It’s 9:30 on a Thursday morning, and a bleary-eyed Keenen Ivory Wayans once again faces the demands of a newly adoring public. Ambling through his modest stucco home in Los Angeles, past the mantelpiece displaying his Pimp of the Year Award (a prop from Wayans’s film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), he answers a knock at the door. A middle-aged lady wants him to speak at her church, and an ever-accommodating Wayans agrees. “As if I have time,” he sighs after the woman has left. He wants to drop the subject, but he can’t quite let it go. “I wish just once somebody would say, ‘I want to cook dinner for you,’ or ‘I want to give you a massage.’ I work from 8 in the morning until 11 at night…” His voice trails off.
The hours have indeed been long for the normally mild-mannered 32-year-old executive producer, head writer and star of Fox Television’s hit comedy sketch show In Living Color. But, he is quick to point out, they’ve been matched by the rewards. After the premiere of the mostly black, totally irreverent ensemble show (which moved from Saturday to Sunday at 9:30 P.M. last month), critics tripped over their adjectives with praise, evoking not-so-farfetched comparisons with Saturday Night Live. Overnight—yes, literally overnight—Wayans became one of Hollywood’s most bankable young stars, black or white.
“This show couldn’t have been made five years ago,” Wayans says proudly. “Black representation in Hollywood at that time was practically null and void.” Aided and abetted by an eight-member cast that includes Wayans’s brothers Dwayne, 33, Damon, 29, and Shawn, 19, and his sister, Kim, in her 20s, In Living Color has gone a long way towards filling that hole. The half-hour episodes crackle with parodies of prominent black figures like beleaguered Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, Arsenio Hall and Mike Tyson, uncannily rendered by a (cosmetically) gap-toothed, mousy-voiced Keenen. Hot dance numbers by Rosie (Do the Right Thing) Perez complete the ethnic sizzle.
Many of the show’s original characters, like the two likable hoods who peddle stolen goods on “The Homeboy Shopping Network,” come straight out of Wayans’s childhood playacting in Manhattan’s Fulton housing projects. “When I was 6 and saw Richard Pryor on TV, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” recalls Keenen. “Damon and I used to do things like go out in character as the homeboys. It would flip people out.” Living in a cramped four-bedroom apartment with nine other siblings and his parents didn’t exactly spell fast ticket to Hollywood for Wayans. But his mother and father—Elvira, 51, a housewife who later earned a degree in social services, and Howell, 53, a salesman—”always built up our self-esteem,” says Wayans. “I could draw a circle on a piece of paper, and my mother made me feel like Van Gogh.”
At 22, Wayans lent an ear to the call of comedy and quit engineering school to work the crowds at New York City’s Improv comedy club. When he moved to L.A. later that year, he found that being a poor unknown was a relatively minor obstacle compared with being black. Frustrated with the narrow roles available to blacks onscreen and off, Wayans and Robert Townsend, a friend from the Improv, set out on their own to make Hollywood Shuffle, a stinging parody of Hollywood’s stereotyping that opened in 1986. That same year, Wayans co-wrote and co-produced the concert film Eddie Murphy Raw. But it was 1989’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, a fresh attack on Hollywood’s ethnic tunnel vision, that attracted the notice of the Fox TV brass. “I really wasn’t interested in television,” says Wayans. “But they said the magic words, ‘You can do anything you want.’ ”
Part of what he wanted was to sign some of his siblings. “We’re a very tight family, almost like the Osmonds,” says Kim, an actress and stand-up comic in her own right. Damon, whose acting credits include Roxanne, Punchline and Earth Girls Are Easy, was fired in 1986 from Saturday Night Live for changing characters during live broadcasts. “On this show,” he says, “my creativity is accepted and expected,” though a similiar gaffe might provoke Keenen into a rare display of anger.
The role of mentor and leader comes easily to Keenen, which helps explain his reflective demeanor. “I’ve had to be my own big brother in this business,” he says. “I never talk to people about things. I work them out for myself.” Now one of his top concerns is grappling with the effects of celebrity on his romantic life. A long-term relationship recently ended, he says, in part because his girlfriend became insecure in the face of his success. “It’s funny, the people you want to stand by you end up out of your world because they can’t deal with it,” he says. He has no interest in the groupies who now flock to him. “I like very simple people,” he says. “Besides, I understand there’s going to be times when I’m just the flavor of the day.”
With the same sense of acceptance, he knows his current bankability doesn’t mean that black is finally beautiful in Hollywood. “This town still has not embraced the black creator,” he says, and he threatens to hold on until it does. “I always think of that scene in Raging Bull when Jake LaMotta is fighting Sugar Ray Robinson, and he’s just getting beaten to a pulp. At the end of the round, he walks over and his face is bloody and he says, ‘I never went down, Ray. I never went down,’ ” slurs Wayans, doing a very good Robert De Niro. “He knew he couldn’t win, but he wasn’t going to let this guy beat him. His objective was to stay on his feet. As far as his attitude was concerned, he was victorious. That’s the kind of attitude I have.”
—Charles E. Cohen, Vicki Sheff in Los Angeles