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Damon Wayans Jr., pilot season's most in-demand actor, on his 'Living Color' childhood — plus, a 'Happy Endings' movie?

Damon Wayans Jr., pilot season's most in-demand actor, on his 'Living Color' childhood — plus, a 'Happy Endings' movie?
Damon Wayans Jr. has been one of the most in-demand actors during pilot season in recent years. This season, he stars in the CBS comedy, "Happy Together." (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As a young stand-up performer starting out, Damon Wayans Jr. used a stage name — Kyle Green — in an attempt to carve out an identity all his own from under the shadows of his funnyman father, Damon Sr. — not to mention his uncles (Keenen Ivory, Shawn, Marlon) and aunt (Kim).

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Or course, his resemblance gave him away — more on that later — but Wayans Jr., now 35, is standing on his own just fine these days.

For the second year in a row, the “Happy Endings” and “New Girl” alum topped the Hollywood Reporter’s list of most in-demand pilot season actors.

He currently stars in the CBS multi-camera comedy, “Happy Together.” The sitcom, which premiered earlier this month, revolves around a pop star (Felix Mallard, “Neighbours”) who seeks refuge from the trappings of fame by moving in with his accountant, Jake, played by Wayans Jr. and his wife, Claire, played by “The Carmichael Show’s” Amber Stevens West. The series is loosely based on the time One Direction’s Harry Styles lived with “The Late Late Show With James Corden” executive producer Ben Winston. (Winston also serves as an executive producer on “Happy Together.”)

So, you’ve been the most in-demand actor during TV pilot season in recent years. What do you think when you hear that?

I think it's ridiculous, in a good way. I'm thankful. I know this is a hard grind, so I'm just appreciative of whatever opportunities are put in front of me. I started realizing the demand when I started getting sent a bunch of scripts that were like, "You say yes to this, it's a go." Or, "This is a go anyways." So, yeah, that was really cool, I got to read a lot of scripts.

[“Happy Together”] is my first multi-cam. I’ve never acted in front of a live audience.

Was that part of the appeal, given your background in stand-up?

It’s like easier stand-up.

Have you ever wanted to take the mike from the audience warm-up guy and do a set?

The guy doing it for our show is a really funny dude. And he can juggle. And he puts a full ladder on his chin and can juggle while the ladder is balancing on one point. It's the weirdest thing. There's no way I can compete with that.

What’s been your experience with heckling during your stand-up days?

I used to go on stage under the name Kyle Green because I wanted to stand on my own, especially since I have the same name as my dad. I wanted to get my own footing, I wanted to feel good doing stand-up ... but because I looked so much like him, people would just yell in the middle of my act, "You Damon Wayan's son!" I'd be like, "Oh my goodness." "You look just like Damon Wayans." Another time, when my dad started taking me on the road with him — I would open for him — we were in Boston and I was walking to the mike and the minute I grabbed it, I heard someone go, “You better be funny.” And there were thousands of people there. It was intimidating.

Was joining the family business of comedy something you felt destined to do?

I wanted to be an animator growing up. I’ve been drawing since I was 2. I went to art college for a year and dropped out because it was too many academics. There were 18 units and barely any of that was art. I love anime. I love cartoons like “Looney Tunes” and Tex Avery, everything. I love animation, but I wound up falling in love with writing. I remember my first gig in the industry as a writer was punch-up writing, where you stay on the sidelines on a sitcom and, between scenes, you pitch alternate jokes. “My Wife and Kids” was my first punch-up gig and I was really good at it. And that just got the wheels turning. I started writing and I started doing stand-up.

Felix Mallard, left, Amber Stevens West and Damon Wayans Jr. in a scene from "Happy Together."
Felix Mallard, left, Amber Stevens West and Damon Wayans Jr. in a scene from "Happy Together." (Cliff Lipson / TNS)

As a kid, did it feel like your family was different? Do you remember being on the set of “In Living Color” and knowing this wasn’t where other kids went when they went to see their parents at work?

When we went to Disneyland, that’s when we knew like, ‘Oh, man, this dude.’ We’d forget how famous he was at the time until we got to places and then the fans would swarm. And that was back when there were autographs and stuff so he’d be signing random napkins and stuff. So we knew he was famous, that was just our life so we didn’t know any different. And all the brothers and my aunt Kim were famous too, so it was just normal.

I was maybe 8 when “In Living Color” started. I would go sometimes to the set. I remember being in love with the Fly Girls. I remember going in their room and being shy. I remember Jennifer Lopez, this girl named Lisa [Marie Todd] and Rosie Perez. She used to watch me when I was over there. I used to hang out with her all the time. And Jim Carrey used to always be at my house. Him and my dad were close, they did stand-up together.

What’s it like having Jim Carrey in your house?

He was just like Ace Ventura, except in the house. I remember coming home one time, I think it was nighttime. We’re in the car, my dad’s driving. For some reason, I’m in the front seat — I don’t think my mom was with us. My brother and sister were in the back and we’re pulling into the driveway for the apartment complex and Jim Carrey falls out of a tree and lands right on our windshield and just slides down the windshield. We laughed so hard. I think my brother peed himself. I remember that about Jim. That’s how crazy for a laugh he was.

CBS has faced criticism about its programming being too white. You’re on a show that is part of the network’s freshman class that feature more leads of color. How do you feel being part of the change?

I hope it really does usher in a new era. I like being part of the experiment. I hope it works. I feel like they’re behind the show. I see billboards everywhere. In my mind, all these networks are white. Like, all of them are too white to me, as far as what the United States looks like. It’s crazy how there’s like no shows with Hispanic leads. So, no matter where I go, it’s something [networks] need to work on. I like the fact that they’re working towards whatever goal. I think they have a lot invested in us because they want it to work.

Does it feel like a precarious time to be launching a new show with CBS, considering the Les Moonves situation? Were you concerned it would cast a shadow for fall launches on the network?

I feel like CBS is so big that it’s not just on one guy’s shoulders. I just got here. So I don’t really have much to say on whatever happened. I’m just excited about my show and what’s going on with that. I can’t really chime in on that.

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How is it as an actor in this moment when there’s so much TV? Does it make deciding that much harder — are you always thinking about what else might come up that’s better?

I feel like there’s only one you, so you, whatever you pick, you have to stick with it. I think about, “Oh, what if there’s something like ‘Atlanta’ out there, the next ‘Atlanta’? What are you going to do?” But I feel like I am still young enough to where — I mean, I’d like the show to go on like “The Big Bang Theory,” and get big bank like “Big Bang.” That’s why I like having the producer hat. Even if I’m not in [something], I can either write or bring something to the table that has the “Atlanta” caliber or “Westworld” caliber. Something super-creative, super-specific to my sensibility.

And I have to ask: will fans ever get that “Happy Endings” reunion?

I talked to Dave [Caspe, the show’s creator] about it. I was like, ‘Why don’t we do a movie, man?” I talked to him about it and we’re talking about it, but we’ll see. He’s a busy boy.

OK, now, what pop star would you allow to move in with you and your wife?

None. … Well, whoever cleans up after themselves.

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