the best comedian I can be.

Paste: You are a non-white performer, producer, writer and comedian. You and the family you come from represent an experience in the entertainment industry that few non-white people know. What advice do you have for others that want to follow in your shoes?

Wayans: Stay in school. Study, study, study. Don’t categorize yourself as one thing: be everything. But master one thing first. When you sell a script, start doing acting classes. Let one thing pick up and create roles for yourself. I write because there are not enough roles for me to perform in. That’s why I started stand-up. I like to work and I’m creating opportunities for myself as a writer. If you’re black or white or a little person—know that there aren’t enough roles for you. So create a bunch of roles for everyone. Don’t just be a guy sitting there waiting on Hollywood. Hollywood will give you an opportunity but once you’re there, you’ve got to make it.

Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.