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Stand-up guys: Wayans brothers look behind the laughs

Stewart Oksenhorn
Marlon and Damon Wayons play stand-up comics at different stages of their careers in Damon's new film, "Behind the Smile," premiering today at the U.S Comedy Arts Festival.
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When Damon Wayans presented his younger brother Marlon with the script for “Behind the Smile,” Marlon wanted to know why his big brother sought to make a dark-tinged drama set in the world of stand-up comedy.”I said, ‘Why not do a comedy, a ha-ha comedy, that will get people rolling on their backs?'” recalled the 33-year-old Marlon, 12 years younger than Damon.It was a good question. The Wayans family has long established itself as one of the first families of ha-ha comedy. The Wayans, of New York, broke through in the early ’90s with the cutting-edge TV sketch show “In Living Color.” From there, the ensemble was responsible for “Scary Movie” (directed by oldest brother Keenen Ivory and co-written by Shawn and Marlon) and “White Chicks” (with Keenen also getting a writing credit). While the Wayans had often participated in non-comedic projects, they had never taken the plunge as fully as Damon proposed to do with “Behind the Smile,” in which he aimed to write, produce, direct, star – and finance.Damon had a good reason to take a sidetrack from comedy. Having starred since 2001 in the ABC sitcom “My Wife and Kids,” playing Michael Kyle, whose desire for the life of the old-school sitcom dad is thwarted by his new-school family, he began to see little humor in the comedy business. And nothing creative or challenging or satisfying in doing a network sitcom.”When you’re doing a sitcom, you can’t say nothing,” said Damon. “You’re selling soap. It’s about commercials. It’s something for families to sit down and eat dinner to. I was in creative handcuffs for five years. I wanted to get my creativity back. In a sitcom for ABC, you’re driven by a mouse named Mickey.””Behind the Smile” was not only Damon’s way of taking back creative authority, but also a means to address the sides of the comedy world that are no laughing matter. The film is not set in the sitcom realm, but in the world of stand-up comedy. Marlon stars as Danny Styles, a young, up-and-coming comic just arrived in Los Angeles from Cleveland. Damon co-stars as Charlie Richman, a fading and bitter stand-up who takes Danny under his wing and sucks him into the pits of the comedy universe.The film, which features appearances by James Belushi, Camryn Manheim and Mike Binder, and has its world premiere at the U.S Comedy Arts Festival today, offers sharp insight into the corrupting power of success, especially in comedy.”Danny’s the innocent that Charlie was before decadence, before Hollywood hit him,” said Marlon, a co-producer of the film. “You get there and it hits you in a way you can’t expect.

“Danny’s a sponge, and every time Charlie throws something at him, he absorbs it. He becomes a better stand-up because of what Charlie puts him through. But he becomes a terrible person.” Damon Wayans has done stand-up for more than two decades. Tonight, in fact, he performs a special show, “Damon Wayans Live,” at the Wheeler Opera House at 9 p.m. Last night, he was scheduled to host the ‘Round Midnite late-night stand-up show at the St. Regis. That experience formed the basis for “Behind the Smile.””This is a smorgasbord of things I’ve seen in my 24 years of stand-up. A little Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock,” he said.Marlon Wayans, however, never had much drive to do stand-up. He estimated that he’s done 300 stand-up performances in his career, but has devoted himself more to acting and writing. Among his credits is “Requiem for a Dream,” director Darren Aronofsky’s exceptional, skin-crawling adaptation of Hubert Selby’s novel of drug addiction. (Marlon sees parallels between that film and “Behind the Smile,” in the downward spiral of a promising life.) To understand the character of Danny Styles, Marlon did stand-up – on orders from Damon, all of it improvised, and in a variety of costumes – in comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles as preparation for the film. Still, Marlon related to the Danny/Charlie dynamic instinctively, thanks to years spent being Damon’s little brother.”Damon’s always got a little sadistic side to him,” he said. “And since I’m his little brother, I’m often exposed to that side. I’ve been the butt of all his jokes.

“So it’s easy – I just have to be me. There’s an innocence to Danny, and as a person, I genuinely have that innocence and fun vibe.”Damon and Marlon agreed that, onscreen, there is little evidence of brotherly love between the characters, or the actors playing them.”In all the screenings we’ve had, everyone’s said, ‘You guys are brothers, and brothers wouldn’t do that,'” said Damon. “We keyed into the characters.””Five minutes into the movie,” added Marlon, “it’s not two brothers. It’s Charlie and Danny.”To Marlon, his brother’s script does more than expose the black side of comedy. It also reveals how comedy stems from agony.”The only redemption is for the audience,” he said. “They get to respect what comedians go through, that they get to share their pain with the audience. You’re going, ‘Here’s my pain, and here’s what I’ve done with it.'”Damon said that one of the inspirations for that aspect of “Behind the Smile” is “Lenny,” Bob Fosse’s biography of Lenny Bruce. “I used that as a template,” he said, “exploring the mind of a comic: ‘How do you take a man’s life and make art?’ You spend time with comedians and see what they go through, even with club owners. A lot of club owners try to dictate what the comedians should do. A lot of comedians submit to that. Then you’re trying to make the club owner laugh, instead of making the audience laugh.”Marlon’s fingers his relative shortage of pain for his avoidance of stand-up. “I don’t know that I have that much pain,” he said. “When I came up, we weren’t so poor as when Keenen and Damon were coming up.

“I take my jokes and put them into my movies. So I’m a constant student of the craft, but I never wanted to be part of that world. I kind of skipped a step.”Damon doesn’t see his move into drama as a particularly momentous career risk. Having financed “Behind the Smile” himself, no one will be pulled down with him if the movie fails. He doesn’t have a distributor yet, but Marlon believes that, given the Wayans’ success in comedy, landing distribution won’t be a challenge.”The risk is when you do a studio movie and it doesn’t turn out,” said Damon. “I have no one to blame but myself. If it doesn’t sell, I’ll put it on a loop in my house, and everyone who comes to visit will have to watch it.””My Wife and Kids,” noted Damon, wasn’t an entirely negative experience. Apart from the financial rewards, playing Michael Kyle for five seasons offered him a chance to do something different than the outrageous characters he had created for “In Living Color.””In ‘My Wife and Kids,’ I had to strip myself down and be a character closer to Damon,” he said. “And that was nervous. I didn’t have those tricks of the trade.”But artistically, I think in the past, I was driven by something bigger than me.””Behind the Smile” has its world premiere today at 2:45 p.m. at the Isis Theatre, and an additional screening Saturday, March 11, at 5:15 p.m.Damon Wayans also appears in “Damon Wayans Live” tonight at 9 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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