A New Voice : Robin Harris’ down home edge has launched him from the Comedy Act Theatre to ‘Do the Right Thing’ and beyond
The entertainment industry--particularly the comedy part--is so rife with recycled product and self-cannibalism that a genuinely new talent presents an almost startling freshness and an instant prize. That has to be one of the reasons for the success of Roseanne Barr; it certainly underlies the eager rush to make the most of comedian Robin Harris.
Before this summer, Harris, who emcees a lineup of comedians twice a week at a club called the Comedy Act Theatre, was one of the unheralded pleasures of the black community. A somewhat portly, tough-looking 35-year-old with angry bloodshot eyes, he makes none of the standard comedic efforts to ingratiate himself to his audience. Instead, he works like someone who genuinely doesn’t give a damn, an unconscionable gossip pillorying anyone who catches his eye.
It isn’t only the black working-class young that dresses up to make the scene at the club. Black celebrities, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, and any number of professional athletes show up regularly at the Comedy Act to be verbally frisked by Harris and snared in his spotlight. Members of the Los Angeles Lakers often show up to cool out after a home game. Harris often greets Earvin Johnson with the line, “Come on down here to the colored section, Magic.” Harris’ put-upon, playing-the-dozens manner conceals an underlying affection, the kind of spirited kidding that goes on when you’ve come home after being away for some time.
But the secret is out now as a different cognoscenti has gotten wind of Robin Harris, and things may never be the same as he begins to take on the glossy patina of stardom.
In the summer of ’89, he’s swinging into the fast lane in overdrive. Spike Lee cast him as Sweet Dick Willie, the center of the Greek chorus of street signifiers in “Do the Right Thing,” and for as long as he was onscreen he commanded the movie with his characteristic mix of jive (“Mike Tyson ain’t nothin’. If I fought Tyson I’d drop him like a bad habit.”) and plaintive, sardonic wisdom.
He had the forceful ease of the true natural, and everyone took notice. Lee immediately recast him in his new movie, “Love Supreme.” Harris is wrapping up a major role in another feature film called “House Party,” written and directed by Reggie Hudlin. He’s about to cut a comedy album for Polygram Records. He showcased at The Roxy in July. And now the attendant TV heavies, mindful of what an adrenal rush a strong comedic personality can bring to prime time ratings have come courting. Harris’ agent says he’s met with NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff, CBS’s Barbara Corday, Fox’s Lillah McCarthy, and Kim Fleary and Stu Bloomberg at ABC.
Instant, easy laughter erupts from Harris’ club audience as he shocks it with self-recognition. His roughness is the expression of a deeper unspoken intimacy. He’s family. He knows all about the black working class, and the struggle to keep body and soul together in the community, and the sexual flashpoints and stresses between men and women. He understands the pressure-cooker feel of inner-city life, and how quickly its expression can hit the sizzle of the media wire that feeds the culture at large.
To enter the club late, or leave early, or stand up for any reason or--worst of all--to have to make one’s way to the stage-right stairs leading to the bathroom, is to invite the scourge of Harris’ scrutiny, accompanied by a sharp spotlight that pins his hapless subjects like deer caught in headlights.
“Look at that (expletive) hat, man. It black because she been wearin’ it so long.”
“You can tell the woman who has a job by the way she walks. You can tell a virgin, too. Virgins walk like penguins.”
“You look good, honey. But that guy with you is ugly.”
“Like that suit, brother. It might come back in style.”
Harris’ tone is so freighted with emphasis that it makes what he says sound more vituperative than it actually is. “Hey, you don’t look a woman no way.” “Y’all been to County Hospital? Get yourself some income! Get yourself somewhere!”
Recently Spike Lee came to the Comedy Act with saxophonist Branford Marsalis and actress Olivia Brown of “Miami Vice,” and stepped out in the street for a few minutes to talk about Harris.
“Robbie Weems is my casting director. She said, ‘Spike, you gotta see Robin Harris.’ I did, and was amazed at his talent. I gave him a lot of latitude to make Sweet Dick funny--I couldn’t write that character as funny as Robin could. He has a sophisticated country wit. He was born in Chicago and raised in L.A., but he reaches way back to Mississippi. His humor is steeped in black humor, like Pigmeat Markham and Richard Pryor. He’s folks.”
Lee had stepped out just after Harris had re-enacted a scene where a white cop stops him in a car late one night. “Cop say, ‘You got a gun in the car?’ ‘No, it’s home with the dope.’ ” Lee worked his way back to the table to hear Harris say: “Rich people are not moody. They always happy. Stocks up, niggahs down, great!” Then, to a young man man standing by the stairs: “Whaddayou think of Spike Lee?”
“Who?” the man asked.
“Right there,” said Harris, pointing.
“Who you think that is, Mr. Magoo?”
The crowd laughed. “How you doin’ in your new movie?” Harris asked Lee.
“All right,” Lee mumbled.
“Your voice is awful low,” Harris said, challengingly. Lee was not comfortable with the attention and hunkered down.
Harris’ attention shifted to Atlanta Hawks star forward Dominique Wilkins, who had come to the club with teammate Spud Webb. Both were in town to play in an upcoming benefit basketball game at the Inglewood Forum hosted by Magic Johnson.
“Where you at, Dominique?” Harris asked. “Smile, I’ll find you.” After the spotlight caught Wilkins, Harris said: “Michael Jordan be there? Who gonna guard him?” Pause. “Not you.” The crowd laughed again.
“I’ll never forget the time I played Dominique,” Harris mused. “I was at the Clippers game. They were short some players. I had my sneakers. Coach called me outta the stands to play. I got 18 points, 15 rebounds, 12 assists. Coach said, ‘Can you come back next week?’ ‘Hell, no! I got somethin’ to do.’ ”
The pressures on Harris have been such that the day after the show he flew to Chicago to be among family and found himself reluctant to return, which meant his schedule had become even more compressed when at last he did. By the following week’s end, he was going on three hours of sleep a night.
“I got a lot of criticism for my act,” he said over a prime rib dinner (“well done,” he told the waiter when ordering. “Like me”). “They say, ‘You gonna get your ass kicked.’ But in all the time I been doin’ this, I apologized maybe three times. I like to talk stuff people like to hear but are afraid to say.”
Harris is at an interesting point in his career at the moment, a seasoned performer on the verge of hitting it big but unaware as yet of the subtle traps of celebrity. He’s cocky, anxious, unguarded, self-absorbed, restless and mindful that the changes in his life are becoming palpably swift and harder to control.
“I don’t wanna get out of touch with my buddies,” he said. “I see some change. They look at me different. Like a friend says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ I think, ‘He should not have it. He’s known me all the time.’ ”
He added, “Everybody’s on my bandwagon now. People say to me, ‘You gonna change?’ ‘Damn right I’m gonna change! I’m movin’ from the ghetto to La Brea.’ I just moved back home with my wife, Exetta. I had problems. Times I’d be studyin’, I’d be fussin’, know what I mean? I can be stronger now. I’m just like everybody else who has a family and has to drive 40 miles to work. I have to take everything in stride.
“To me, that’s what Richard Pryor’s lost. Once in a while I’ll ride the bus just to get the feel, the craziness. Like the fancy lady who say, ‘What’s that scent I’m wearing? Black Knight. Fifteen dollars an ounce.’ Lady sittin’ next to her, not so fancy, passes some gas. ‘Pinto beans,’ she say. ‘Fifteen cents a pound.’ ” Harris grinned, having lured his listener into the joke.
Talking about his patched-up marriage, he says: “A lotta women come ‘round to show biz people because they smell success. I told my wife, ‘You better get your act together. You were with me when I had no money. If anybody deserves it, you do.’ ”
Harris was born in Chicago. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 8. “My father worked for the Ford Motor Co. and was gettin’ laid off a lot. I have a younger brother, Michael, who’s totally opposite from me. He’s a medical administrator. We’re a close family. I ask my mother for advice on show business. She may tell me something I don’t want to hear, but when people were sayin’ ‘Don’t give up that day job,’ she said, ‘Go ahead, give it up.’ ”
Harris attended Manual Arts High School and then went to Ottawa University in Kansas on a track scholarship (he’s 5'9" and now weighs more than 200 pounds, but at one point he was svelte enough to run a 4:18 mile). He graduated, but the culture shock was formidable and the unquiet image of a girl friend gave him no peace.
“I never knew what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “Everybody had somethin’. Good jobs. Somethin’. I just had nothin’. I was so in love with my girl friend. I was ready to get married. I didn’t know how to handle it. That’s why I have the joke, ‘You took the best years of my life.’ ‘That’s right, I wanna make sure you have nothin’ left.’ I couldn’t sleep. I kept hopin’ we’d get together again. Know what? We did. By then she had a couple of kids.” Harris shrugged. The thrill had gone, and in retrospect all that pain and misery seemed futile, particularly now that he’s married to someone else.
“Nobody can understand who says ‘Forget it.’ How can you forget somebody? I know what people go through who go out with a thousand women and still be messed up. But it made me stronger for this business.”
After Harris got out of school, he scuffled around. “Everything that happens is a learning experience. I wanted to prove Robin Harris was about somethin’. I was workin’ penny ante jobs. I was playin’ basketball in Poinsettia Park with a lot of guys who were in show business. I had a feelin’ I could do somethin’ in the entertainment field. But what?”
He realized that what he had all along was the talent to make people laugh (“I may’ve had a two-bit job in the bank, but everybody wanted to sit with me at lunch”). He had one good night at the Comedy Store in 1980, and then lost his touch (a common occurence among comedians). He grew frustrated and was ready to quit. Then he met the ventriloquist Richard Sanfield, of Richard & Willie.
“He took me under his wing,” Harris said. “ ‘Hold an attitude,’ he told me. ‘In order to be a good comedian you got to read the papers, make it interesting to the audience. You don’t have to dream up crazy bits. You gotta do somethin’ the other comics won’t do. Build a foundation. Make ‘em know who Robin is. They like you because you talk about ‘em, so talk about ‘em and make ‘em mind. Keep it down home.’ ”
Harris credits the blues and rhythm ‘n’ blues as influences, as well as basketball. “Comedy is like bein’ intimidating on the court. I don’t get intimidated by anybody. I was playin’ in a league and was scorin’ 35 points one night when a big guy blocked my shot. ‘Oooh,’ everybody said. ‘He blocked your shot.’ ‘Hey, he a big man, that’s what he’s supposed to do,’ I said. I gotta have that competitive edge. Black comics think they can just lay back because Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx have made it. But I’m out there.”
Harris wasn’t partial to the standard comedy club circuit. When a good comedian is cooking he works on an improvisational edge, and he wasn’t feeling the right kind of heat in white clubs. Instead, for five years he played black venues such as the Page 4, the Parisian Room, and Mr. Woody’s on Manchester Boulevard. Then, about four years ago, he met a young entrepreneur named Michael Williams, who was talking about starting a new club.
“There was a big void in black clubs in comedy,” Williams said recently. “I’d go to the Comedy Store and feel that I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. I sensed the need for a place that had good black entertainment. I was introduced to Robin. I saw he was the talent I needed to help me get started.” The result was the Comedy Act Theatre, which has been going strong since its opening.
“He’s grown tremendously,” Williams said of Harris. “He’s gone from being a pure stand-up to an overall entertainer. He creates a relationship with the audience, an atmosphere everyone wants to get into. He’s not a cold type of performer. What he does is intimate.”
Williams recalled one night when Harris’ fearlessness as an insult comic was put to the test: Mike Tyson was in the audience. “He’s taken advantage of Mike Tyson so many times,” Williams said, chuckling. “One night he was sayin’ Tyson can’t fight. Then he said: ‘I told you about Robin Givens. I used to go with her. She and her mother tried to move into my apartment on Central Avenue.’ Tyson was 20. He’d just won the fight that unified the heavyweight championship and had drunk a lot of champagne. He got up and approached the stage. Everyone watched. Nobody knew what he was gonna do, including Robin. But Tyson said, ‘I just wanna hug you.’ ” (Tyson and Harris are now close friends.)
“People say, ‘You ain’t goin’ anywhere doin’ that black club in Crenshaw,’ ” Harris mused, before ticking off the projects he’s done and the things he has upcoming. All the club has done is give him a place to find himself, and to keep his vantage point sharpened with skepticism. He senses the metamorphosis that success exerts on character. About Arsenio Hall he says, “I don’t like the way he kisses up to everybody.” And of Eddie Murphy he observes, “He was encouraging to me, but Eddie wants all his people to entertain him all the time, like court jesters.”
“It’s hard to be a man,” Harris said. “It’s hard to be what you never were before. One time I got fired from a job. I had tears in my eyes. But they dried up. I said: ‘What’d you expect? You got to make the preparation.’ The more I study, the more my phone rings. Comedy is my office, where I’m the boss. But I never want to be where my friends are afraid to come up and speak to me, to say ‘You ain’t God. You just in show business.’ ”