It isn’t easy to get Marlon Wayans on the phone. The legendarily ludicrous — and ludicrously hard-working — writer, producer, actor and comic was running nearly four hours behind on his whirlwind South Beach press day when I managed at last to get him on the line, just 45 minutes before he was expected on the red carpet for the premiere of his new film. The latest in an apparently inexhaustible line of popular genre parodies, Fifty Shades of Black is a riff on exactly what it sounds like, with Wayans in the rather less-than-debonair Christian Grey part. But it isn’t only a vehicle for dick jokes or gags about S&M and scatology. It’s also, like virtually everything Wayans has done since he was introduced to the world on In Living Color, a comedy about what it means to be black in a very white business.
Wayans does not enjoy a place in the pantheon. He has never been a critical darling. And yet his films, however unabashedly ridiculous they often seem, are rather more incisive about race than their reputations make them out to be. Revisiting Scary Movie recently, I was surprised to find how frequently — and how fiercely — racism is broached and skewered: In one scene, a defenseless young black woman (Regina Hall) finds herself brutally stabbed to death in a movie theater by an otherwise entirely white audience, which can no longer contain its collective anger over her talking back to the screen. What a moment! The mind reels to think how many feather-ruffled think-pieces Scary Movie would yield today.
I was less surprised to learn how well-aware Wayans himself is of all of this: He doesn’t take himself seriously, but he does take his work seriously. Even the dumbest humor, done well, takes smarts.
I was rewatching Scary Movie this afternoon, for the first time in a long while. I’d forgotten how genuinely provocative a lot of it is, especially the racial satire.
I think that was a good time for comedy. I think it’s still a good time for comedy, as restrictive as we are as a society, because a lot of the issues that have been out there still remain today — they’re cyclical, or else they just haven’t gone away. It’s true of a lot of the issues we talk about. Racism? It’s been going on for a long time. Where there’s black people and white people, there’s anger, and it’s always going to be a source of humor. That goes for gender humor too. Sometimes you crack jokes to erase the color lines, to make people aware and self-aware. It’s good to laugh at some of the issues that keep us divided.
And those issues are essential to your films. They’re funny and silly, of course, but they’re saying something real about the world.
Yeah, we like to make you laugh and think a bit at the same time. I’m not going to change the world, but hopefully I get to work out some of that stuff with laughter, one joke at a time.
I’m sure you noticed, but Don’t Be a Menace came out twenty years ago last week.
Feels like yesterday, man.
How have things changed for comedy in 20 years?
Ah. Well, I think the audience has changed. Audiences grow up, and they grow out of it, and then they introduce their kids to that type of humor. Meanwhile kids are starting to find new ways to find heroes in comedy.
Social media, you mean.
Yeah. So for me it’s all about trying to integrate what’s going on today with what’s been going on yesterday. I include some of the new Viners and YouTubers and young comedians into our movies, because I think it’s important that the younger audience knows that this is for them — to take some of their heroes and step them up into the big game.
Is that where it all is now? Vine and YouTube?
No, no, definitely not. It’s just where the younger audience is. Those guys gather a lot of young fans. You know, the more time goes on the more that these guys build an audience and have to try to tap into that audience. So you can be funny in six seconds. Well, over time you should be able to work that into something else — stretch it out into a three-minute sketch. Then you’ve got to learn the art of story and stretch it out to a 22-minute sitcom. You stretch that out again, and you learn a little bit more, and you one day can make a 90-minute movie that’s enjoyable. I think it’s a great training ground.
You’re heading back to TV now, I hear.
Yeah, I’ve got a new show called Marlon, based on my life as an inappropriate dad.
Is working for network TV a challenge for you? Your humor tends… well, R.
No, not at all, actually. I mean, it’s definitely a challenge. But you have to learn the art of saying it without saying it. I did The Wayans Bros. and In Living Color before this. I’ve learned how to work with censors —who do want you to push the envelope, just not too far. You’ve got to say it without saying it. Don’t tell me what I can’t. Tell me what I can.
You’ve written so much, and acted so much, and produced so much. Why don’t you direct?
Um… to be honest, I don’t want to direct right now.
I have my partners I work with, like Mike Tiddes, the director. Every movie he gets better. And, you know, we have trust. We can work together. Look, when you direct a movie, you want to be there for every last shot, every last piece, every last cut. For me, I want to macro-manage at this point. I’m doing so many different things.
Directing would be one too many.
It would irresponsible for me to call myself a director. I’m a producer. I put together everything myself. I hire great directors, I work with them closely, and I work to make those choices in the editing room. Then I’ve got to promote the movie, market the movie. There’s so much I’ve got to do. I don’t want to inundate myself with things that are going to stop me from doing what I want to do. I let Mike direct, and we get more stuff done that way. I don’t need the title. I don’t get turned on by seeing my name in the credits five times. Just where I need to be. Let the director be the director.
How much creative control do you have?
It’s a collaboration. I’ve got final cut, but at the end of the day final cut, to me, is shared with Mike and Rick Alvarez, my other producer. We trust each other. We may have some hard arguments sometimes, but we all know the objective is to put out the best movie we can for the widest audience possible. We get into some heated conversations, and sometimes we need to break and step away. It’s a battle of instincts. I even go against my own instincts if it will help the film. It’s knowing when to be what. I think Eddie Murphy, at his best, was one of the most appropriate comedians ever. He just knew what to do when. He knew how to play the character, play the scene, play the situation. I try to take notes from the forefathers and learn as much as I can and try to make wise decisions.
Do you think it’s important to have guys like this around to check your instincts?
Absolutely. I like having a cabinet. Why not? America has one. Why not me? I have a very diplomatic process. That’s also why I like going on the road so much, to do stand-up. I like having an audience in my head. Having that audience in my head becomes part of my editing process. I’m on the road, working and hearing audiences, and when I make a decision it’s based on an educated guess of what my audience would like or not like. How long would I lose them for if I do this? How many fans do I gain? How many do I lose? And can I get them back?
We hear a lot about audience sensitivities these days. Is your inner audience concerned about, say, political correctness?
That’s the last thing I care about. I don’t care about PC. I believe you can tell any joke — it’s just how you tell it. There’s a tasteful way to tell every joke and a distasteful way to tell it. I do things with kid gloves. That’s how I was trained to do it. This is the rule of thumb: The people you make fun of are the ones who should laugh the loudest.
In my experience audiences enjoy these movies a great deal — they’re great to see in a packed theater. Critics, on the other hand, don’t like them so much.
I’ve grown to appreciate critics. They have a job to do. I don’t make movies for them, and I never expect our movies to be well-reviewed. But I do it for my audience and I do it to make them laugh. Those are the critics I care about and really respond to. I’ve learned, over time, to sit back, read the reviews, and look at why the critics felt that way. They don’t affect me negatively; they actually inspire me. When I start making movies that are meant to please critics and the Academy, I’ll take all of that into account. When I make those kinds of movies I’ll take all those notes. But right now? I’m making silly comedies. People can laugh about them with their buddies and talk about them the next day. It’s stuff that makes you laugh out loud and makes you forget about all the bullshit that’s going on today.