Wayne Brady is talking on a cell phone while cruising along the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, with his wife, Mandie, and their 6-month-old daughter, Maile. Multitasking is nothing new for Brady, but he’s not used to messing up.
Brady is lost but doesn’t seem worried. He wants to take the baby for a walk on the beach and visit places where his wife grew up.
Brady is in the midst of an 11-day break before returning to the syndicated “Wayne Brady Show,” which relaunches Monday. The show won Daytime Emmy Awards this year for outstanding talk show host and outstanding talk show. Nearly doubling its reach within a year, the show now airs in more than 90% of the country on ABC affiliates and other stations.
Though he relishes his success, Brady did not plan to be a talk show host. But with his ability to deliver a monologue, dance and sing, do silly sketches and chat with guests, he has the look of a natural.
If he is reminiscent of anyone, it would be Mike Douglas, with his singing and his engaging but not fawning way with guests.
“You don’t see Regis or anyone on ‘The View’ able to sing,” Brady says. “They don’t improvise shows or do impersonations. That’s what makes it a variety show. And I sit in with the musical guests, and we have a performance element that you won’t get anywhere else on daytime TV.”
Two years ago, Brady’s ABC summer variety show, also named “The Wayne Brady Show,” harkened back to “The Carol Burnett Show” in its whimsy. Burnett, a Brady fan, has praised his work to others. “Having her talk to me was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” Brady says. “She came in and surprised me as I was doing a dress rehearsal.”
On that 2001 show, Brady dressed up like his paternal grandmother, who reared him from infancy. He surreptitiously borrowed one of her suits and had the costumers make an identical one for him. Grandma was in the audience when he came tottering out in heels, done up exactly like her and talking in a Virgin Islands lilt. She took the joke well.
“Being a singer or musically inclined, I have always had a gift for trying to duplicate what I heard,” he says. “As she was scolding me, I was talking back to her like her and getting my butt beaten. I would make her laugh.”
Growing up in Orlando, Fla., Brady had no clear aspirations. He toyed with the idea of a military career. “I don’t know if I wanted to be in the military. I just knew that ROTC was the best thing for me at the time. I was picked on a lot. I was kind of clumsy, a very typical teenage portrait of the hapless loser next door.”
As is the case with so many actors, once he tried a play in high school, life took on new meaning.
“When I started doing ‘Dark of the Moon,’ I fell in with all of those other drama kids,” he says. “On opening night, when I got a huge wave of applause and I saw all the bullies in the front row and they were laughing and applauding, I knew this is it.
“The next day I went and auditioned for a local production of ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ and I got it.”
He has worked ever since, often under yards of plush costuming at amusement parks. “Which one didn’t I work at?” he asks, laughing at the memory of hours in goofy Goofy suits. “I worked at Disney World, first as a performer and then as a character. I was Tigger, Goofy, Capt. Hook and Winnie the Pooh.”
He credits those jobs for teaching him to react quickly, prime experience for his gig on ABC’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”
“I got some of my earliest improv training,” he says of those years. “I have been so lucky in the fact that every single thing I have done jobwise, from the teensiest job to the most incredible thing, has all helped make me the performer I am.”
This performer, at 31, is also a bit sensitive. He brings up “Saturday Night Live” and “Mad TV” skits that poked fun at him. “If you need to sink to a certain level to get a laugh ... ,” Brady says indignantly, trailing off for a moment. “If you are going to do something about someone, at least make it funny. Even shooting for a daytime show, you are going to create something where the audience can tune in and get a big laugh.”
Brady is determined to keep the jokes clean and the guests happy.
“I didn’t ask to do the show. Disney came after me. Doing a talk show was not high on my list of things to do. In fact, it was not on my list of things to do.”
Brady was considering sitcoms when a Disney executive approached him about filling the niche when Rosie O’Donnell left. “I think she meant in terms of someone who could be a bright fixture on TV, who could try to do something positive as opposed to the, ‘Yo, mama, baby [shtick]. At the worst, it couldn’t hurt. And here we are a year and two Emmys later.”
Jacqueline Cutler writes for Tribune Media Services.
“The Wayne Brady Show” airs at 10 a.m. weekdays
on KCAL-TV, Channel 9 (pre-empted Monday,
Sept. 1st, for the 2003 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon).
Cover photograph by Associated Press.