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Comedy Interview: Damon Wayans, Jr.

Grant Walters Grant Walters Comedy Interview: Damon Wayans, Jr.
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The writer, comedian, and actor best know for his starring roles in "Happy Endings" and "New Girl" will take the stage at the Columbus Funny Bone on Friday and Saturday night

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Unlike most stand-up comedians who branch out to the small screen after years of developing their comedic instincts on stage, Damon Wayans, Jr.’s career effectively launched when he, at the age of 20, became a staff writer for the ABC prime-time sitcom, My Wife and Kids — a prodigious job that made him one of the youngest ever to do so for a major network vehicle.

“I mean, I just love the power of writing. You know, one moment it’s not there, and then all of a sudden it is there,” he explained to me on the phone from Los Angeles last week. “The ability to write it in a structured form is just…that’s what led to all of the other things I do. That’s what led to stand-up, that’s what led to acting – I wrote first. And so, I think without writing there is nothing, specifically for me.”

And the opportunities proliferated from there. After landing his first leading role in the 2009 Wayans family-directed, written, and produced film, Dance Flick, and appearing as Fosse in Adam McKay’s 2010 comedy, The Other Guys, with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, Wayans, Jr. would make his way back to network television in 2011 as part of the critically lauded ensemble cast of ABC’s Happy Endings. His work as principal character Brad Williams would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series at the NAACP Image Awards and Critic’s Choice Television Awards. The same year, he would assume the recurring role of Coach in the soon-to-be FOX hit New Girl, which aired its final episodes this week after a seven-season run.

In 2014, Wayans, Jr. and New Girl co-star Jake Johnson were paired to lead the FOX action-comedy Let’s Be Cops, which grossed over $138 million worldwide. He also appeared with Dakota Johnson, Rebel Johnson, and Alison Brie in 2016’s How To Be Single. 

Those who want to see more of Wayans, Jr.’s affable brand of comedy on their televisions, however, won’t need to wait long. He’ll star in the forthcoming mini-series The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and adapted from Swiss author Joël Dicker’s 2012 novel. And just weeks ago, CBS signed him to front the Ben Winston-produced pilot, Happy Together, based on Winston’s real-life experiences sharing his home with former One Direction front man Harry Styles during the dizzying halcyon of the band’s popularity. Styles himself will reportedly serve as one of the series’ executive producers.

“I had a meeting with Ben Winston and a couple of other writer-producers and read the script, and I thought, ‘It’s a really funny script, but I’m not too invested in it.’ Then when I met Ben and heard it was based on [his] actual life? I was like, ‘Oh, I know there have got to be so many story ideas.’ He was telling me how Harry Styles used to live in his attic for, like, years. At the height of his career. He would go and sell out Wimbledon and fly back to his little attic and sleep there. And Ben would have Taylor Swift at his house in the kitchen in the morning and was just like, ‘Whoa…wait. What’s going on? This is crazy!’ So, I fell in love with it once I realized it was real. I knew I gots to do it.”

Wayans, Jr.’s deal with CBS connected to Happy Together will also offer him the potential to produce and write future projects.

I’m equally as excited about the producing part just as much as the acting part,” he affirms. “I’m really looking forward to getting back on that horse. I’m actually writing a move for Netflix with Jake Johnson from Let’s Be Cops, and we just sent it in. It’s for us to star in, too, so it’s going to be fun. Yeah, so I just don’t stop working. It’s a really funny movie, too.”

In the meantime, Wayans, Jr. is returning to stand-up, which he began pursuing in his early 20s, with a batch of dates at clubs around the country. This weekend, he’ll be at the Columbus Funny Bone for a four-show engagement on Friday and Saturday night.

First of all, congratulations on your new series pick-up — that’s really exciting news. You’ll be spending a good part of your summer doing stand-up. Does that sharpen you or provide you with a different comedic perspective when you’re in between projects on screen?

“Yeah, I think it definitely sharpens me and helps me understand what people think is funny, also. I feel like a lot of comedians who started out as comedians, and then they stopped doing stand-up – they kind of lose touch with what people actually think is funny. So, it’s a great way to test the market, it’s a great way to test whether or not you’re still funny, it helps you stay relevant.

It also really helps me express myself. A lot of things that I do acting-wise are someone else’s ideas and stuff, and I just help bring it to life. Whereas, stand-up is all me and, you know, what I think is funny.”

Since your stand-up is strongly observational, I’m wondering what you do think is funny with respect to the human condition? Is there something that particularly intrigues you about how people act or think?

“I just love that we’re all flawed individually, you know? Everyone’s a hypocrite. And I think the art of stand-up is a great way to shine a light on that hypocrisy, because at the end of the day no-one’s perfect. And I think it’s just fun to have fun. That’s where the comedy lies is going ‘you’re a litterbug!’ You know?”

Tell me a little about your first stand-up gig. What do you remember about it and what eventually made you fall in love with it?

“I feel like every comedian knows the first time they did stand-up because it’s such a rush – and it’s embarrassing. It’s the most embarrassing art form, I think, in the world. You’re up there and you’re talking, and people are looking at you, and it’s like, ‘Do you like me?’ The first time I did stand-up was at the HaHa Comedy Club on Lankershim [Boulevard] in Los Angeles.

And I went up — and it was funny because before I started doing stand-up, I hadn’t seen a lot of dad’s stand-up, right? I didn’t see it until I was 20…23? And then I think I started doing stand-up the next year. So, I went up thinking it was going to be super easy, and then as soon as I got up on stage, I got red, my ears got hot, and I just started saying my stand-up stuff really fast. I didn’t pause for any laughs because I just wanted to get off the stage as quickly as possible. And I thought, ‘Oh, wow. Dad just makes this look way easier than it actually is.

So, that was the beginning of my love for stand-up because it was such a challenge. I love challenges – it was a big challenge and I wanted to rise to the occasion.”

I’ve never attempted stand-up myself, but I’ve dabbled in improv. But I’m wondering for those of us who don’t intrinsically understand what you experience behind a mic in that environment, what’s happening in your brain and your heart as you’re on stage that you wish your audience would know?

“Oh, that’s a really [laughs}…for a person who’s never done stand-up, that’s a very specific question. I think…yeah, I really like that question. And I think it’s very layered. It’s that we’re…we’re taught to always take the blame — it’s not the audience, it’s you — and that we have to bring the energy. But I think sometimes it would help us exponentially if the audience was just there to laugh. No matter what the comedian did beforehand, clear the palate.

These are individuals who are all…whether the person before you killed or they were terrible, cleanse your palate and give them the same energy you gave them before, if it was good energy. A lot of times, comedians are dealing with real-life off-stage stuff and have to turn on the charm – it’s a lot to deal with. We want to be liked, we want to be funny for the people. We’re not going up there just to talk, we’re going up there to try and make you laugh.

It’s a lot – the heart’s beating fast, if you’re doing your job right. It’s a fun gig, though, because every audience is a different challenge. You have the really engaged crowd with the one heckler who’s so drunk that keeps yelling out information about their lives that you don’t care about. And then you have really cold audiences where even if you’re giving them all your best jokes, they’re just not budging, you know? It’s a very…I don’t know. It’s a vibe. Stand-up is all about vibe, a feeling. Do these people feel me? If I don’t really feel them, I have to make them feel me, or at least try. It’s weird, man. But it’s fun, though.”

So is it fair to say that stand-up becomes easier as you gain more experience, or do you just understand or navigate your instincts better?

“Absolutely. The beauty of stand-up is that it’s repetition. You spend years fine-tuning jokes you know by heart, and you add stuff to them. So, you kind of just know what you’re going to say and when people are going to laugh because of the habit of stand-up and how much you know it and how much you drill it. Over the years, you just grow accustomed and you kind of experience every audience, you know? You know how to handle the heckler, you know how to handle a cold audience. It’s kind of like going to war or training all the time – you know what to expect in a fight.”

I was listening to a podcast where Mike Birbiglia and John Mulaney were talking about pivotal points in their careers when they received direct feedback that made them fundamentally better comedians. What advice has been given to you that’s made a similar impact on your craft?

“Mmm. I’ve had a couple. My dad’s always a well of advice and experience. He told me, ‘Comedy isn’t brain surgery. It’s either funny or it’s not. Don’t micromanage your thoughts, and also don’t go out there with…mix up your set and mix up how you get into jokes so you’re never married to one way of saying something.’ Because when you approach your material from different angles, you come up with different ideas for that joke. And so that really stuck with me.

My cousin Craig [Wayans] told me, as far as comedy goes and what funny is, he’s like, ‘If you were to always think in your head before you say a joke, or before you come up with a joke, ‘Would you laugh at this when you saw it in a movie or if you saw a comedian doing this, would that make you laugh?’’ And that was kind of a shift in my mind, like, ‘Oh, wow!’ Honestly, that’s what comedy is: what you think is funny. And if you’re talented and you do know what’s funny, odds are that’ll help you as far as creating your jokes.”

I know you’re impassioned by acting and stand-up, but I also know that they’re jobs with long hours and physical and emotional implications. I know what it looks and feels like when I’m having a bad or good day at work, so what might that look and feel like for you?

“I mean, really, it’s all about how much sleep I had the night before {laughs]. If I didn’t sleep well, it’s a battle – whether it’s stand up or acting. Daddy needs his sleep! That’s my biggest rule – to make sure I’m sleeping enough. Or if I’m traveling a lot – it’s all about how tired I am. So, that’s my biggest challenge in performing. If I’m not rested, I’ll get groggy and then have that ‘show must go on’ energy.

I don’t really drink or smoke or any extracurricular activities – that’s never really a problem. But if I do drink, I’ll definitely be hungover. I’m not a great recover-er – the next day is terrible. Especially when you get to a certain age, the bounce-back isn’t there. You’ve really gotta go, ‘Is it worth it? Is this drink worth it?’ And with me, I can’t drink just one, you know – it’s like Pringles…I gotta…[laughs]”

You’ve also been delving into some tech development in hope of helping out other comedians and live performers. 

“I’ve developed this app called Special Guest. It’s basically a live entertainment app where you can hire entertainers to perform for you anytime, anywhere, essentially. We’ve had a really good response in California with about two- or three-hundred bookings a month right now, and we’re rising. It’s a great way…whether you’re a comedian or musician, or whatever kind of live talent that you have, this is a great way to help make you money.

I do open mics with all these comedians and stuff like that, and they’re so talented – it just sucks that a lot of them don’t have proper representation to get their names out there. So, while they’re on their grind, this is a great way to get paid while they’re doing that.”

Damon Wayans, Jr. will appear this weekend, Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19, at the Columbus Funny Bone, 145 Easton Town Center. Tickets are $25, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via the Funny Bone’s website.

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