Damon Wayans Stands Out : Comic Drops His Stage Act to Put His Passion Into New Horizons

Joe Rhodes is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer who has written for Entertainment Weekly, G.Q. and American Way magazines

One of the final images in Damon Wayans' comedy special "The Last Stand?" (Saturday on HBO) is a slow-motion shot of Wayans smashing his microphone onto the stage of Harlem's legendary Apollo Theatre. It shatters on impact, leaving only broken pieces in the spotlight's glare.

Nearly a year has passed since that image was filmed, when Damon Wayans started his July 1990 stand-up show at the Apollo by saying, "This is it. I ain't doing comedy no more."

Now, sitting in his office at Columbia Studios in Culver City, exhausted from weeks of night filming on "The Last Boy Scout," the big-budget buddy movie he's shooting with Bruce Willis, Wayans says he didn't stop doing stand-up because he was angry. He stopped because he wasn't angry enough.

"I left because I didn't have anything left to say." He was hunched over his immaculate black desk, in his Venetian-blinded production office, right next door to Jean Claude-Van Damme's, just down the hall from Penny Marshall's. "When you start out you can be Everyman and you can have a strong point of view. When you become successful and people begin to know you, you can't really take as hard a stand.

"People start to judge you differently. When a guy you don't know tells you a dirty joke and it's funny, you just laugh. But if your grandfather tells you a joke like that, you go, 'Grandpa! I've never heard you talk like that before.' "

Wayans, 30, grew up in a New York City housing project, the fourth of 10 children. In the special he talks about nights when there was no food in the house and "we had sleep for dinner."

He says he first got into comedy because he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, Keenen Ivory Wayans. "My mother always told me I should be more like Keenen," he says, laughing. "And I love Keenen. I think he walks on air. So I think I did it because he was doing it."

Damon has been working the stand-up comedy circuit for the better part of 10 years, but it's only been in the last few that his career has taken off. There was a short stint on "Saturday Night Live" in 1985, a series of small movie roles and then, last year, he hit it big as a cast member of "In Living Color," the Fox television show created and produced by Keenen, and featuring several other Wayans siblings.

But now that Damon is on the verge of being a star--"Last Boy Scout" is already being touted as, potentially "the next 'Lethal Weapon' "--his deepest fear seems to be that success will lead to complacency, that it will somehow rob him of his passion. "You do lose the rage," he says, quietly. "I can have my secretary go get me a Mercedes right now and not even feel it. So what have I got to be angry about?"

Wayans talks about this in the HBO special, about how he's afraid that he's starting to do things just for the money, about how weird it is to have white people coming up to him on the street to say how much they love him, to tell him that he's special, that he's "not like the others."

"The thing is you start believing it," he says in the show. "Until the cops pull you over. Then you go, 'I thought I was special,' and they say, 'Yeah. . .just put your head down or I'll put a special bullet in your ass.' "

The special is filled with slash-and-burn humor. With its street language, it is expletive-laced, sexually graphic and, on occasion, potently confrontational.

"I've got four kids," Wayans says during the show. "I know some of you brothers are going, 'That ain't nothing, man. I got five.' But I take care of mine. That's the difference."

Sitting in his office, the fatigue from sleepless nights showing in his eyes, Wayans tried to explain that he wanted to get out before he started pulling punches, before he started censoring himself.

"When the passion's gone, then I'm gone," he says. "They haven't made enough money to get me to do something without passion. If you want to make money doing stand-up, fine. More power to you. I mean Jerry Seinfeld is hilarious. I could sit and watch him all night. But it's cotton candy. It's not filling. I don't want to do cotton candy."

So, for now, Wayans is concentrating on movies. In August, he's scheduled to star in "Mo Money," for which he wrote the screenplay. Then he plans to write, direct and star in "Blankman."

"What I'm really looking forward to is the comeback," Wayans says, only half-joking. "I'll probably do this and have some success for a while and then you have failure. That's the reality. But then, that's when the passion really drives you. Yeah, I'm looking forward to that."

"The Last Stand?" premieres Saturday at 10 p.m. on HBO.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World