Comedian Tommy Davidson is best known as one of the original cast members on In Living Color, the groundbreaking sketch comedy show that ran from 1990-1994 on Fox. Created by brothers Keenan and Damon Wayans, the Emmy-winning program launched the careers of several other performers, including Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey.
Davidson has gone on to a successful and varied show business career, starring in film (Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Bamboozled), television (MADtv, The Proud Family) and a string of Comedy Central stand-up specials.
Davidson returns to Raleigh for a three-night stand-up engagement at Goodnights Comedy Club July 10-12. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Davidson talked about hip-hop comedy, writing onstage and the physics of stand-up.
Q: You came up in the late 1980s in the D.C. comedy scene. Were you always into comedy growing up?
A: I was not. I was into music, heavy. The way comedy happened was a friend of mine asked me to try it one night at a strip club. He thought I was funny and said I was wasting my time working at the Ramada Inn. And if he was me, hed have already been gone to Hollywood.
I remember going up cold the guy handed me the mic and said, All right, fella. And from the first word out of my mouth, fast-forward to this interview.
Q: You went up without any material? Did you just wing it?
A: Yeah, I winged it. I was 19. From there I rocked it for three years in D.C., then I got out here (to L.A.). Then it was another three years of pure insanity until I wound up on In Living Color.
Q: How did you first get together with the Wayans on that?
A: Kenan was in the clubs and looking for talent. He had conceived a great show and was looking for the guys who could get done what he was ready to get done. He wanted really versatile comedians who were smart, and also good actors.
Q: Was he looking for something particular with you when he brought you on?
A: I just think he thought he could use my talents, in particular the impressions and the musical send-ups and stuff. That was all part of my stand-up act.
Q: In the early 1990s, In Living Color was one of the few places you could go on network TV to see, not just hip-hop musical acts, but also hip-hop as a larger cultural thing, a whole range of artistic forms.
A: Oh, yeah. The show was hip-hop thats what made it great. It was the first syndicated hip-hop sketch comedy show, and it was 100 percent original. But really, we were just doing comedy. It was hip-hop comedy, but just in the same way that, you know, Monty Python was doing British comedy. We were from a culture, and our show reflected our culture.
Q: With your stand-up, how do you generate your material? Do you write beforehand then bring it onstage?
A: Well, I do a lot of observing and experimenting onstage. Thats my method. I string together ideas, and you can call that writing, but its writing onstage. I just kind of let things hang loose. Then I come back and I write down the stuff that I just did. Its a little in reverse.
Q: You just came off the big Standing Ovation tour with a whole line-up of comics. Do you have to make a deliberate change to your approach when moving from those big 2,000-seat theaters to the smaller clubs?
A: Oh, yeah. Theyre totally different worlds. For one thing, its just the physics of it the distance between you and the crowd. There arent a lot of distractions in a theater. Everybody is seated and facing you. In a comedy club, the waitresses are running around, people getting in arguments, all hell is breaking loose. So you gotta be able to handle all that. You need to know how to do both (theaters and clubs), or you really limit your scope. And your income.
Q: Anything else you want to tell people who might be coming out for the show?
A: Im just really glad to be coming back. Ive been going to that club for 23, 24 years. I just want to say thank you to Raleigh for supporting me all these years. Come on out and have a ball with me.