David Alan Grier has one of those iconic faces. As a kid, if you ever used to sneak out of bed to watch In Living Color late at night with the sound low so your parents wouldn’t hear and yell at you for watching adult shows, you know–his specialty is the tiny facial twitch which makes him look crazy, or the giant knowing smile of a character that knows absolutely nothing. He can crack you up standing completely still and staring at the camera looking terrified as shop teacher Al Macafee or bluesman Roy Calhoun, or muttering with rage doing an impression of Joe Jackson or Ike Turner. But in the 20 years (good lord more than 20 years) since In Living Color debuted, while other veterans of that show have become traditional Hollywood superstars or faded from the public eyes, DAG has transformed into an iconic voice in comedy as expressive and powerful as the single raised eyebrow that used to kill audiences in the 90s.
His late great Comedy Central show Chocolate News sadly might be the last truly political sketch comedy program, particularly one from a black perspective. He has written an amazing memoir (Barack Like Me) detailing his own life viewed in the light of the election of the first black president. In what seemed like the absolutely perfect casting moment, David Mamet cast him as one of the leads in his post-Obama Broadway play Race last year as a contentious and stubborn lawyer. It made such perfect sense, not just because he’s a Yale-trained classical actor, but also because, personally, the dude just has no fear at all about saying exactly what he’s thinking about any subject at any time. If you’ve heard him hosting or being interviewed on a radio show or podcast over the past decade you know he’s got no problems taking the conversation to subjects usually off limits to a TMZ-based universe where everyone tries to watch what they say all the time. He will inevitably pop out with what most people are only daring to think privately, and has no problems taking on hypocrisy and ridiculousness from any community or branch of the political spectrum–but always doing it with the crooked smile (even if you can’t see it) that makes everything he says insidiously hilarious.
Given this reputation I was extra excited to be able to talk to him in preparation for his just announced special show at the Lansburgh Theater this weekend and he did not disappoint–holding forth brilliantly on post-racial America, fat people on TV, and whether (or not) Jon Stewart is funny. But no matter how deep or intellectual or outrageous the conversation gets, he manages to always be warmly, infectiously, inexorably funny. It seems effortless, though I’m sure it is the mark of a lifetime’s worth of practice paired with the God-given gift of a pure comic genius.
BYT: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today! Let’s get it going.
DAG: This is for Brightest Young Things?
BYT: Yeah, Brightest Young Things. I’m none of the above, but that’s okay.
DAG: Neither am I. What’s going on with the name?
BYT: Well, it’s from an Evelyn Waugh novel. We cover entertainment things in D.C. It’s run by a very bright young woman, so she’s got it all covered. So first of all, are you traveling? Where are you at right now?
DAG: I’m sitting in my office that I just finally cleaned out after two or three years.
DAG: It was piled high with shit. I was watching “Hoarders” and I thought, “I have got to get my shit together.” It was only one room. It wasn’t like you were climbing over old McDonald’s packages, but still. “Hoarders” makes anyone feel good about themselves and horrified at the same time. I love it. It’s one of my favorite shows. That one and “Heavy.” Who can’t feel better about themselves after watching those shows?
BYT: I haven’t seen “Heavy” yet.
DAG: Oh, it’s great. This fat chick—she’s 44, she weighs 400…. And before I go further, please don’t tell me you’re morbidly obese.
BYT: Not yet!
DAG: Alright. So, she’d never fucked anyone in her life because she was so huge.
BYT: Oh man.
DAG: She lost like, 180 pounds and now she’s just obese. I think that’s why those shows are hits. You watch it and 99% of the viewers go, “Well, I’m not that fucked up.”
BYT: Exactly! Of course, they’re sitting in a big pile of McDonald’s wrappers, too.
DAG: Yes, yes but still! There was one guy who had, like, 200 rabbits. I’m not bullshitting! They were eating through his walls like rats. That guy was a roommate of mine, I knew that guy….
BYT: Haha. So you live in L.A., right?
DAG: I do.
BYT: I knew that because I follow you on Twitter and…
DAG: I love Twitter!
BYT: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna ask you! When you started Twitterin– was it just something that you saw and thought, “That’s for me!” or did you kind of have to be convinced that it was a good idea?
DAG: Well, I was on Twitter but I literally had about 400 followers. I went to Montreal for the Montreal Comedy Festival a couple of years ago and Kevin… uh… shit… Kevin… fuck…
BYT: Kevin Meaney?
DAG: …Kevin…black dude…he’s gonna kill me…Kevin…shit…he’s a comic, he’s a friend of mine…he said, “Shit, dude, you gotta do this right.” And he reset my account. See, I had this account but I never used it. My publicist had set it up. I would Tweet really lame shit, and he was like, “No, man, you gotta do it like this.” He taught me to step it up. So, he announced on his Twitter—because at the time I had 400 and he had maybe 40,000 or 4,000 or something like that, something astronomical. Anyways, I started getting into it. First of all, when I first got Twitter, people would follow, and then I got verified. I was in this Adidas store in Chicago and some guy was like, “Is that you?” and I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Well, I’m one of the real Twitter peeps,” or some shit, “I’m gonna tell them it’s really you.” And when he did that, then more people started following. I always tweet back and answer everybody, so we just talk.
BYT: That’s great!
DAG: Yeah, but what I was saying was that once there was some chick, some housewife in New Jersey, was like, “You’d better be funny.” Like I’m supposed to be writing a new fucking act every day!
BYT: From what I’ve seen from following you, you like to just talk and not everything has to be well-crafted.
DAG: Yeah, that’s not my style. I had a really great Oscar night jag.
BYT: Yeah, I saw that! Speaking of new media, you’ve hosted or been on the Adam Carolla podcast a bunch of times, sort of recalling the days when you’d been on Loveline all the time. Have you ever considered doing a podcast?
DAG: No, because at this point it seems like every loser middle comedian has a podcast, you know what I mean?
BYT: [cracking up]
DAG: Seriously! It’s like, “My name’s Scott Hamburger! I’m on once a week with my boy Ray-Ray!” I love Adam. Adam is one of the few guys who has taken his audience, which he built. Everyone knows him from radio—he dabbles in other things, but that’s where he’s known. So, he’s one of the few guys to take that huge audience and do it right. Most guys, even guys on Sirius, you’d be surprised, they’re great and they’re really funny, but they don’t have huge audiences. They just don’t. Now, I may blog or do a podcast, but it’s never going to be that. It would probably be for food. I have a food blog, that I’m all nerdy about and I would do that. I don’t know. I do like the immediacy of it and I’m planning on producing some sketches and stuff like that to put on my website. To do a podcast every week, you know, it’s like, “I’m talking to my gardener Amelia this week!”
BYT: May we talk politics a little bit? I know in “Barack Like Me,” which, wait, is that a James Baldwin reference?
DAG: It’s a reference to “Black Like Me,” which was a book, very 50’s, when this white guy wanted to know what it felt like to be black. There was this chemical he took and he became black. You have to see the movie, because this really bad white guy, they gave him dark brown make-up, and everyone’s like, “Hey, get outta here! You can’t buy Coca-Cola in here!”
BYT: So, in the first part of it, you have this long made up fantasy that Obama could use you as a Secretary of Mirth, which you told as if it really happened. I almost wondered for a second if he actually did call you up…
DAG: I loved that bit! How fuckin’ cool is that? I’ll give you an example. I was on the set of this movie and I had this friend named Sade. Now, it wasn’t the Sade, but her name is Sade. And I was like, “Hey babe, what’s up, bada bam da bang bang.” And this friend on the set sees that and goes, “You know what the coolest thing about you is? You’re fuckin’ texting with Sade!” Okay, this Sade lives in Harlem. She’s not the one with the album. He didn’t believe me, he was like, “You’re fuckin’ so cool, you don’t even lie about it!”
BYT: It seems like now Obama might need a Secretary of Mirth even more. It seems like the bloom is off the rose for a lot of liberals.
DAG: Right. That’s the first thing I address when I hit the stage. What the fuck happened? I mean, we all knew it would happen, but it’s like a new relationship. You find this chick and you sleep with them, and you’re like, “Oh my god! She’s so cool! She knows the real me!” The first twenty minutes now I only talk about Obama and what happened.
BYT: I feel like it might be a little unfair—people turning on him when he’s just getting started, he’s got all this opposition.
DAG: Right. And we forget how much he has done. But it’s like anything. I remember I was watching this documentary on prison and they were talking to this guy, this beautiful jazz musician, in prison. And they were saying, “Oh, you play so beautifully Rashid! Do your cellmates like the way you play?” And he just looks at the camera like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” In prison, everyone hates you. Because they don’t do anything! They just sit there in their cells and talk about you. So, it was that kind of thing. “You’re not standing right. I wouldn’t do it like that.” Everybody’s like a Monday morning quarterback now that President Obama is president. It’s an impossible job. I don’t know who would want it, but he did and he has it and also he got it at the worst possible time. People forget. I had to remind people all the time, like—do you realize, Bush passed all the stimulus shit? Second of all, we were on the precipice of total disaster, you know? And people are like, “No, fuck all that.” Plus, he cannot pass shit. It’s ridiculous. We could go on and on. I just think it’s much sexier to run for president than to actually be it. Also—what’s that first meeting like? Because you know everybody running is like, “I’m gonna do this! Everybody in the whole world will get a day off on Wednesday! On Friday everybody gets one-hundred dollars!” Then you get the job and they take you in that room and they go, “Look, man. There’s a big rock that’s going to fall on the United States and destroy everyone unless you hold it up right here.” You know they tell you shit you never knew before. Top secret information, reasons why you can’t do the shit you said you were gonna do. And you can’t tell anybody. So it’s kind of fucked up.
BYT: Here are the five people that actually run the country…
DAG: …and you don’t do shit! I think—and I’m going to go on the record—Obama will be reelected. The Republicans have no leader and they continually shoot themselves in the foot. They want to destroy all unions…
BYT: You know, some people say Obama being elected puts us in kind of a post-racial environment or something like that. But then again, some white people are losing their goddamn minds right now!
DAG: You know, when I was doing the “Chocolate News” I went on tour right after the election and I talked about all that stuff and for a lot of white people, they were like, “We are past this. We can’t laugh at this kind of humor.” And I’m like, “Really?! You think on November 11, all racism was gone?” It was an amazing watershed cultural, political, social moment for the country, for the world. But still, that’s the funny part—that after all the dust settled, everybody started moving right back into their own corners. It’s been amazing to watch but, you know. I want to meet the second black president. Maybe he doesn’t have all the pressure of Barack. He’ll be 50 Cent or something.
BYT: I want to switch gears for a minute and talk about the Broadway show you did last year, David Mamet’s play “Race.” David Mamet is fascinating to me. He’s got to be some kind of strange genius guy, isn’t he?
DAG: It was the greatest experience of my career. He was so inclusive and collaborative. None of us had worked with David Mamet before “Race,” which he wrote and directed. And we’d all read his books: “Actors Suck,” “Just Shut Up And Say My Words,”– which is the title of one of his books I think– “The Playwright’s Always Right,” that kinda shit. But as an actor, to sit there with this great writer and talk about everything before we ever got up there, and to be able to go: “This doesn’t work, let’s change this, I want to try this…” Not to say that he didn’t at times go “No. That’s not going to work. But I’ll let you try it. See? No. This is why we want to do it this way.” But it was great. And I think a lot of the reason that Race came about is because of what we were just talking about. Because after Barack Obama’s been elected, now we can actually talk about this. A lot of people who saw Race did think these were old thoughts or old ideas, and a lot of the people who were most bothered by it were young liberals, who thought they had progressed in their thinking beyond all that. And it’s like Really? Are you? Because like you said, in those times, we always revert back to how we were brought up, our core thinking. Nobody wants to be a racist, at least most people, or sexist or a bigot, but we’ve all found ourselves doing it. It’s the human condition! You’re put upon, something happens, and you catch yourself going “I know it was them. Those motherfuckers. Wait what did I just say?” So it deals with all that.
BYT: So there was never a moment where it felt strange that he was telling you, “This is what this black person would say on this issue…”
DAG: No, no he never said that. Though of course I struggled with it. And onstage, after you rehearse something in private, once you put it up in public you can’t be in everyone’s mind going “Look what I was really talking about was…” “Trust me, that wasn’t an endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, it’s about flowers!” You can’t! You have to let the audience, and the viewer, find their way on their own. And there are going to be people who misinterpret and think they know what you were talking about, and they’re just going to be wrong. So there were times as actors when we were backstage talking about the audience who was going YEAH HAHAHA and we’re like well, no, that wasn’t supposed to be funny.
BYT: Speaking of audiences laughing at the wrong things, there’s this strain of comedy recently that attempts to be ironically racist, parodying racism or sexism by going over the top with it. And sometimes it weirds me out…does that weird you out?
BYT: Because I have to think some elements of the audience don’t really get that it’s supposed to be ironic…
DAG: Yes! Or it’s just an excuse for white comics to say the N-word. I mean I use it to make a point onstage myself, but it still kind of bothers me. I feel like it’s just shock value. But I don’t get everything. And plus I’m a comic. We’re the worst people to watch comedy with. It’s like taking your dad the sausage maker to the Oscar Meyer Hotdog Festival. But I know what you mean. It doesn’t always work. But everyone walks that fine line. Which is why I talk about Obama so much because it’s on everyone’s mind. After the election it was amazing to watch the whole country go through that together–trying to figure out: how can we talk about this?
BYT: To go back for a minute to In Living Color, which I was giant fan of when I was a kid…20 years ago.
DAG: I was just thinking about it the other day. That was a long long time ago. It’s like, Jim Carrey was on Inside the Actor’s studio and someone said to me, they only talked about In Living Color for a minute. And to me it’s like well he’s done about two hundred giant movies since then I don’t think he wants to spend an hour talking about Fire Marshall Bill.
BYT: Fair enough. But since In Living Color (which Keenan Ivory Wayans called the Black Saturday Night Live) there’s been a real dearth of Political Satire on TV. Chocolate News was one of the few things that tried to pick up where it left on and give the world a black perspective on world events. Now it seems like there’s nothing that even tries to touch on anything political with sketch comedy, it’s all either talking heads or fluffy goofy absurdity.
DAG: I was thinking about that today. I think the only hit that Comedy Central has had in the past 4 years has been Tosh 2.0 which is basically a hipper version of TMZ. You film, or take film, of famous people or just dickheads on the internet and poke fun at them. That what that is, that’s what the Soup is, that’s what Chelsea Lately is. Look at this idiot trying to juggle, you know, 100 grapes. And it is funny, and it’s cheap to do. But on Chocolate News I just wanted to say, before I was dead, this is where I would take it. You’re right, I didn’t see anybody doing that and although I wish it would have lasted longer I stand behind every single thing we did. The strangest thing that happened was, after we went on the air, people were bugged. Some people were pissed off, black people were complaining and I was totally freaked out. Because I felt in my heart that it was the best thing I could do, and I worked so hard on it. I go to Keenen Ivory Wayans and he goes “You don’t remember?” I’m like, “What?” “All the criticism we got when we did In Living Color?” I go, “What criticism?” and he walked me though it. It was like your High School girlfriend with the huge tits that used to fuck all your friends. Yes she did dude. Yes, she did. He had to remind me! There were so many black people, Spike Lee, Arsenio Hall, who wanted to fucking KILL us. They. Wanted. To. Kill. Us. And I totally forgot. Even the Chappelle show. It was a great show, but immediately motherfuckers were like, this is too much, we’ve got to get this off the air! So it was just a lot of pressure.
BYT: Do you think there will ever be another black Saturday Night Live?
DAG: I hope so! But it’s really for another generation to reimagine. I do feel like since In Living Color, the Chappelle show was the only thing to take up that mantle and took it to another level. People say we should bring it back, but it’s not for us. it’s for a new generation to do it from their point of view. And then there’s the Daily Show, and, I don’t know, I love Jon Stewart but…you can’t take yourself too seriously. Your first job is to be funny and entertain. Don’t run for President please. It’s just gotten kind of pompous. Just relax and be funny and poignant and everything will be cool. That’s my personal opinion. With In Living Color people would ask if it was our aim to be political and we’d say no, but by it’s very nature, it was political. That’s what happens. At least that’s my goal, I don’t want to lecture people. I mean, I saw Sam Kinison and he had this great line. He said, “What do you think Martin Luther King Jr. would say if he came back to life now and saw a picture of Mr. T and Michael Jackson? He’d say, ‘I took a bullet in the head for this?'” And that is brilliant! It’s political, it’s biting, it’s all of those things, but first and foremost: it’s fucking hilarious.
BYT: Absolutely. Well, final question…we’ve had some crazy earth happenings recently, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, birds and frogs falling out of the sky…is it possible that somewhere out there, someone is playing Jumanji?*
DAG: [Laughs uproariously] Oh maybe! Maybe. We’ll know if there’s a giant sinkhole. A giant sinkhole or 3d rhinoceroses. Not real ones! If you remember Jumanji, it looked like someone had 300 Million Dollars, and then someone took the money back. Half the animals look really good and the other half look like…Who hired a college freshman to do the special effects?
BYT: Is that papier-mâché? What is that?
DAG: I don’t know! That might be what happened. We made the film and then the studio wanted to add more animals but didn’t want to pay so half of them looked really fucked up.
BYT: Well thanks so much for talking with me!
DAG: Thanks! I hope I don’t get beat up for disparaging Jon Stewart.
BYT: Haha, I doubt it. I mean in some ways the Daily Show really is more like criticism than comedy these days.
DAG: And it’s so preachy too! He’s making speeches like “I BELIEVE WE MUST FEED ALL THE POOR PEOPLE”. Which, I do too, but just say it and be funny.
Go see the man that couldn’t be unfunny if he tried. Get tickets now for his show now before the world ends!
*Jumanji joke borrowed in part from an awesome local comic whose name I forgot.