The march of time can be a comedian's greatest enemy. Those who have been at it for decades might find that one day their act doesn't click with audiences any more.
Damon Wayans has nearly 40 years of show business under his belt, but if you think that means he's maybe a bit out of touch, you'd be dead wrong. With his It's Personal Tour, Wayans isn't slinging jokes ripped from the headlines. He's keeping it close to home, and he's inviting us all in.
Damon Wayans Gets "Personal"
Phoenix New Times sat down with Wayans to talk about his new tour, his legendary comedy family, the return of Eddie Murphy, and what keeps him coming back to the stage.
Phoenix New Times: As someone who went beyond stand-up with movies and television, do you feel that stand-up is the one bastion of the entertainment world in which you have more control over what you do, especially when you consider that the whole system is geared to control you?
Damon Wayans: So stand-up is instant gratification. I don't know if you can say more or do more nowadays, but you certainly start with something you wrote. And that you performed. And that you think is funny. As opposed to getting a script and saying, "Hmm, I might be able to make this work," and then you get with a director, and you go, "I hope we get along," and then you get with a cast member and you go, "I think I like him...?" (Laughs) Stand-up is just you, and these ideas, and an audience that's primed. They come there to laugh. So it's like everything is favorable for you to have a great experience.
You've actually "retired" from stand-up before, right?
Well, I had a brain tumor. I had to walk away. I was getting headaches. I thought it was from traveling and doing all these shows, and what it really was was I had a benign tumor.
And that's all taken care of now?
Oh yeah. They did a great job.
Do you think comics ever truly retire? I mean, look at Eddie Murphy right now. Can anyone really walk away from it once they've experienced it?
I think you can walk away from the stage, but you can't walk away from your brain. And what happens with comedians is you think stand-up all the time. And if you don't, you start, uh... well, I can tell a comedian who hasn't been on stage for a while based on the interviews that they do on TV. I can see that they look down, they're not as confident. And they throw away jokes that they would usually lean into? Like Kevin Hart is always on, and he's not afraid to be on. Dave Chappelle too. He has a swag, because he's like, "I was just on stage last night, so I know this works," as opposed to, "I'm not really sure."
You watch Jim Carrey right now, and he's not trying to be funny because he's not really aware how funny he is. He's still funny, but he just doesn't... I can't explain it. It's like, I guarantee if Michael Jordan went out and shot around baskets he's gonna miss a lot of them. Because he hasn't been practicing. So his swag about what he can do on the court would be false bravado, as opposed to Steph Curry, who can sit there, and have a conversation with you, and make three-pointers.
Do you think that a comic that ever goes away too long could ever really lose that kind of talent? Or do you think the ember is always there and they can reignite it later?
It's always there. I'm super excited about the possibilities of Eddie Murphy coming back. Think about the last time we saw Eddie. He was what, 22 years old? In a purple Barney suit? (laughs) And he's had 10 children, he's had five or six wives, he's been in show business for so long... he has so much to talk about, you know?
And here's why comedians walk away from it: because you can't cheat the process. And the process is hanging out late, working in front of people who will reject you. You're gonna be good some nights, and you're just gonna stink some nights, and it's your ego. Can you handle the nights you stink? And can you take that as, "Oh, I gotta work on this, maybe I should change that," as opposed to, "I suck!" (Laughs) And that's really how you feel after a bad set. You just go, "Oh man, I can't do this."
There are so many comics that feel like they're the outlier in their family, kind of like a black sheep. In your family, it seems like the opposite is true. To be able to turn to a sibling and vent about Hollywood, and have them say, "I know what you mean," has that reinforced you and helped keep you in this business, just by having that type of support?
Absolutely. Because I respect their opinions. When I was going through it on Lethal Weapon, I was talking to Keenen about how long the hours were. I'm working 16-hour days, and Keenen turns to me and goes, "Look, here's the thing. Somebody figured out a way to make a lot of money, and you're the excuse." (Laughs) And what he said made all the sense in the world, right? Because only he could say that to me. If I call my agent up and they tell me something, I might be like, "Hey, eff you, it's your job to fix this." Because I don't wanna hear it from them. But with my family, I gotta accept it as truth, cause they love me.
Let's go back and talk about the kid who gets to be in Beverly Hills Cop II and on Saturday Night Live. What would you say to that kid now, if you could? What advice would you give him?
I would say to me, "Embrace every moment. Work as hard, if not harder, on accepting everything, and embracing it as a lesson. Don't take nothing personal. Continue to prove yourself. And every time someone doubts you, it's another opportunity to prove yourself."
You said "personal," so I'm going to bring to the last question: What's so personal about the It's Personal Tour?
Well, I'm only talking about me and my life, and how I've been affected by this journey. I'm not talking about politics. I'm not talking about social grievances, cops shooting black people, none of that. That's not my job right now. My job is to make people laugh, and forget. And try to connect them on a human level. We all have parents. We all have family. We've all done stupid things. We've all gotten into trouble. And we all have people who are heroes to us, who rescued us. Sometimes from ourselves. That's what's personal about it.
Given what's going on right now in politics, and the kind of social changes we're going through right now, do you find it hard not to bring up on stage?
Well, I was hanging out with Dave Chappelle. I went to see him in New York, he was on Broadway. And he said (in Chappelle voice), "You need to come back, man! I can't do it by myself! We need strong voices out there!" And then I watched his [Netflix special] Sticks & Stones, and a lane opened up, right? I think what he did was so brilliant, and he scorched the earth so that other comedians could have a voice. Because he took all the heat, right? And he's still standing. And then I thought, "Bill Cosby is in jail. So somebody's gotta do this!" (Laughs).
And what could I say about Trump that Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah or any other late night talk show hasn't already said about him, and with a better point of view? So let me leave that alone, and remember what comedians do. We bring levity to life. And if I dwell in darkness, I can't be that light. And I enjoy being that light right now.
Is this something that comes from doing 40 years of stand-up? If you were younger, or if you were just starting stand-up now in this time period, would you want to talk about the social issues stuff? Is the "keeping it personal" thing something that developed?
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I think back when I was doing stand-up, we'd talk about Bush, and there was stuff to talk about. But the world wasn't where it is now. The world wasn't dark. Some of the politics were dark. You'd think, "Let me be a truth teller in the world and find humor in what I'm seeing."
But now, we live in a world where right is wrong and wrong is right. And what is truth? They say truth is relative. It's not, but that's what's being marketed to us. So, I don't wanna set myself up to be fodder for CNN and have them analyze comedy and talk about "Damon's jokes" as opposed to "North Korea has nuclear missiles pointing at us." (Laughs).
I don't wanna be that distraction. So for me, it's like, I'm not afraid to talk about these things, I just... they depress me. And I wanna laugh. I wanna make myself laugh. And how do I make myself laugh? By telling some of these stories that I know made me laugh and still make me laugh every time I tell them.
Damon Wayans is scheduled to perform at Stand Up Live on Friday, November 1, through Sunday, November 3. Tickets start at $40 via the venue's website.