Although Netflix has billed Marlon Wayans: Woke-ish as the comedian’s first-ever stand-up special (which is true), it’s also technically not the first time he has ever performed stand-up on film. That honor belongs to his character Loc Dog’s “Death Comedy Jam” appearance in the film Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, the Wayans brothers’ 1996 parody of movies like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society. An obvious play on Def Comedy Jam, it did for the popular HBO series what the film did for its more cinematic targets.
Loc Dog isn’t a real person like Marlon Wayans, and the “comedy” he spouts is nothing like the material Woke-ish presents to its viewers. Yet just as Loc Dog’s “routine” concentrates stand-up into a few seconds of random curse words and phrases, Wayans’s special presents a more exaggerated form of stand-up than some may be used to. Not only is Wayans an incredibly energetic, expressive performer in the same vein as Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, he’s also — to use his own term — “offensive.” We spoke with the comedian about his use of this label, as well as the work that went into making Woke-ish a reality.
You’ve said elsewhere that Woke-ish stems from seven hours worth of material. How long have you been working on this?
I just do stand-up. I don’t do it because I’m going to do a special. I’m doing it in a vacuum, just to get better as an artist. So over time I just developed a lot of material. And I don’t like doing the same material over, and over, and over, and over again. I like to switch it up so I don’t get bored on stage, so I stay creative. I had a bunch of material to choose from, but I was like, “All right, if I do a special what would it be?” Then I got it down to two and a half hours and from there… By the time I filmed it, it was an hour and a half or an hour and forty-five minutes. Then I cut it down to the hour and six minutes you see now.
The material that you didn’t use, do you still perform it on the road? Or are you done with it?
I would say maybe 30 percent of it I still use. The rest I chucked out. It’s mostly things that I have probably moved past in terms of point of view, or stuff for which I just feel like now is not the right time. I want to try something different or I’m a different artist than I was when I first started. But I just try to, you know, evolve. You can’t really evolve when you’re holding onto things. That’s why I liked doing the special, because I just felt like I was being held back from becoming a better artist by not doing the special. I didn’t want to hoard material. I wanted to be naked again, and be free again, and create again at the optimal level. And be scared again, and be nervous again — about the material I was working with. I wanted to make it better and improve it. You can only get so many reactions to the material you’re trying to hone before you go, “All right, this is ready.” It’s good to feel naked again.
Yours is a very expressive, physical stage performance. I imagine a lot of that has to do with your acting background. Is that something you consciously wanted to incorporate in your stand-up, or was it more second nature?
I’m just a performer like that. It’s just who I am. I’m very connected to my body. I’m very expressive with my face. I’ve always been a rubber band. I’ve always been silly putty. Artists like Charlie Chaplin, Jim Carrey, Richard Pryor, and my brother Damon are my favorite types like that. You know, guys that can tell you a joke, then show you the joke, animate it, and give everybody a voice or do characters.
You know, I just want to be the best artist I can be. To tell a joke is great, but to show the joke and to give things voices is a whole other level. I’m a cartoon. I’m a Bugs Bunny, and sometimes we take those things for granted. Like, Bugs Bunny isn’t deep, but really he was one of the most brilliant political satirists. He would blow a bomb in your face. For me, I just want to hit you with comedy on as many levels as I possibly can. It’s for some people and it’s not for some people, but for me I have to be truthful to how I express comedy as a vessel, as an artist. I just choose to be physical when it’s necessary. I don’t go, “What kind of physicality can I do?” It just organically happens. This is me. I just happen.
Did you find yourself having to change how physical you were depending on the venue you were performing in? Say, either a 50-seat small club or a 1000-person theater?
On a small stage, you can always be big. I still find myself being animated. What you learn is, the work you put into a small stage is the ease you’ll have on a big stage. When I’m doing a club, say 200 seats, I’m doing three shows a night and selling that out easily. That’s three shows a night every night. So 12 shows in a weekend, at an hour and a half for each show, and they’re back to back. So by the time I get to a big theater where the stage is 10 times that size, and I have to walk and communicate to 5000 people instead of 200, I now have the stamina for that performance.
On The Tonight Show, you said you were “offensive.” Among other things, Woke-ish contains jokes about Caitlyn Jenner that made me think of Dave Chappelle’s similar jokes and the flak he caught for them. So in your mind do you, as a comedian, try to be offensive? Or are you just trying to be funny about something that might be offensive to some?
I don’t try to be offensive. I just try to be truthful about my point of view about some things. That may be offensive at first, at least until you refine it. So many things are inherently going to be offensive, because it’s all subjective, you know? It’s your opinion versus someone else’s opinion. Except they don’t have the mic, so you’re speaking what you feel about something, but that’s not necessarily what somebody else feels about it. They may disagree completely with your point of view. But if you can find the laugh, then at least they can understand where you’re coming from. So I don’t try to be offensive. That’s not what I do. It’s not an intentional thing. It’s just something that kind of happens.
I actually try to do the opposite. I try to take offensive topics and make everybody relate to them. I want to tell that one joke that makes the whole world laugh. That’s why you get into this business. For the last part of my tour, I went all throughout the south. I went to Trump country and did my Trump material, because I wanted to see if it was offensive or if they would laugh, and when they laughed I knew it was good enough to put in. I wanted to refine the material when I was touring with it in places that might not like it, and not be afraid to fail while trying it out, to make sure it worked.
You recorded this in Washington D.C., but you also performed it while opening for Dave Chappelle at Radio City. Was that most of the same material?
Some of it. Some of the first 10 minutes of the special, or maybe 15 minutes of the special, is the stuff that I did in front of Chappelle.
What was that experience like?
It was dope because Chappelle, at that point, had not seen me do comedy in years. Not only that, but we were at Radio City Music Hall and there were a bunch of other comedians on the bill too, so to go out and rock it with them felt special. It felt good.
You come from a famous family of performers — actors, writers, producers — so I was curious: What do your brothers and the rest of the family think about the special?
My brother Damon called me and told me he was proud of me. I haven’t talked to Keenen and Shawn yet. Kim told me she was proud of me after she saw it. She said it was really enjoyable. Said there were a few things in there that I may have gone a little far with, but for the most part she knows that my taste is a little bit more edgy. I think everyone is proud of the work I’m doing.
Is that important to you? Knowing what your family thinks about this?
Oh, absolutely. It means everything to me that they enjoy what I do. At the same time, I give myself the freedom to figure it out. I can’t always do what everybody wants me to do, because that would make me them, and not make me Marlon. I was a Wayans, I am a Wayans, and I will always be a Wayans. But who is Marlon, what does my voice say, and what makes me different than Damon, Shawn, Keenen, and Kim? Not just as an individual, but as a comedian with his own perspective? That’s the journey that I’ve been on. With all respect, I love my family, but you know, sometimes when they’re being overprotective, I go, “I know you’re telling me it’s raining outside, but I want to see if I can dodge raindrops. I want to change the game. I want to see if I can go outside and run around and get less wet than you did.”
So what’s next? Do you have more touring coming up, or are you taking a break?
As soon as I finish filming my show Marlon, I’m back on the road. Right now I’m going to be on the road while I’m doing my show. I just did some gigs last weekend. I’ll probably do some two weeks from now. I’ve got a bunch of gigs coming up, too. The schedule is full because I plan on working hard and creating something brand new.
Marlon Wayans: Woke-ish is now streaming on Netflix.