Damon Wayans Gets Deadly Serious About Diabetes, In Living Color & Past Racism on SNL (Video)
An adage famously says that “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Throughout the last 30 years, Damon Wayans has tested that formula. The comedian and actor dazzled television, film, and stand-up with imitation and observation that barred no holds. The “In Living Color” and “My Wife And Kids” superstar created caricatures of homosexuals, the physically disabled, homeless people, slaves, incarcerated perverts, and the racially militant. Like one of his characters, Damon Wayans is a clown that challenged the tension surrounding many of the changing tides of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.
As a guest on “The Breakfast Club,” Damon Wayans, Sr. looks backwards. The star of Mo’ Money, Blankman, and The Last Boy Scout is asked about some of these characters. Angela Yee and Charlamagne Tha God press Damon about Handi-Man, his handicapped superhero and Blaine Edwards, a highly-sexual, outspokenly gay film critic (as “Men On Film”), both of which were from “In Living Color.”
Notably, what drives the discussion is Damon admitting that he grew up with a club foot, impeding his mobility, and likely prompting teasing from peers. Years later, on FOX TV, Wayans would mimic a cognitively and physically impaired man in a sketch series. “Only from people who weren’t crippled,” says the New York City native if he caught flack for the Handi-Man character. “[Physically-disabled people] think it’s funny,” he believes. “It’s people who may have family that are handicapped that they don’t take care of. And it’s their guilt that kicks in, ‘Aw, well you shouldn’t do that.’ Well, you should go hang out with your crippled cousin.”
Asked if that type of politically-incorrect comedy fits in a 2015 society, Damon Wayans, Sr. made a point, even if with laughter. “Everybody’s on their best behavior because we don’t want to make [President Barack Obama] look bad,” he said. “Comedy needs to go back. Right now, America—the world, is primed for some good, hard, in-your-face comedy.” This sentiment echoes a point made recently by a comedian deeply influenced by “In Living Color: Dave Chappelle. Wayans, who praised “Chappelle’s Show” later in the 30-plus-minute interview, urged “It’s how you present it. Anything works if you present it right.” He said behind the laughter is love. “If I attack handicapped people? No, it won’t work. But if I show what’s funny about it and actually inspire, then I can stand on moral ground.” With laughter, and some arguably offensive remarks, the comedian stated that in a recent run of shows in Buffalo, New York, there were physically-disabled audience members every night.
This part of the interview lent itself to a bigger question. Has technology forced comedy into politically-correctness? “I think the cell phone is the great destroyer of comedy,” declares Damon. “Since the Michael Richards thing.” In 2006, Richards, the former “Seinfeld” star, reacted to a heckling fan with a string of racially-offensive slurs, remarks, and imitations. The incident, caught on camera, greatly affected Richards’ career afterwards, and reportedly the culture. Wayans decried the aftermath of incidents like this. “There’s certain places where cameras shouldn’t be. One of them is comedy clubs. The other one is church. The other one is the war room.”
Beyond political correctness, Damon Wayans says that recording and online posting of live performed bits, jokes, and sets cheapens the craft of comedy—differently than a musical concert. “Once you know the joke, it’s over—and you basically gotta burn your act. So comedians don’t like people [to use cell phones and cameras].” He compared the comedic process to the iterations of a luxury car’s safety. “A lot of times, we’re working out stuff. Mercedes [Benz] makes a great car, but they’ve got to crash a lot of them first. We’re basically on stage crashing a lot of jokes to figure them out. Then, when we’re ready to publish, then we want to publish.”
(7:00) As the discussion grows, the conversation touches on many things. A star in three decades, Damon has watched his namesake son eclipse him in popularity in the 2010s. “It’s hard to be Senior ’cause Junior is getting all the work,” says the proud father.
Going back on his being fired from “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-1980s, Wayans reveals something not often discussed. The comedian, coming in after the departure of Eddie Murphy, was asked at one point to do a non-speaking part, holding a spear. Wayans refused, and was extremely limited in the sketches of the partial 1985-1986 season. In retaliation, Wayans played a stock character, and used the same caricature speaking voice he would use for Blaine Edwards four years later. When Wayans off script modifications drew attenion away from the sketch’s intended players, show creator and Executive Producer Lorne Michaels fired Wayans on the spot, a first in the show’s then decade-long history. Thirty years later, Damon acknowledges, “He was right to fire me.” Although he and Michaels still have a reportedly cold relationship (in 1995, Wayans returned to host), it proved to be a pivotal career shift. “I had to do that to do ‘In Living Color,'” he says, of joining siblings Kim Wayans, Shawn Wayans, and show creator Keenan Ivory Wayans at FOX in 1990. Many of the sketches Wayans was trying to get on from “SNL” would be his hits at “In Living Color.” There, Damon’s stay on the hit variety show ended prematurely compared to his brothers (including later cast member Marlon Wayans) and sister. Damon reveals that censorship ultimately chased him out of a cast that included Jim Carrey, Tommy Davidson, David Alan-Grier, Jamie Foxx, and more. A January, 1992 “Men On Football” sketch (starring Wayans) played during the Super Bowl XXVI halftime (against the CBS broadcast). The sketch implied that Richard Gere and Carl Lewis were homosexuals. “It was rumor, but we made it true,” laughs Wayans at a legend surrounding Richard Gere inserting gerbils into his body. “[FOX] started really coming down on us with censorship.” Wayans would exit the cast, with his siblings leaving the show after the 1993 season. The fifth (and final) season would be a departure from the critical acclaim and ratings of the FOX benchmark program. “What’s interesting is that the show didn’t really work after [Keenan Ivory Wayans] left, which is a testament to his vision.” Wayans praised his older brother (an actor and stand-up in his own right), and applied this lesson to social media comedians. “[Sketch] requires somebody at the helm with vision.” Wayans urged the stars of Vine, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter to seek challenging voices to hone their craft.
(14:00) Staying on “In Living Color,” Damon clarifies his relationship with his brother, and why he did not appear at a 2012 TV Land Awards reunion of the cast. “That had to do with FOX disrespecting me,” said Wayans, who revealed that the network offered him $2,500 to be on an “In Living Color” reboot. He also waved off reports of turmoil regarding the show’s billing and creative control. “I never want to make my brother look bad, but…at a certain point, there’s just something in me that won’t allow that.” He says that he apologized to Keenan privately, for a moment that inevitably added controversy to a celebration. “Everybody else can kiss my ass.” “Family’s fam,” says Damon, revealing that his mother urged the siblings to kiss on the mouth after disagreements into their teens. Additionally, he said the matriarch refused to accept any member of the family losing a fight with so many allies. As children, if the Wayans did not defend each other, she would physically reprimand the family members who did not step in. Pressed with the necessity and possibility of the 1990s show returning, Damon said, “‘In Living Color’ should be an institution. It should be back.”
Some other highlights of this interview begin at the midpoint. Damon Wayans praises comedy’s current king, Kevin Hart. Of the reign, Damon says, “[I] love it and I don’t think it’ll ever be repeated.” Despite some challenge and competition from brother Marlon against Kevin years ago, he breaks from the family rule to honor Hart’s accomplishments. “He just leap-frogged everybody.” However, of social media over-users (beyond celebrity), Damon Wayans says, “it’s desperate to me.” The comedian says he has hard drives worth of photos that he will never share online, enjoying his family’s privacy. Asked about the likelihood of a Wayans family biopic, Damon again uses topical, comic relief: “Somebody gotta die, then we’ll tell the story. We need our Eazy-E.”
In the last 10 minutes of the interview, Damon Wayans reveals some heavy thoughts about peers Bill Cosby and Tracy Morgan. Speaking on Tracy’s reported settlement with Wal-Mart has since seemingly gotten Damon in some hot water. As for Cosby, Wayans has a very different opinion than that of fellow “In Living Color” writer (turned “Nightly Show” host) Larry Wilmore. Making light of some of the accusers, Wayans riffs on women being “un-rapeable.” He offers advice to Cosby, including urging the mega-millionaire to divorce his wife, smoke a final cigar, and drug himself. He brings Hannibal Buress into the discussion too, for outing the comedian. In a seemingly more serious note, Damon points out that Woody Allen (who is now married to his adopted daughter, following reports of abusing her as a minor) and “Seventh Heaven” star Stephen Collins (who admitted to sexually assaulting minors) are treated differently for their crimes. Of Collins (who starred alongside Richard Pryor in Brewster’s Millions), he says, “His show’s still on TV.” Perhaps adding his true sentiments beyond the giggles, Damon Wayans says, “If it was my daughter [who was raped], I would have killed Bill Cosby.”
Even in this interview, Damon Wayans challenges political correctness. The onetime close associate of Bill Maher aims to make light of everything, perhaps bringing awareness and discussion about anything. As the treatment of LGBTQ, physically-disabled, homeless, and women has changed greatly in the world since the early 1990s, how do you look at Damon’s most famous sketch characters? Has the cell-phone camera and social media hurt the craft of comedy as a whole?