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Stand-up guy David Alan Grier talks acting, comedy

Corey Manning | 8/18/2009, 6:56 a.m.

What would you expect to be the first thing to come out of the mouth of “In Living Color” alum and stand-up comedian David Alan Grier in a phone interview? How’s this for a man in tune with his audience-to-be: “Did you watch the Red Sox game last night?”

Grier spoke to the Banner before making his long awaited return to the Comedy Connection at Faneuil Hall for a pair of dates last weekend (and before the Red Sox wrapped up the Rockies in four). The talk was kind of rocky at first because of a bad reception on his end. But Grier was quick on his feet — while most people would tilt their heads or step out of their cars, he moved the whole car, driving around until he found both a clear signal and a safe place to park.

There were great moments of laughter in the Banner’s conversation with Grier, and though this “transcription” might not capture the vigor of the call, talking about the path of his career did offer some insight into a brilliantly talented man.

I know you were here a year or so ago — how often do you get out to Boston?

I think it was the year before last. I have been wanting to get back, but it took awhile for us to nail down a date. I love Boston, because it’s one of the places where you have a great comedy club in the heart of the major city. You get an audience that has an urban and cosmopolitan mindset, which I feel tends to be a little more sophisticated crowd. I always enjoy it a little more.

I have to admit that I’m trying to understand something, and I need you to help me with this. A master’s in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama to “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” … I’m just trying to understand that transition.

OK, I’m going to tell you how that went down. In between (Yale and) “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” I did “A Soldier’s Story” (1984). In between (Yale and) “A Soldier’s Story,” I did “A Soldier’s Play” (1982). And that’s where I met Denzel Washington, Adolph Caesar, Charles Fuller … all those guys. Cut to me doing the movie, and I met Robert Townsend. Through Robert Townsend, I met Keenen Ivory Wayans and all those guys. We all became friends. And as a matter fact, I hung out with them, and most of them were comics, but I didn’t do stand-up comedy. But I looked down it, because I was “a trained actor.”

You were a thespian?

Right, right. So, I would hang out with them at different comedy clubs. And it started as a dare. I really never thought I would go on the road with stuff that I was just doing for fun. Robert (Townsend) dared me to go on stage. He said, “If it’s so easy, then you do it.” Immediately after I started doing it, they said I was giddy. It was like drugs, it was like heroin — the first shot was free, and then the rest … I was addicted.

From there, it was “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka” (1988), which led to “In Living Color.” And then … I was on and poppin’.

Does you theatrical training carry over into your stand-up comedy?

I always, as an actor, had a character to hide behind. In stand-up comedy, you have to be yourself. I really had to learn that. In the first few routines that I would do, I would do these long bits. They were basically mini plays, spoofs on commercials, and all this stuff. I would have it all scripted.

When I started doing stand-up, Damon Wayans, Keenen, Robert and all those guys would tell me, “You have to talk and let the audience get to know you.” That was the biggest thing I had to learn. I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be more of comic who did characters. It took me awhile, but once I got it, it was all gravy after that.

How did you come about being able to transcend many types of audience, from mainstream to urban?

It wasn’t calculated; it happened because of the choices I’ve made. I never thought that “In Living Color” would get on the air. One of the reasons I did it was I thought it was really crazy. I thought it was going to be really fun. I finally was going to do a show that I really liked. But it was so edgy that I never believed that the network would pick it up. But they did, and it became a hit.

So a lot of people probably started watching me from there. And what I forgot is that as I aged, grew and changed, so did my audience. It’s not like my audience stayed in 1990. They grew with me. I can remember coming off stage and I’m like, “Who are these old people in the audience?” I look in the mirror and I’m like, “They’re you, dude, they’re you.”

Speaking of old school, I’m going to throw something at you, and see if you can remember this. This comes from good Googling.

Okay.

The Battle of Yavin.

Wait a minute …

“Star Wars.”

(Laughing) Oh God … “The Star Wars Radio Trilogy?” My acting teacher — his name was John Madden, who directed me in “Shakespeare In Love” … He said if I was in L.A., he could put me in the radio show as a storm trooper or something, and he would pay me $800. And I was like, “$800?”

What?

Oh my God … that was big money.

Yeah, especially at that time (the National Public Radio-produced show ran from 1980-1983).

Dude, I’m telling you … It was big money. I was doing that and extra work. $800? Forget about it. It was very big money. I played a bunch of different roles. And, again, at that time, nobody knew that 20 years later, there would be “Star Wars” festivals or they’d still be doing “Star Wars” (movies). But yeah, it was really fun. I thought I was in the “big times.”

I did not realize that you do impersonations, too.

Kind of, sort of. I was talking to a friend of mine today about this show I am working on for Comedy Central called “The Chocolate News.” And we were talking about when I hosted “Saturday Night Live” (first in 1995, later in 1997 and 1999). I didn’t know (what the process was). I thought I was just going to come in there and they were going to write everything for me. When I met with them, they were like, “We know you’re going to have ideas and characters. You really are going to want to do your own thing.” And I’m like, “What?”

So I ran back to the hotel, when (SNL executive producer) Lorne Michaels called and asked if I did impressions. I tried to think of stuff that no one had ever done, and therefore, I couldn’t fail. So I said, “Uh … Maya Angelou.”

I’ve never heard anyone do an impression of Maya Angelou.

(Laughing) Me either. Which I thought was funny, because I said it for a joke. But they didn’t laugh. Instead they were like, “Oh, great.” So once they took me seriously, I ran out and got some footage of her. No one had ever done her before, so I did it, and it turned into something great. Plus, I actually looked like her. And that’s how that happened. Frankly, some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen has come just from saying, “I think this is funny, let’s just try it.”

So what can the folk expect to see from you on stage?

It’s basically my life. I bring you up to date with where I am right now. I just got married. I’m about to have a baby. I’m an old “grandpa daddy.” Also more fun and time for me to reconnect with the audience and do my own thing.

One final series of questions: If you had the opportunity to have dinner with anyone, living or dead; who would it be? Where would you eat? What would you talk to them about?

All right, it would probably be … I would love to have dinner with Cleopatra.

Really?

Yeah, and I’ll tell you why. From everything I have read about her and know about her, she was not as beautiful as people think she was. But she was brilliant. And to me, she is one of the most intriguing women in history.

I don’t know where we would eat, but mostly I would try to get her to tell me about her life. I would want to listen to her, and pick her brain. I would want to learn how she controlled a nation, back in the day!

We would eat some New England clam chowder, possibly some soul food. Talking to Ms. Cleo about how to rule a nation.