(September 11, 2006) — Expletives were flying, body parts were being poked, Mafia culture was being mocked, and Damon Wayans was in whiteface.
Wayans was playing an inappropriately affectionate mob hit-man in a skit entitled “Touchy Feely Guy” for his comedy series, “The Underground,” which debuts on Showtime, Thursday, at 10 p.m. EDT.
“It’s `In Living Color’ on steroids,” said Wayans, referring to the 1990s Fox series created by brother Keenen Ivory Wayans. “We get a chance to complete the joke. And if you want to see something that’s shockingly funny, tune in … It’s the next generation of comedy.”
Wayans, 46, first became known for his portrayal of outrageous characters on “In Living Color,” including the hilariously scary Homey D. Clown. Then he starred for five seasons on “My Wife and Kids.” He felt stifled on that ABC prime-time sitcom, which was canceled last year.
“Creatively, I felt I was walking through those five years. This is very freeing,” he said at a modest Burbank soundstage where “The Underground” was shooting.“It’s scary, because I have to stop censoring myself, because you go, `They’re not going to let me do that!’ but then you go, `This is Showtime! This is breaking that television mentality,’” he said, sounding like himself, though still disguised as the peculiar Mafia guy.
Clips from the cable series shown to a gathering of television critics in July clearly offended some in the audience.
Prompting an especially strong reaction was “The `Real’ Vagina Monologues,” featuring the female body part chattering opinions. There was also a routine involving male private parts.
Wayans defended the skits as “honest.” But he says he will not be surprised if the raw humor offends everyone at least some of the time.
“I think we are a very repressed society, just very hypocritical,” he said, comparing American television unfavorably to British comedy shows like “Little Britain,” the original “The Office” and “Benny Hill,” all of which he looked at for inspiration.
“Television here, I think, is 30 years behind,” says Wayans, highly critical of the primness and prejudice of a medium much more uptight about sex than about violence and death. He finds it absurd that expletives are bleeped and body parts scrambled. “I think that’s cheating. It’s like you are lying to people.”
He’s definitely truthful about what he dubs his “shock and awe” tactics.
“I just have to shock people and get them watching, I’ve got to get people talking, so some of it is just designed for that,” he admits. “I’ve got to get people there, then I can be smarter, I can be a little more political, I can be more about social commentary, but now I’ve just got to be funny.”
The “new generation” of comedians he hired for the show are drawn from the comedy club and improv circuit, and include his son Damon Wayans, Jr., a staff writer on “My Wife and Kids,” and Aries Spears, a regular on Fox’s “MAD TV.”
Showtime, a unit of CBS Corp., has ordered 10 half-hour episodes, each featuring about five to six skits, but Wayans filmed almost double that amount and returned for some retakes.
If the show gets picked up for another season, he “wouldn’t mind doing it live,” because that’s the spontaneity he aims for.
“It’s about improv and having fun,” he said. “And as soon as it feels like we are trying to memorize lines, we’re dead and there’s nothing special. My goal is to do what we did on `In Living Color,’ what they did on Carol Burnett’s show make each other in the scene laugh. That’s infectious.”
Robert Greenblatt, Showtime’s entertainment president, says the cable network is not concerned about the tone and content.
“I think Damon has a very strong sense of what’s funny and certainly wanted to push the envelope,” Greenblatt said. “And I think he actually had something to say … he isn’t just trying to be titillating, he’s actually coming from a place and trying to make commentary. He will no doubt surprise some people and shock some people, but that’s OK.”
The series seeks a different audience than those who customarily tune to Showtime’s critically acclaimed provocative dramedies like “Weeds,” “The L Word” and the recently canceled “Huff.”
“I think this is aimed at a younger audience, probably more male than female,” said Greenblatt. “We don’t always attract the younger audience because we do things that are a little bit more sophisticated, and older skewed, with older characters, so this could reach out to that younger demo.”
“I think there is a way of presenting anything as long as it’s funny,” said Wayans. “The only thing I don’t do is God jokes, because I don’t want God to do Damon jokes.”