Keenen Ivory Wayans is a comedic talent that resonates with Gen X and Millennial comedy fans.
For Generation X, he’s the brains behind the short-lived but groundbreaking sketch comedy Show “In Living Color” that launched the careers of his brother Damon Wayans, Jamie Foxx and Jim Carrey. Men on Film and a perfect impression of Arsenio Hall and Mike Tyson were the hallmarks of a new brand of comedy that black (and certainly white America) had never seen on network television before.
For millennials, he was the director of the "Scary Movie" franchise and "White Chicks".
But, in the roughly 10 years since, one of the most prominent on screen faces in the Wayans clan has been missing from most television screens.
Wayans stopped by to talk briefly with NBCBLK contributor Jason Johnson about his new projects, politics, the state of comedy today and the impact of new technology on the life of stand-up comics.
What is your new role on Last Comic Standing and why did you take that role?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: Well, I’m one of the judges on the panel. It’s myself, Roseanne Barr, and Norm Macdonald. I took the job because I thought it was something that would be a lot of fun and it turned out to be more fun than I anticipated, and I feel like I can bring something to the young comics that are performing.
You all are really people that started off big in the 90s, or do you think it is just a coincidence?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: I think it was more of the fact that each of us have different backgrounds. You know, I come from more of the directing and writing and producing side. Roseanne is sitcom star and Norm, sketch, so it really is sort of broad in the sense that each of us bring a certain level of expertise in a different genre of comedy and I think that’s what makes it work so well.
The last year or so, there’s been sort of a old school/new school debate. You've got an older stand up comedian like Jerry Seinfeld who says 'work on the bit and keep performing the same bit for years because it becomes a classic to the audience.' And you have some comedians like Louis C.K. and Amy Schumer who like to come up with brand new stand up material almost every single year.
Where do you stand?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: It depends on the comedian. I think that if you're trying to be in people’s face, then you've got to come up with new stuff every year. If that’s not what you're doing, then you take a break, and go create and come with new ones when you’re ready. We’re in a mass consumption phase where people take things for granted and want things to be instant when these are not things that can be instant.
Great art is not instant. It comes from experience, it comes from a place within. If you're trying to generate material, then you're going to generate stuff. It’s not going to be great, it’s just going to be stuff.
You can be more personal and artistic and take your time and come when you’re ready. The audience is going to want you whichever way you go. It’s like Dave Chappelle; we haven’t seen him in a while but if he shows, we’ll be there 'cause you know it’s gonna be great.
He wasn’t just trying to turn something out every 18 months.
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: You can’t… like I said, you can do that if you just want to be a guy who comes out and talks about generic subjects. But every comedian knows that life doesn’t just happen every 18 months, you know what I mean?
I remember hearing you talking about the Wayans Brothers years ago. You were saying, 'Look, when we do it, we’re called the foons and coons, but when Jim Carrey does it, he’s called a great physical comic.'
Looking at the state of black comedians today, do you think there is greater diversity? Do you think we have physical comics, sex comics, you know, observational comics, do you still think that most comedians feel narrowly-cast?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: When we were doing stand up, there was only a handful of African-American comedians. Now, we’ve had an explosion of African-American comedians. We have Aisha Tyler and Sheryl Underwood on the same show. You've got Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart. Everybody is so different in their approach, and in their intellect, and their experiences. I think it really is a great time for comedy in general, but especially black comedy.
Twenty-five years ago, you guys were the first to say 'We’re going to do a Super Bowl halftime show...' That was programming genius.
With today’s technology, how do you think YouTube, the Internet, and social media is affecting how comedians can get their information out there?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: If you have something that you want to promote, that’s great. If you have something that you are working on, that’s invasive; that’s horrible.
My brother Shawn has the funniest analogy — he said, when people go into comedy clubs and tape comics before the comic is ready for you to see it, it’s like judging a baby on a sonogram you know. (Laughs) It ain’t ready yet.
A comedian, or any artist, needs their time to develop what they are doing. There has to be some respect for the art form and when it’s allowed to be seen.
Do you believe that comedians, black comedians in particular, have an obligation to discuss prominent social issues? Do you think comedians should be talking about Black Lives Matter?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: I think it’s an individual choice. If you’re a political comic, then that’s one thing, but if that’s not your thing, then that’s not your insight and so then you’re not obliged to try to do something that you are not good at.
That would be like asking the political comic to do some physical comedy. Comedy has a responsibility to be a voice of society, so within that, there’s always going to be those that talk about those subjects and things that are going on in the world.
Any final message?
KEENEN IVORY WAYANS: Yeah, I want the audience to know how much fun [Last Comic Standing] is going to be, and how diverse this show is. We have ethnic comics, we have gay comedians, females, we have an Asian comic who is from the South, so he’s a Chinese guy with a drawl. It’s a great lineup and I think they are gonna really have fun this season, so check it out.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. "Last Comic Standing" airs Wednesdays at 10:00PM EST on NBC.