'Cedric the Entertainer' Works on Variety
Feb. 04, 2003
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A man washes his hair in the shower, a simple enough enterprise.
Or not. In this case, he's shampooing on a soundstage for Fox's variety series ``Cedric the Entertainer Presents.'' A makeshift bathroom, complete with running water and a catch basin that must be emptied every four minutes, has been assembled.
Shaun Majumder lathers himself into exultation, over and over, for this parody of a commercial. One crew member jumps in to straighten props for a retake; others stand by with towels and a robe for the sodden actor.
Executive producer John Bowman gulps down a bowl of cereal while keeping a watchful eye on the brief skit. ``Hey, Shaun, get those eyes bugging. That's the money shot,'' Bowman calls out.
Everyone moves quickly and efficiently, all in service of a few seconds of laughs for Wednesday's show (9:30 p.m. EST, a new time). It's just part of a routine 12-hour production day for the series starring Cedric the Entertainer.
``Dying is easy. Comedy is hard,'' goes the theatrical saw. But can a taped, 30-minute show be that tough? Didn't Sid Caesar and the ``Your Show of Shows'' gang crank out 90 minutes of humor, live, week after week, in the 1950s?
That was then, this is now, says Bowman. Production values, audiences and expectations have all changed.
``If you look at old variety shows, old Jackie Gleason shows or Dean Martin shows or go back to 'Your Show of Shows,' just about anything went,'' Bowman said.
Caesar, for one, was undeniably brilliant, Bowman said. But he contends that Caesar's series has taken on an impossible patina of perfection thanks to a handful of great sketches.
``People don't really remember that you'd have 10 minutes of funny and 80 minutes of sitting on your hands,'' he said. ``Look at some of those sketches. They would go on and on; there was really no point. You were wondering, 'Where's the punchline?' They were flabby.''
Audiences were patient back then, going along for the ride even when the wit lagged, Bowman said.
``Now people are just jaded. If you don't have a hard laugh right away, if you don't have a lot of them, they'll turn you off,'' he said. They've got many other choices in this multiple-channel universe, something early TV viewers didn't have.
It's also tougher to wow viewers simply because they've seen so much of the variety genre. Ancient history parodies, once a staple, are passe. ``Saturday Night Live'' made the pop culture parody its own, while ``In Living Color'' milked black satire.
``Nowadays it's really hard to find an angle, to find a way to make this look fresh,'' said Bowman, who wrote for both ``SNL'' and ``In Living Color.''
Proof can be found in the small number of variety shows given a chance and the fewer still that succeed.
The approach that works for ``Cedric the Entertainer'' is retro made new. Cedric's array of comic personas, including the mouthy Mrs. Cafeteria Lady, evoke memories of Carol Burnett's wonderfully vivid characters.
Like Burnett, Cedric has a reliably talented supporting cast, including Majumder, Amy Brassette, JB Smoove and Wendy Raquel Robinson.
But Cedric's show has a dimension of its own: The black perspective that informs his standup comedy and now his Fox series.
In a recent skit, ``White Man's Holding Me Down,'' Cedric is a low-achieving husband dragged to counseling by his frustrated wife, played by Robinson.
She and a therapist try to prod Cedric into admitting that his own lack of ambition keeps him from success. The session is interrupted when a brawny white man comes in and, literally, knocks Cedric down.
``I guess I'll be seeing you at the promotions meeting next week,'' a resigned Cedric tells his familiar tormentor. ``Don't forget,'' the smiling man replies, ``you gotta apply for that bank loan on Tuesday.''
The trick is to tune Cedric's voice so that it rings true with black viewers and still can strike a chord with others, said executive producer Stan Lathan.
``If we're doing a hip-hop sketch, the hip-hoppers have to get it and accept it and find it funny,'' Lathan said. ``At the same time, the challenge is to have it work for the larger, mainstream audience.''
``We really do want to appeal to a larger audience, which has to be a totally diverse audience. But, and I feel this way as an African-American director, we have to stay true to the core.''
Cedric, a successful crossover entertainer whose movie successes include ``The Original Kings of Comedy'' and ``Barbershop,'' helps smooth the way, Lathan said.
But, face it, variety is never easy. Each weekly episode calls for seven to eight sketches, along with dance numbers, all executed while juggling the usual critical notes from network and studio executives.
Then there's those sets. At this moment, crews have yanked away the faux bathroom to install a sleek office complete with city skyline backdrop. The promise was 30 minutes; it's just shy of an hour.
``How we doing?'' Lathan yells out, visibly frustrated. He and the cast are ready for laughs.
On the Net:
EDITOR'S NOTE _ Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber``at``ap.org