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April 2004
Johnson Family Vacation: An Interview with Cedric the Entertainer

By Todd Gilchrist

Johnson Family Vacation: An Interview with Cedric the Entertainer

In just the first four months of 2004, Cedric the Entertainer opened two movies and released a third on DVD, making him, as he describes, "the hardest working man in show business- without James Brown's mug shot." Last year's hugely successful Coen brothers comedy "Intolerable Cruelty" crossed Cedric over to mainstream audiences who'd previously only seen him as the fast-taking mouthpiece Eddie in "Barbershop", and drew fans to that film's sequel, and with any luck, to his upcoming project "Johnson Family Vacation", about a harried father who attempt to drag his estranged wife, son and daughter to a family reunion. Cedric recently spoke to Blackfilm about developing this family-oriented project and keeping a balance between so many different career options.

So, two movies in two months.

CEDRIC: Yeah- I'm like James Brown, the hardest working man in show business- I mean, without the picture from [his arrest]. It is great that Barbershop 2 just came out. That was just a good platform and just a good opportunity, that this movie's coming out in springtime, kind of leading into summer, kind of two different energies, but I'm glad that they're all in a space where I can stay relative.

Is this a little closer to yourself than Eddie from "Barbershop"?

CEDRIC: It's kind of different. Nate Johnson is probably that kind of alter ego in me, this movie has a lot of resemblance to me as far as me working in insurance, as going to Missouri, and being from Missouri, so I kind of took this role on thinking if I never became a comedian and I stayed Ced the insurance man, would I be this conservative dad, walking the straight line kind of guy. That's where I pulled Nate from, just that kind of inner side of if I just took the regular road of life. With this, I was able to kind of pull from that and have fun being this straight, conservative, middle-of-the-road kind of guy, making a nice little living and that's all I want to do. The "Barbershop" character is just a straight character. I took him from other people, these older men that I've met and put them into this kind of nuance, and I had fun doing that again adding this Uncle Earl character in this movie, which was taking a version of people out there along the way, and kind of putting them into this movie, so I was having some fun with it.

When was it decided you would play two roles?

CEDRIC:When we established the movie, we were looking at Nate, and knowing I had to be the kind of the straight man throughout this movie, and would be able to sneak in some comedic moments, as we were looking at [the film], it came from talk of would I play my whole family at the family reunion, and I just thought that was too Eddie Murphy-esque. I didn't want to get into trying to pull that off, but we talked about it, and I thought it was definitely interesting to play a relative, and then I started thinking about that uncle that almost is a little too loving, to the point that he could be offensive, like, "uncle Earl, did you touch me right there?" It's fun to kind of push the buttons, and I kind of mixed him from myself "Original Kings" about the mechanic who talks with the cigarette dangling out of his mouth, I pulled those two together to make this Uncle Earl character. Once we put him in the movie, it was just so fun to do, we just had to keep coming up with scenes so that he could be a part of it.

Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

CEDRIC: The hot tub scene is one of my favorites. I mean, other than getting naked, you know, getting out there, and I didn't get no money that night, nobody tipped me, I was carrying my tip jar around (laughs). But it was just fun playing those scenes with Vanessa in there in close quarters and she's in the hot tub. I was trying to work it for real. I was trying to make her happy.

How do you create a balance between more mature humor and family-oriented material?

CEDRIC: The thing is, you want to try to push the audience a little bit, and get them to feel a rush or a sense of danger, something like that at certain points in the movie, but we wanted to make sure we stayed in line with doing a family movie, so as long as it was about this guy trying to get his wife back, and trying to romance her, it kind of stayed in that lane of wholesomeness because it was about family, and about that guy trying to do the best he could to get his wife's affection. That was the idea with that innuendo, me running back through the hotel naked, with the kids walking up, it's like okay, that might be pushing it a little bit, but hey! Sometimes things happen. You've got to justify it in that.

How do you track your progression from one project to the next?

CEDRIC: That's definitely kind of been the game plan, to go from stand-up to television, from television to film, and then have the opportunity to make the kind of movies that you want to make, movies that have a statement to them but they make you laugh, movies that don't preach but they do teach, they really show you something that you haven't seen before. I thought this is one movie that kind of shows that middle-American African American family. It's not over-ghettoized, and at the same time were not trying to take you on some farcical ride where everybody are millionaires like on soap operas. This is just a regular family, and this is just what happens along the way, and you can pretty much stick anybody in this scenario and they should be able to relate to it or find things that are relatable. As you make these kind of choices, you want to make sure the movies are successful and memorable and funny, and people like them, and then just kind of make choices based on that. You have to find something real in the character. I consider myself more of a character comedian, especially that's how I was able to transfer that to movies, I was able to kind of do the role in Barbershop- make the person real, then you make them funny. As long as you can buy that it's a real guy, then I can pretty much say anything and make it funny. I look for roles like that, I look for opportunities like that, and then you want to stretch yourself out, I'll look for something a little dramatic in the future, just straight dramatic, and see if I can pull that off and cross the lines that separate me from just being another comedian doing movies. I'll continue to do stand-up, I love the art of live performance and making the audience laugh and getting that immediate gratification, so those would be the spaces where I would try to stay focused and keep going.

Do you have a different feeling going back to stand-up now that you're a successful movie star?

CEDRIC: We shot Barbershop last summer, and I did shows all the way through it on the weekends, and you just try to stay busy on stage, going up and getting it out, and it is hard to keep that rhythm. It does become difficult especially with the level of celebrity that comes with your name. It's just automatic, like people going, "awwww, he's going to kill us!" I'm like, "all of this is new material, dog. Don't expect a whole lot." So then if they don't laugh, they're like, "man, Ced just wasn't as funny! I xpected him to kill me, but he let me down!" Comedians have a natural fear of that- not being accepted- and then, after a while, you talk yourself out of getting out there on stage. That's what happens to a lot of comedians. They just stay in their space and do movies, so you have to go up there, and I tell young comedians, it comes with a lot of rejections and it's definitely a trial and error piece, but some of the great comics, people like Chris Rock, he stays busy, keeps writing, he's one of those guys who will go up there when he knows it's not funny yet, but he'll take his chance, and you'll be sitting in the back of the room, like "why would he expose himself like that?" but Chris knows that eventually he'll find a good joke in there and keep writing. That's the idea that I take. Sometimes the stuff isn't going to be all the way where I want it, but I keep working on it so by the time you see it on a big scale, you'll be "man, he's hilarious!

Can you talk about the cancellation of your show?

CEDRIC: Yeah.... those "motherfuckers"! (laughs) No, I thought that we had a really good time doing that show. We were taking variety into prime time and it was definitely a hard space to go, and it was something different and unique, and I felt like we really didn't have an opportunity to get on a roll. Everybody agreed early on that this was going to be a hard thing to do- variety prime time really hadn't been successful since Carol Burnett, so you've got your Saturday Night Lives and your Mad TVs and your Dave Chappelle shows, all of these had cable and late night spaces to get off. I was coming on when your kids were still up, so we felt it wasn't enough of an opportunity to build on it. I was disappointed it was cancelled, but it was also at a time when I was getting a lot of movie offers and a lot of opportunity in film, and it could be a blessing in disguise. I try to look at it like that, but if I was kicked out on the Hollywood streets, then I'd be cursing for real (laughs)."

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