David Alan Grier is Serious About His Craft & Seriously Funny
I grew up watching David Alan Grier on the breakout television show In Living Color. He was one of the funniest actors on the show and one of the most memorable. In the movies Boomerang and Blankman he left us in stitches, once again holding his own with Eddie Murphy and the Wayans family respectively. He even made the most of his appearances of the hit show Martin. More recently, just a couple years ago he took over Comedy Central, with the sketch comedy, Chocolate News, once again spotlighting the funny man and the hilarious mind for the world. But who would’ve thought, that the same man who played Antoine Merriweather alongside Damon Wayans in the ‘Men on Film’ sketch, graduated undergrad from the University of Michigan, and then received his masters in fine arts from the prestigious Yale University School of Drama. And even if you’re not easily surprised, you’d probably never imagine that Grier also got his start on a Broadway musical and as an actor in serious stage plays. In fact, the comedy scene was a lucky step in the right direction after trying to experience something new.
David Alan Grier is a man of many surprises and a true shining example that you should never judge a book by its cover. He recently released a book of his own, Barack Like Me: The Chocolate Covered Truth, and although his show, Chocolate News has been canceled, he isn’t hurting as one of the stars of the Broadway play, Race. We got a chance to sit down with Grier to talk about the road to being a comedic legend and being taken seriously as an actor. He opens up about his book, his feelings on Barack Obama, his role in Race and much more.
Parlé: Let’s talk about your first book, Barack Like Me, how’d the concept for it come about and what made you want to write it?
D.A.G.: Basically I wanted to talk about this country and the time period leading up the Barack Obama election and also leading up to the inauguration. It seems like 5 years ago now, but in the time when I was doing Chocolate News it was as if no one wanted to do any type of commentary about Barack Obama, especially a lot of the White shows, because they didn’t want to be racist and the Black shows—no, we were the only one. It was like the atmosphere where you didn’t want to do anything.
Parlé: Okay what can a reader look forward to when they pick up the book?
D.A.G.: The book is more about the experience as an African-American man going through this. I’m 53, I never thought I would see this. It was kinda like the country—even people who didn’t vote for Barack Obama—for that day or 2 days, its like we all went on vacation and just celebrated. I had to talk a lot about my life because standing in the inauguration, an experience like that, it’s all about what we bring to it. Every person there had their own story, their own relationship to race and culture in this country and that’s what we really brought to this. I thought about a lot of things I haven’t thought about in a long time, all the stories my grandmother told me about growing up in a segregated South, my father, my relatives and I had a new daughter at the time—I still have her, but I remember sitting in my T.V. room and for me, one of the most emotional moments was in the primaries when everybody realized that Barack could actually win. I remember when Jessie Jackson ran and we were all like ‘okay cool.’ That was it. Al Sharpton ran, but these weren’t considered serious candidates. At that time I thought Barack might not win but he’s going to get further than any other African-American candidate. And these pundits were there and they said, ‘you know, Barack can actually win this. Statistically, looking at these numbers, he can win this.’ With my daughter in my lap, I just started weeping, cause I realized that her world will be totally different from mine. I’ma be that old man that’s like, ‘I remember when Black folk couldn’t be nothing,’ and she’ll be like, ‘Oh dad!’ It was just really emotional. It was more emotional than when he clinched the nomination. I just wanted to talk about all that stuff and you can’t talk about it without a lot of good humor in there and humanity.
Parlé: Why that title, will you be running for president sometime soon?
D.A.G.: Barack Like Me, I want to make it clear that I am not Barack Obama, this is one time I don’t want to be someone, to run a country? I can’t do that. I will not be running the country so I am not Barack Obama.
Parlé: In the book you talk about MLK, taking part in his march and only remembering your ice cream cone, this moment was a lot bigger for you I assume?
D.A.G.: It was, but I mean all that stuff built to this moment cause I remember when Barack Obama started winning caucus after caucus, there was a period where he was winning a string of primaries and my gut reaction was, something is gonna happen to him. He’s winning too easily. I would talk to people 20 something [years old], ramped Barack Obama supporters and they would look at me like I’m nuts, but this is what I’m saying, its what you bring to the experience. My childhood is steeped in that. As a very young child I witnessed Martin Luther King being assassinated. Malcolm being assassinated. John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, all within a five-year period. So as a young child in America I thought that’s just what they do, but I realized, no that’s my thing. You didn’t grow up experiencing all of that. You may have heard about it just like I heard about segregation, its different than actually going through it, so I realized I can’t put that on this. So I kinda freed myself from all that and said, he’s gonna be good, he’s gonna be fine. Its what you bring, and as Americans we all brought something different. Although the racial element of Barack Obama’s election has resurfaced, and its going to be an ongoing discussion, I reveled in, when he was first elected, the blandness of his presidency. It was like, okay he’s just the President. Not a black man, and that’s the way it should be, he’s just the President. Do I think that because he was elected, all racist and bigoted thought is erased? Of course not! And these are the things I talk about in humor cause I feel like from a lot of white people it was like, ‘Is it done now?’ OJ got off, now you got a Black president, we even yet?’ To me, that was interesting. And all of that propelled the comedy of Chocolate News. Thinking about it, I can’t be the only one. In the book I talk about it, Black is in, but Barack Black, not my type of Black. Not scary Black guy. And in another sense, that seems old fashioned, like overnight, the screaming, angry Black guy is archaic now. You gotta get a new routine, you gotta come a whole different way.
Parlé: What was the experience like at the inauguration? In the book you mention that you were behind a tree, is that true?
D.A.G.: Yes, yes (nods and laughs). I immediately got separated from my wife. There were so many people so everybody was pushing. Everybody was there to celebrate so it was tight, I could get crushed. People were like, ‘excuse me, I’m uncomfortable! I’m not unhappy, but uncomfortable, can you kindly move please.’ Things like that. Some people were yelling, it was crazy. It was the courteous crowd though.
So we get there and the ceremony starts, and the biggest fucking tree blocks the jumbotron. I had no sight of Barack Obama! I saw Aretha Franklin’s hat, but no Barack Obama. I’m like ‘are you serious! God must be trying to teach me something.’ So I’m listening to it and there’s this African-American woman next to me and she says to me, ‘I lost my family’, and I’m like ‘oh my God’. My gut feeling is ‘oh they’re dead’. But no, she says, ‘I lost my family, will you be my family’ and I’m like ‘yeah’. So I’m hugging this woman, this strange woman, this black woman and she’s crying in my arms as I’m listening to Barack Obama getting sworn in. I just had to give it up. Even in the midst of all this other stuff it became this amazing spiritual, movie moment. It sucked the cynicism out of it. There are sometimes in life where you just have to go with it and this was one of those moments. Then I’m in this moment and I look down and there’s this other woman holding onto my leg and she’s like, ‘can I be family too?’ I’m like what the f*ck is going on? I can’t even have this moment by myself? I gotta share this with you. Can’t you see we’re hugging? I could not believe it. She’s like, ‘I want to be family too’. It was crazy.
Parlé: That’s hilarious. Moving on, as far as your acting career, is this where you saw yourself as a young actor growing up? Is this where you expected to be or hoped to be?
D.A.G.: When I was a young college student, I wanted to be a working actor. When they would come-Yale had a repertoire in comedy, so they would dress cooler and just look different. It would be ‘oh that guy lives in NY’. And they weren’t making no money, but I wanted to be like that, you know, cool artist guy. I’m just enamored by this whole world. I wanted to be a working theater actor.