Taken from the Pilot: A Chat with John Witherspoon – The Director’s Cut

A few weeks ago, my editor at The Virginian-Pilot dropped me a line and asked if I had any interest in putting together pieces on two upcoming acts at the Virginia Beach Funny Bone, the Wayans brothers and John Witherspoon, semi-apologizing for always pitching me articles about comedians but doing so while explaining that he thought I did consistently good work with them.

Although I appreciated the praise (and thanked him accordingly, of course), I wouldn’t say that the interview with Shawn and Marlon Wayans turned out as spectacularly as I’d hoped, due to several factors: in addition to being in California at the time for the TCA tour and having to do the phoner on my cell phone, recording it via speaker, Shawn and Marlon each called in on their cell phones as well, making it an almost-unintelligible conversation. Still, I did the best I could with what I had, if you want to check it out.

Thankfully, however, I was back home for my interview with Mr. Witherspoon, which is no doubt a big reason why it ended up going a heck of a lot better. (It didn’t hurt that he was on a land-line as well.) The resulting piece will run in Pulse Magazine – when it goes live on PilotOnline, you’ll be able to click to it right here – but here, for your reading enjoyment, is the unexpurgated transcript of our conversation….and let me just say that those of you who only know John Witherspoon from his work in the Friday films will likely walk away rather surprised at his deep comedic history.

Ready or not, here we go…

News Reviews Interviews: You’ve obviously been doing stand-up comedy for a fair while, but what made you decide to go down that path in the first place?

John Witherspoon: Well, I started doing stand-up at the same time I was going to acting classes in Detroit in the early ‘70s. What happened was that I was in a theater group, and they did comedy once a year, so my instructor told me, “Think of something that’s funny, because I want you to be in this show.” I’d never really done comedy before, but I did so well that I thought, “Well, hey, maybe I could make some money doing stand-up.” So I did. [Laughs.]

NRI: You ended up learning from the best: you worked with Richard Pryor on his short-lived TV series.

JW: Oh, yeah, I did Richard’s show. We were always at the Comedy Store at the time, and Richard used to come by there to work on his albums back then. When he got a TV show on NBC, Paul Mooney, one of the comics there, was Richard’s friend and one of the writers on the show, and he said, “I’m gonna cast some of the scenes with people from the Comedy Store,” and Richard said, “Cool.” So that’s how I ended up on there.

NRI: I did an interview with Glynn Turman a few months ago, and he told me that, when Pryor got his show, he called him and said, “Glynn, they done fucked up: they done gone and gave me a TV show!”

JW: [Laughs.] That’s Richard. Sounds like him to me. But it didn’t last. It definitely didn’t last. I did four shows, and I think they only did five. I wasn’t on the pilot. So it was a quick turnaround.

NRI: But it made an impression even in that short amount of time.

JW: Oh, yeah, it did. If he’d been able to continue, it could’ve been wonderful. But, man, they cancelled that show so fast… [Laughs.] It was just chaos over there.

NRI: Was it that he didn’t know what he wanted the show to be, or that he did know but the network didn’t like it?

JW: Well, it was just that he was more risqué than they’d anticipated I mean, this was 8 o’clock Tuesday nights back in ’77. They didn’t want Richard coming out and saying that he didn’t have to give up anything to have a network show, then have the camera pan out and show that he didn’t have any genitals. [Laughs.] “I didn’t have to give up anything!” When I saw that, I knew. “Uh-oh, I don’t think we’re gonna be on too long…”

NRI: How would you describe your stand-up for someone who’s never seen it?

JW: I do current things. I talk about current events, and I talk about myself. I talk about me and my marriage. I talk about Obama. I’ve been talking about the Olympics recently. I’m not talking about sex every 10 seconds like some of these young guys. I’m old school. I used to open for Richard Pryor. I’m totally different from him, but I used to be his opening act at the Comedy Store. I’d do 45 minutes, then he’d come out here and do an hour and a half, and it was always a great show. Whenever he’d play the Comedy Store, he’d have everybody there. Every seat would be filled, and there’d be a line out the door of people trying to get in. Those were really some great times for me.

NRI: How long do you see yourself touring on a regular basis? You still seem to be enjoying it.

JW: Yeah, I’m not planning on retiring at all. I like money. [Laughs.] When I started out, I was broke. I had an apartment for $130 a month. So I’ve been in this business a long time. Now an apartment will set you back about $2600 a month. So I’m not planning on retiring, no, sir. I’ve still got to make up for the money I didn’t have when I was coming up. [Laughs.] No retirement for me. No, no, no.

NRI: A few years ago, I went to see Public Enemy and was surprised to see that the audience was probably 75% white. When you do your shows, do you have a sense of what the racial blend of the audience is?

JW: Yeah, well, my audiences are gonna be every race there is. I mean, it’s not gonna be white or black. It’s gonna be white, black, Asian, Latino, young, old… And I’m kind of happy about that, ‘cause it means there’s gonna be asses in the seats, which means the club’s gonna be happy to have you come back.

NRI: So have you always done stand-up, or did you stop for awhile as your film and TV career took off and then pick back up with it later?

JW: I was doing it all along. I’d leave whatever I was doing on Thursday to go work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. So, no, I never gave up my stand-up. I told all these young guys who thought they were gonna be big stars and didn’t need stand-up, “You should’ve kept your stand-up,” ‘cause there’s no work now for ‘em actors. Stand-up is gold as long as you can put asses in the seats.

NRI: You’ve worked with Eddie Murphy on several occasions over the years.

JW: Oh, yeah, I worked with Eddie on…well, we did Boomerang, then we did Vampire in Brooklyn, and I was in his movie A Thousand Words, too. I’ve missed a couple of ‘em because I was busy and couldn’t do it, but, yeah, Eddie calls me, and I’m always glad to work for him. He’s always fun to work with. He’s one of the few geniuses around. He’s so good, and he makes it look so easy to memorize lines. He knows his stuff when he gets there and he’s got it down, so you’ve got to be ready when you work with Eddie. [Laughs.]

NRI: How has the experience of working on The Boondocks been for you?

JW: The Boondocks has been good. Reginald Hudlin and Aaron Magruder were at one time the executive producers, but they apparently had some sort of falling-out, so now it’s just Aaron Magruder by himself. Reginald Hudlin was the one who brought me aboard, though, but I’d never really done a cartoon before. I’d done a day or two on cartoons before, but he said, “I want you to do this thing called The Boondocks, and I want you to be the granddad.” And I said, “I don’t feel like being no granddad. I don’t want to do no cartoon.” And he says, “Come on, man, you’ll like it.” I said, “Aw, c’mon, man, you know I ain’t gonna like this.” But finally he talked me into it, and now we’re going into our fourth or fifth season.

NRI: Has there been any word on when the new season’s going to premiere?

JW: Probably the first of the year. Oh, man, we have fun, too. I’ve done taped about five shows already for this season, and…I think I’ve got 15 more to go. 10 to 15 more for this season, and then we start on the next season.

NRI: One of your previous series-regular gigs was on The Wayans Brothers. By coincidence, I just talked to Shawn and Marlon a few days ago: they played at the Funny Bone just this past weekend.

JW: Yeah, actually, they told me they were gonna be in town.

NRI: Do you cross paths with them on the road?

JW: No, not on the road. But I talk to them every now and then. I never see them on the road, though, because when I leave on Monday morning, and if they’re starting on Friday, then they come in on Thursday, spend Friday doing radio, and work Friday, Saturday, and maybe Sunday. I’m long gone. [Laughs.] So I don’t see ‘em on the road, but when I had my birthday in January, Shawn came by and surprised me. And I talk to them. But you almost never see other comics anymore, just because you’re all traveling so much. I’m in and out of L.A. 40 weeks a year. I come in Monday, work on Tuesday on The Boondocks, then I leave again on Thursday. It’s a trip.

NRI: So I guess that answers how much time you spend on the road each year.

JW: Yeah, right now it’s about 40 weekends. But I come home during the week. I don’t stay out on the road, I come home. Because, y’know, I have kids. They’re 16 and 23. The 23-year-old has his own place, but the 16-year-old’s still home. Plus, I’m married. So I take care of business around here, then I leave again.

NRI: You’ve also got another gig coming up: the sitcom The First Family.

JW: Yeah, we got picked up…for 104 shows! We start next week, I think.  No, wait, is Labor Day this weekend? No, then we start the week after next. But I know they need to get started soon, ‘cause they’re supposed to be on the air before the end of September. They really need to get it going! [Laughs.] I don’t have any work on the road after that for the next few weeks, which is good, ‘cause it means I can actually come home at night instead of spending my evenings in a hotel, like I usually do.

NRI: I’m sure it’ll be nice to have the regularity of a sitcom again.

JW: Oh, yeah, that’s gonna be great to do that again. Plus, it’s 104 episodes! We did 100 episodes of The Wayans Brothers, but that took five years. For this, they’re trying to do it in two years. Wow…

NRI: It’s an impressive cast, though. Marla Gibbs is on the show, too, as is Gladys Knight.

JW: Yeah, and Christopher Duncan. Plus, Gladys Knight is playing my wife, so it’s gonna be great hanging around with such a talented woman. I’m looking forward to it. And it’ll be nice to be off the road, but I’ll be able to go back out if I want, because they say I’ll be done with my stuff on Thursday nights. So I can leave town on the red-eye, work Friday and Saturday in a club somewhere, then fly home on Sunday so I can be at the table read on Monday. So that should work out.

NRI: It’ll keep you hopping, that’s for sure.

JW: Oh, my God, and then I’ve got to do The Boondocks on Tuesdays, so that’s really gonna keep me hop hop hopping…if I can do it! But the thing that’s good for me is that I can quit and stay off the road if I want, because I do have another job.

NRI: You’ve worked with a number of impressive directors, but one that many people may not be aware of is Clint Eastwood, with whom you worked on Bird.

JW: Yeah, Clint Eastwood, what a nice fellow he is. He’s so cool. You’d think he’d be stuck up and all that, but he sat down on the stoop with us and just talked and ate with us. He got me on Bird, in fact. First of all, I was in Ratboy. Sondra Locke was his girlfriend at the time, and she directed Ratboy, and he would come by there on the set. He used to call me Chicken Wing. [Laughs.]

NRI: Looking at your filmography, it seems like there’s a direct connection between one film and the next. You also worked with Robert Townsend on Ratboy, and you subsequently ended up in Hollywood Shuffle.

JW: Well, with Robert Townsend, the thing was that we were all at the Comedy Store. But with Ratboy, Clint Eastwood and Sondra Locke came by to look at comics for the movie she was doing, so they came for the showcase at 8 PM. Well, the thing was that, at 8 PM, there were only about 12 people in the audience. I was the MC. I wasn’t even on the showcase! Mitzi (Shore) said, “Just go up there and fill some time ‘til some more people come in, then you can start the showcase.” I went up there for about 25 minutes, everybody was dying laughing, and Clint Eastwood, who’s sitting in the back, goes, “I want him.” And they got up, and they left. [Laughs.]  Mitzi goes, “Where are you going?” Clint just said, “We’ll take him.” So Mitzi comes over and goes, “What did you do them?!?” I said, “I didn’t do anything ‘cept get up on stage and do what you said!” So when all the other comics got up for the showcase, they were so upset that they’d worked so hard on their material. I was, like, “They didn’t come for funny lines. They came for funny people!” Boy, were they pissed that I got that job. [Laughs.] But I needed that money bad. I needed it to pay my rent! That was a bad time in my life…

NRI: Speaking of being the MC, that was the part you played in The Jazz Singer.

JW: Yeah, I sure did. They came by the club and gave me that job with Neil Diamond. He was so cool, Neil Diamond. Most of those guys, the one who high-end in the world of acting and singing, tend to be real nice. That’s a big reason how they got where they are, by being really nice people.

NRI: You must have a similar reputation, given how many times you’ve worked with the same people over the years.

JW: Well, I guess that’s true. The same director hired me for Barnaby Jones and The Incredible Hulk. Kenneth Gilbert was his name. I’ve got to find out where he’s at now. That was a long time ago, but I haven’t forgotten.

NRI: You also did WKRP in Cincinnati at around the same time.

JW: Yeah, I knew Hugh Wilson. I used to go play tennis over at his house every Sunday. And I knew Tim Reid, for sure, ‘cause we were comics at the Comic Store together. Him and Tom Dreesen, when they were Tim & Tom. I met a lot of people coming in and out of the Comedy Store when I was coming up there. (David) Letterman is an old friend of mine. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been on his show. You maintain these friendships over the years. You may not talk all the time, but when you get back together, it’s like you just saw each other yesterday or the day before. It’s not anything formal, you just go, “Hey, man,” and you start talking like no time has passed.

NRI: I notice that you’ve been on Letterman’s show numerous times, but you’ve never been on The Tonight Show, even though I know Jay Leno was around the Comedy Store at the same time. Did you just never develop the same kind of friendship with him?

JW: No, Jay’s a good friend of mine, but when you go on Letterman’s show, you’re not supposed to go on Leno’s show. It’s an unwritten law. Until you get real big, when you can do what you want. [Laughs.] But I’m Letterman’s friend, and I’ve got carte blanche on his show. All I’ve got to do is call over and talk to his people, and they get me a spot right away. There’s only about three or four of us who get that kind of treatment. There’s Tom Dreesen, Jeff Altman, and…well, it used to be George Miller, but he died. Jimmie Walker, he’ll put him on every once in awhile, too. All I’ve got to do is call in, but I’m so busy that I hardly ever get to go on there and see Dave anymore, which is pretty messed up. But when I wasn’t working as much as I am right now, I’d call up and go on there a couple of times a year.

NRI: Well, you know, with The First Family coming up, you’ve got a good excuse to break your silence.

JW: Oh, I’m definitely going to go promote the show on there. [Laughs.] He’s so good at the promoting, too. I had a rap CD called 63 Cent, and he talked that up for me. He even put my cooking show on the air! I said, “Well, you know, Dave, I’m trying to be an entrepreneur. I’m trying to come up with some kind of cash cow for myself.” And he put it right on the air, and I believe I must’ve made about a hundred dollars off that so far. [Laughs.] So, yeah, he’s good about promoting his friends’ products.

NRI: Is there any project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

JW: I thought Vampire in Brooklyn was gonna be bigger. It did all right, all told, but I thought it was gonna be huge. It wasn’t as big as I thought it was gonna be. But, of course, I had fun on there, ‘cause I always wanted to be in a movie where I got to holler real loud, like I was scared, hollering something like, “Ghosts! The ghosts are coming!” That was close enough. [Laughs.]

NRI: What do people tend to recognize you for most often?

JW: I get a lot of Friday. And Boomerang. And Pops from The Wayans Brothers, too. People still watch The Wayans Brothers. But, like, at the market yesterday, it was mostly Friday. [Laughs.] There’s a rumor that we’re doing another one, you know.

NRI: I take it you’re ready to roll if the time comes.

JW: Oh, yeah. Can’t wait. I talked to Ice Cube, and he said they’re writing the script now. I haven’t talked to him since he said that, but he says Chris Tucker’s coming back this time. And, you know, I predict that, if they do another Friday, it’ll do $80 million worth of tickets the first weekend across the country. ‘Cause there are just so many people out there who love those movies. There’s a whole new generation of fans who’re watching it now. I see little kids who’ve seen Friday. I’m, like, “My God, I only made $5,000 off that first movie.” [Laughs.] I don’t even want to think about how much money they’ve made off that since then.

NRI:  Before I go, a friend of mine dropped me a line and said, “Tell Pops I said, ‘Bang bang bang  bang.’”

JW: [Laughs.] Ah, yeah, that’s from Boomerang. We ad-libbed that whole scene. Everything was ad-libbed. Not one line was written. It wasn’t even in the script. Eddie Murphy said, “I want ‘Spoon to play David Alan Grier’s father,” and people at Paramount said, “We’re over budget, we don’t want anybody to do any more scenes, we’ll take the script as it is.” Eddie said, “I want ‘Spoon to play this part. It’s gonna be so funny, you’ll see.” They said, “No, Mr. Murphy, you can’t do this to us.” He said, “Well, I’m not gonna finish the movie ‘til you put ‘Spoon in it. I’m the one who runs this movie.” And they put me in it. And after I shot the first scene, the executives from Paramount were there, and they come up to me and said [In a prototypical white-guy voice.] “Welcome aboard, Mr. Witherspoon! That was so funny! Thanks for coming!”[Laughs.] They were so proud of it. Of course, then they were gonna try to take the responsibility for my coming, like it was their idea. But that’s the way it goes in Hollywood.

By the way, I didn’t really get into when I mentioned it a minute ago, but…I don’t know if you know, but I have a cooking show on YouTube. It’s called Cooking for Poor People.

NRI: How did that come about?

JW: Well, you know, I cook all the time, and I thought one time, “I should have a cooking show!” I couldn’t sell it to Comedy Central. They didn’t even return my phone calls. [Laughs.] I sent a tape in, they didn’t even send the tape back. They probably just burned it. The Food Network did at least say that it wouldn’t work on their channel, but, y’know, I’m just having fun with it. It’s on YouTube – look under TheJohnWitherspoon – and the slogan is “Because when you’re hungry, everything tastes good.”

NRI: As it happens, I have a column where I spotlight different web series. I’ll have to shine the spotlight on it.

JW: Oh, that’d be wonderful!

NRI: Okay, I promise I’ll let you go after this, but I just remembered one last thing: the other day, I tagged you when I Tweeted, “I sure am glad John Witherspoon isn’t dead after all. I’m talking to him on Monday, and I hate one-sided conversations.” You handled it well, but what did you think when first you saw that your death had been reported?

JW: Oh, man. Well, you know, the same thing happened to Sinbad, and Shawn and Marlon said the same thing’s happened to Keenan (Ivory Wayans) about five times. But I’ll tell you one thing about it: I got about 20,000 people following me on Twitter now, So maybe that thing worked out pretty good after all. Maybe I can die another six months from now and get some more. [Laughs.]

NRI: Do you find that you get more fans at your shows now since you started Tweeting?

JW: Well, my son does the Tweeting. I just tell him what to say. But, yeah, look at Kevin Hart. He Tweets every day, and he’s gonna be playing at the American Airlines Arena. That’s in Florida, where the Miami Heat plays! I am shocked. So I said, “I’m gonna start Tweeting every day if that’s how you get them in the house!” [Laughs.] That’s a whole different audience right there. People today love to tweet. So here I go, tweet, tweet, tweet…

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