Hangin' in Midair . . . for Now

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I think we have a positive show with a positive message for kids," says Mark Curry, the star of the ABC family comedy series "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper," which airs Fridays as part of the network's popular "TGIF" sitcom lineup. But viewers won't be hanging with "Mr. Cooper" this fall. After four seasons, the comedy has been relegated to midseason replacement status with an order of 13 episodes.

In "Mr. Cooper," the 6-foot-6-inch Curry plays a fun-loving former basketball star turned high school teacher.

As did so many other sitcom stars, Curry, 32, began his career as a stand-up comic. Born and raised in a tough Oakland neighborhood, Curry became interested in comedy while managing a local drugstore. In 1987, he made his debut at an Oakland comedy club and within two years was successful enough to quit his day job. Curry got his big break touring as comedian Damon Wayans' opening act and as Whitney Houston's opener at the 1991 Super Bowl pregame concert. Curry's latest HBO stand-up comedy special airs Aug. 17.

Curry talked about his series, his comedy and his future in his production office at Warner Bros.

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Question: Are you disappointed that you didn't make the fall schedule?

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Answer: I look at everything as a positive. I look at it as, "OK. The network doesn't think I belong on network TV."

Q: You really feel that way?

A: Yeah. We are not on the schedule. Obviously, they feel that we do not belong. We are not good enough to be on prime-time television after four years of good service. So that's a challenge for me. Instead of being sad about it, I said, "OK. Let's turn this around."

I look at it as we got 13 [episodes]. And with 13, we will hit 100 [episodes in total]. So there is no reason for me to be sad because I will hit syndication in 13. I am happy to be working for that 13. They didn't have to give me that 13. I look at it as my last 13 shows on TV because I may never do TV again.

Q: Why?

A: I would love to [do more TV], but you never know. That's the way I have to look at it. I think about all the years [on the show]. It was a steppingstone. I learned a lot. I learned a lot about Los Angeles and the business.

Q: What did you learn?

A: The first years were a learning experience because [the producers] didn't want to trust my comedy. It was a trip. I almost didn't make it for the first couple of years. Then we got better producers who learned to take my word. I am a comedian. I think I know what's funny and the show's about me.

So it was smoothed out. The first couple of years were very rough in terms of personnel. Once we weeded those people out, you can see in the stories and my attitude, I was a little more comfortable and happier.

Q: "Mr. Cooper" has a multiracial cast. But most sitcoms seem to have either all-white or all-black casts. Why do you think comedy series have become so segregated?

A: It's gone on since the '70s. That's the networks. They feel on "Friends" or "Ellen" they don't need black people. They have the ratings. They don't need a black person to go in there and do anything.

I would love to see a black dude walk on "Friends." I think they wouldn't know what to say. [The shows] are making ratings and making money. In this business, they think black shows should go to black people. They are black, so they think, "Let's gear it toward black," instead of [toward] being funny. That's what they should concentrate on--being funny.

Q: Unlike the series, your stand-up act is definitely not for kids.

A: I tell people not to bring their kids to the show. Because it's nightclub, the kids shouldn't be there anyway. Some people bring their kids, but I don't change. It's the parents' fault for bringing the kids.

Q: Has your comedy changed since you started out in small clubs in Oakland?

A: Yeah. I am a little bit more on the edge. When I started, I was a little bit more observational. But now I think I am definitely more on the edge. I think when you get older, you get a little wiser. You look at the world differently.

I talk about relationships. I talk about crack. I talk a little about everything. People are scared of those issues like crack and O.J. You have to be on the edge to be memorable in comedy. I would rather be memorable than just laughed at.

Q: Will Smith and Martin Lawrence parlayed their success on TV sitcoms into big-screen careers. But you haven't made the leap to the feature world. Have you just decided to concentrate more on your TV and stand-up careers?

A: We are trying to get movies. I want to do movies, but Hollywood thinks, I guess, that I am Mr. Cooper or something. We are trying to break that mold now. I have an HBO special coming out. Hopefully, it will show another side of me other than the TV side.

I don't see myself out there with Denzel [Washington]. I would love to play a comedy role. I look at the comedians out there on the silver screen and I think I can be very unique with my talent. I have a lot of inner confidence. I know I can do it. I know I can do well in movies. That's why I am keeping my body tight. I am trying to stay healthy. I am keeping my mind together, keeping my head together just doing stand-up. I have a good fan base. I want to do a movie like a "Bad News Bears."

I look at movies, and they are so violent and I say, "Oh, God." Coming from the 'hood and seeing boys shot, I can't watch [the films] sometimes. It takes me to a place I don't want to go. I can't go there once you had seen it and known a lot of people who have been shot.

Q: You've had a lot of friends and relatives who were killed?

A: A lot of guys from the block. My little nephew, he was 18, he got shot by the police.

Q: Do you return to your neighborhood and talk to the kids?

A: Yeah. We have a youth center up there--East Oakland Youth Development Center. It's my center. I adopted it. I give the center money. We have a lot of programs. You see little kids who come in. You see some bad ones and you rap with them. I think me being there just lets them know that I care. So I go in there and play ball with them and I tell them they can talk with me if they want. I tell them to read, and sometimes I see them with a book. I feel like God gave me a talent, and it would be a waste not to do something to help the kids.

* "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.

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