When Chris Rock was putting together his latest film, Top Five — about Andre Allen (Rock), an actor-comedian on the verge of a career implosion who spends the day examining his life with a journalist (Rosario Dawson) — one of the writer-director’s first calls was to his longtime friend and collaborator J.B. Smoove. Rock wrote the kind of role for Smoove that the veteran rarely gets: Andre’s best friend and protector; the film’s voice of reason.
We tried to ask Smoove a bunch of questions about his relationship with Rock, about the hard work of making a funny movie, all seven of our Lucky 7 Questions, but interviewing Smoove is like busting a dam. There’s no stemming the tide of what comes out — the best you can to is hold on.
It seems like, looking at your resume, when you get to stretch as an actor it’s because other comedians — like Rock, like Louie C.K. — cast you in their projects? What do comedians know about drama that other people don’t?
We take what’s happening in the world and we put our spin on it. No one else has that ability. The news is gonna tell you exactly what’s happening. Some people don’t like the news because they think it’s too harsh. They don’t want bad news every minute on the news…they’ll get tired of it. A lot of people don’t watch the news, but they’ll wait until night time to watch a comedian do a monologue on a late-night show. A monologue on a late night show is gonna be a little more light hearted than you hearing it straight. We are the ones who are going to take the sting off of everything. A lot of our humor comes from drama. If a comedian comes on stage and starts telling you how terrible his father was or his life growing up or how he was bullied and you are laughing your ass off? He’s taken that drama, reprocessed it, became able to deal with it, and spit back out to the audience in a funny way. He’s going to touch you, make you laugh your ass off, and make you feel a whole lot better. The best thing a comedian can hear is “Hey, I needed that.” We have to be able to go from drama to comedy, drama to comedy. The set up is dramatic, but the punchline is humorous. Comedians are the only ones who can use the term “too soon?” The newsman can’t ask that question, because that’s his damned job. He’s supposed to give it to you too soon. We have to be able to take it from the drama form and reprocess it into a comedic form. We’re taking that weight off you, and giving it to you in a better way. We can tolerate it a lot more. Don’t think that’s not a tool we have acquired. Drama is always in a comedian.
What was your first encounter with Playboy?
Who in their life, as a kid, has not walked into a newsstand area and pretended he’s looking at a comic book, and put a Playboy magazine inside another magazine so he could pretend he’s reading *Architectural Digest? If there was a really big comic book, you’d put the Playboy inside and pretend there’s a fight scene going on — “Ooooh! Ohhh!” Wow! — but you’re saying that because of breasts. It’s not that The Incredible Hulk is fighting Captain America: “Oooooh, look at them breasts.” People get suspicious if there aren’t any other magazines around and you try it with two loaves of bread. “Why is that kid holding two boxes of cereal up?”
What movie scared you most as a kid?
The Exorcist. That movie was crazy. When you’re growing up, movies that weren’t even supposed to be scary were scaring me. I’m weird, man. I used to get scared of the intro to The Twilight Zone. I’d look around the room as if something horrible was about to happen. Something about that do-de-do-do-do-de-do-do drove me crazy. I used to hide until it came on…then I’d watch the episode.
What’s your pop-culture blind spot?
I’ve never watched The Wire. When you tell someone you’ve never watched The Wire, they think you’re crazy. They think something’s wrong with you. Like you were locked up and you didn’t have access to a TV. And people are amazed. I don’t know if it’s a black thing or what, but people are stunned that I’ve never watched The Wire. And they’ll embarrass you in front of people: “You never saw The Wire?!” And I have cable TV. I love zombies and vampires. Walking Dead and True Blood; that’s my thing. But never got into The Wire. Same thing with Breaking Bad. I don’t know a damned thing about Breaking Bad. How long was it on? Six years? Never saw one goddamned episode.
Let’s pretend you’re on death row: What’s your last meal?
I want something that’ll last a long time. Stretch out the whole situation. I don’t want anything to immediate. I want something I gotta make before I eat it. Something very complicated. You know what’s pretty damned good? Have you ever made banana pudding? You gotta mix the vanilla pudding just right. You gotta slice the bananas very evenly. You gotta get boxes of vanilla wafers. It’s like building a lasagna, but sweetness. It’s like you’re building a sweet-ass building. Like a sweet version of the projects. I would ask for the biggest pan ever. I would make a mattress-sized banana pudding and have them put me in it, then I’d have to eat my way out. Might take three or four days.
What’s the first song you knew all the words to?
“Rapper’s Delight.” I’m old school. I mean, what else? The invention of hip-hop was the greatest thing ever. If you didn’t know “Rapper’s Delight,” something is wrong with you.
What was your first car?
A Dodge Coronet. I always loved Dodge. Green. Four-door green Dodge Coronet. Looked like a DT car; whenever I would roll up, everyone would scatter. “Nah, it’s just me!” Everyone thought it was an unmarked cop car. It was good to be driving, but all my friends would run away from me before I had time to park.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. He, too, has never seen Breaking Bad. Yes, he knows.