BY CHRIS VOGNAR
AUG. 24, 2021 6:30 AM PT
Cedric the Entertainer’s favorite show growing up was “Get Smart.” He loves the comedy of Billy Crystal. And he remembers when saying “damn” on TV was a big deal.
Cedric, who will host the 73rd Primetime Emmys on Sept. 19 on CBS, is an old-school kind of guy. He knows his TV history, from “Perry Mason” (the original, not the remake) to “The Jeffersons.” So when the opportunity arose to preside over television’s biggest party of the year — albeit before a scaled-down, COVID-appropriate crowd — he jumped at the chance.
“Seeing those TV stars out for one night dressed up, celebrating, walking up getting their awards, I think that’s what I like most about being able to host this gig,” Cedric says from his home in Chatsworth. “It’s a celebration of the people that actually are part of your homes and a part of your life.”
He has fond memories of sitting with his grandmother in the rural town of Caruthersville, Mo., watching their favorite shows. “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” “The Jackie Gleason Show.” (Cedric played Ralph Kramden in a 2005 big-screen version of “The Honeymooners”). “We grew up in that TV era where it was only a few stations, so the TV stars were big stars, you know? I remember that with nostalgia.”
Today, he is one of those network stars. On the CBS sitcom “The Neighborhood,” Cedric plays Calvin, a family man in a mostly Black area of Pasadena baffled by his new, extremely friendly white neighbor (Max Greenfield). It’s a great showcase for Cedric’s comic timing and for his appreciation of yet another CBS sitcom, “All in the Family,” with Cedric playing a variation of the Archie Bunker role.
“Living in Los Angeles, you definitely see some of the old ‘hoods being gentrified,” Cedric says. “The Neighborhood” is the inverse, tonally and racially, of “Them,” the Amazon horror series about a Black family that moves into Compton in the ‘50s, only to be terrorized by its white neighbors.
Cedric is heartened by the burgeoning diversity he sees in television. He sees the rise of such creators as Lena Waithe (an executive producer on “Them”), Kenya Barris and Ava DuVernay as a positive sign. But he knows the real change takes place behind the scenes, at the executive level.
“Where the real work has to happen is still in those rooms where the ultimate decisions are made,” Cedric says. “I feel like when you go in and pitch, you still leave that room having no representation of the ideas. It’s going to be a large group of non-minority people that makes the decision about what gets on the air in the first place. So there’s a lot of growth to be done on that side of the coin, for sure.”
Cedric Antonio Kyles was born in 1964 in Jefferson City, Mo. He was an entertainer from an early age, performing for grade school friends, and he had his heart set on attending a “Fame”-like performing arts high school in St. Louis. His mom, a teacher, nixed the idea, wanting him to focus on the rest of his studies. It wasn’t until after college, at Southeast Missouri State, that he started doing stand-up, which gradually led to other opportunities in film and television.
Playing a small club one night early in his career, he noticed the emcee would introduce each act as “Our next comedian …” But Cedric didn’t have enough material to consider himself a comedian; his comedy sets also included a little singing, a little poetry, a little of whatever he was feeling that night. “So I just told the dude to call me an entertainer,” he says. “He introduced me as Cedric the Entertainer, and that was it.”
He broke out into the open with “The Original Kings of Comedy,” the Spike Lee-directed stand-up movie in which he shared the stage with Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac and D.L. Hughley. But he’s shown increasing range over the years and dipped his toe into drama. In 2017, for instance, he played a megachurch pastor opposite Ethan Hawke’s tormented minister in “First Reformed.” His presence is strong enough to jump genre boundaries.
His models in this regard are Richard Pryor and Robin Williams. “These guys showed you they had this comedic side, and then they would do really cool dramatic roles,” he says. “I think it’s very important to do that. I like to do TV and film; I like the long form of developing out a character for film, and then of course the quicker response from television. I’m really blessed to be able to do both.”
Cedric knows these Emmys will be different. The ceremony is scheduled to take place before “a limited audience of nominees and their guests.” But the host also feels a responsibility to make things fun, whether that means performing his own material — “I definitely plan to come out and rock the mic for a few minutes with my own vibes”— or riffing off the nominees.
“I feel like television definitely was something that we all needed and gravitated to throughout this pandemic,” he says.
“With the opportunity to get back out and celebrate in person where people will be there, I want it to be a celebration. We’re going to have a good time.”