BY GREG BRAXTONSENIOR WRITER, CULTURE AND REPRESENTATION
NOV. 16, 2020 6 AM PT
It wasn’t easy for Cedric the Entertainer to be Cedric the Quarantined.
The veteran comedian and actor has thrived on a busy schedule, whether traveling around the country performing stand-up in large venues, filming TV and film projects or executive producing and starring in his CBS comedy, “The Neighborhood,” which returns Monday for its third season.
But like the rest of Hollywood, Cedric has cut back on show business because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And although he was glad to take a break from work, he stayed active in other ways, engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, participating in seminars with various leaders and contributing to organizations participating in the nationwide civil rights campaign that gained momentum throughout spring and summer.
Cedric was also able to do some performing, hosting CBS’ new clip series “The Greatest #AtHome Videos” from his house.
But when it became safe enough to return to work on “The Neighborhood,” he jumped at the chance. Cedric plays opinionated auto repair shop owner Calvin Butler, who is less than pleased when a white family moves into the predominantly Black neighborhood where he resides.
“When we got the call that we could come back, it was very exciting,” he said.
And while the emphasis of the Season 3 opener, airing Monday, is still on humor, the episode takes on a serious tone when Trey (Malik S.), a friend of the Butler family, is arrested and beaten by police.
In addition to his TV work, Cedric can be seen in “The Opening Act,” a comedy streaming on Amazon Prime and other services which stars Jimmy O. Yang as Will O’Brien, a struggling comedian who hopes that his emcee gig at an out-of-town comedy club opening for arrogant sitcom star Billy G. (Cedric) will pave the way to becoming a successful comic.
In an interview from his Chatsworth home, Cedric talked about returning to “The Neighborhood,” taking on acting roles that are more dramatic and the 20th anniversary of “The Original Kings of Comedy,” the Spike Lee-directed film that chronicled the blockbuster comedy tour featuring Cedric, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and the late Bernie Mac.
What has it been like for you during this strange and unprecedented time?
For someone who had traveled as much as I used to in being a stand-up comic out on the road, it has been good and bad. It was great when it first started just to settle down and to be able to enjoy life for a minute. The blessings of being busy and having a great career is good, but it was really good being with the family and being home, taking some time to reboot. However, when we got into the summer, the anxiety of needing to be very busy was very much there. I was fortunate enough to do the videos show at home and also work on my production company, helping a lot of young writers who are trying to create shows.
How do you think what’s happening with the pandemic has affected the comedy world? What’s funny, and what isn’t?
The biggest thing is you don’t have the freedom to go up on stage and work it out the way you used to. Comedy has always been a shared live experience. You get up there and tell your truth, but the people in the audience have been doing the same thing. The live experience is where you write it and do it and work it out. That’s missing, and there’s a real void right now.
It’s been a few days since the election. What’s your reaction to everything that has happened, particularly given your activism over the summer?
This has been a totally different time in our world, man. We’ve always had to deal with different political points of view. It’s interesting to see someone who is willing to break the fabric of American society with the idea that he is somehow making America great. It’s disheartening, [even though Biden] won the election, to see [Trump] strong-arming the situation. That lets you know that we’re living in a place where we’re not as united as one would like to believe. We live with hope and an idealized feeling of what America is, but we have realized there is an enemy out there.
‘The Neighborhood’ is returning, but it’s an episode that has many scenes when the audience will not be laughing.
Since it’s a sitcom about life and it’s Americana, we felt like it was our responsibility to do something. We wanted to show that America has a history of threatening Black people and treating minorities as being lesser-than. People are fed up with it, and it’s time to make sure that fight is heard. We wanted to use our platform to express that. We went more toward looking at police injustices and the imbalance of power. That to me was very personal, since I grew up in St. Louis and we were dealing with the Mike Brown thing a few years back. [18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in 2014 by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer.]
Another project this year for you is “The Opening Act.” Although it’s a comedy, there’s also a dramatic side. Your character tells the guy who wants to be like him that comedy is based on a lot of pain.
Steve Byrne, who wrote and directed the movie, told me what he wanted from the character. It was that labor-of-love film that felt so identifiable to the comedy experience. I felt like I just had to be in the movie. Coming from St. Louis and never believing I could be a big-time comedian, you doubt yourself before you really go for it. You keep bombing and then one day it all comes together for you, and from then on you can never not do it.
Speaking of comedy, this year is the 20th anniversary of “The Original Kings of Comedy.”
We were blessed enough to follow major giants like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. We were in our heyday. “The Steve Harvey Show” was happening, we were all touring big individually, so to do something that felt so rock ‘n’ roll was so unique and one of my favorite times in comedy for sure. And the movie was so successful. I feel so blessed to be part of a comedy show that had something to say.
There have long been rumors of a reunion.
I would be down. We’ve looked at a number of ways. Steve hosted the “NFL Honors.” I was there, and he killed it. I said to him, “Man, I think we could do a little ‘Kings’ run. I know you said you retired from stand-up, but you’re super funny and one of the best, so let’s rock one more time and do it for Bernie.” I’d love it to be one of the first things that could happen after COVID.