(Photos courtesy of Tommy Davidson)
Best known for his precise and hilarious impersonations of Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis and MC Hammer on the 1990s hit series “In Living Color,” Tommy Davidson is a versatile comedian who performs his stand-up before sold-out venues across the globe. He also works in television, most recently as the voice of Mr. Proud on the animated series “The Proud Family,” and he recently finished the film “Chicago Pulaski Jones,” in which he stars opposite Cedric the Entertainer.
In this candid conversation, Davidson, 46, shares his insight on Hollywood, television, race — and drops a little knowledge about what he believes it takes to reach self-determination.
Tell us about television and some of the difficulties you have encountered.
Every time [television executives] are going to start a new network, that’s when they do black shows. When they make it, they drop us — at least from what I can see. I mean, why can’t I go to NBC and do a show? They’re making the decision, and I’m not the only one saying “The Emperor has no clothes on.” Then they call me bitter, but I’m just honest.
Everybody else is afraid of those guys and the reason why they don’t say anything is because they’re afraid they’ll say, “Well, you’re not going to work because you’re saying that about us.”
I ain’t working with ya’ll anyway so what difference does it make? My great-great-grandmother and grandfather died on a sugar plantation; do you think I’m going to back down from them?
You sound a bit militant. Is that a part of your act these days?
No. That’s human. It’s funny that when people of color want their determination, people call it militant, but it’s not. I’m human. I adhere to the Obama model. I want to be successful like anybody else, and I want to go through the proper channels like anybody else. But it frustrates me when power is leveraged against my people, and we can’t get ahead because power is being leveraged against us.
Do you really think there are some people sitting around, thinking and saying, “Okay we’re going to ‘leverage’ this power against these people?”
Let’s talk about that for a second. The Pacific Railroad, that runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Right? Do you think that it was a conceived plan?
That’s right. They had to basically remove the Indians, and the ones that didn’t want to be moved got killed, and before anybody could work for them, they had to accept the pay they provided. They planned it, made sure there were no accidents and they built it. Is that any different from the way they do things now?
Sometimes we forget the human element.
Sometimes we forget that you don’t have to ask. Obama didn’t ask; he took it.
What was it like for you growing up in DC?
I actually grew up in the suburb of Silver Springs, Maryland. It was cool. I had the best of all worlds. I grew up with everybody — Africans, Jamaicans, Latinos and whites.
Did you graduate high school with honors?
I got across the stage, and got all the honors later.
Do you like go-go music?
Of course, I’m from D.C. baybay. I just did a record with Tony from Trouble Funk. Go online and look for it. We rockin’ it baby.
Did you go to college?
I went to the University of District of Colombia for one semester.
What did you study?
I studied communications, and my counselor at the school recommended that I go and pursue something else because the college format didn’t work for me. She didn’t know what it was but she knew that there was something else that I needed to be doing. She said, “This doesn’t fit you,” and I actually learned some really big lessons.
I learned just what I needed to learn. I interned at the radio station. I was thinking about being a deejay and when the opportunity came up, the people at the radio station gave the opportunity to their frat brother who hadn’t even put in any work. So I said, “This is just like out in the streets.”
What did you do after that?
I moved to L.A. and got into comedy shortly after that. I mean, I cooked in kitchens and made a good living.
You’re a great example for any American to follow.
It just seems to me, by looking at this whole thing, that there’s an individual that the literary community has prevented exposure to. His name is Franz Fanon. He’s a psychiatrist from the island of Martinique, and he was one of the most noted and accomplished psychiatrists of the 20th Century. He died at the age of 38, and he’s up there with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. All of the reforms that were made in mental hospitals in the 20th Century were created by him, and guess what? There’s a Franz Fanon library at Harvard University, and guess what? I’m going to it when I come to Boston. I mean, why do they get to read him and I don’t?
I see that you’ve done your research.
I had a breakthrough on Boston radio. There was this really conservative radio station there and I forgot what it’s called. They’re anti-Obama and all of that. So the host asked me a question. You know they like to catch you off guard. He asked me, “Are you going to vote for Obama?” I said, “Yes I’m going to vote for Obama.” He said, “Are you going to vote for Obama because he’s black?” I said, “Yep, I am — just like the Irish voted for Kennedy because he was Irish. I have the sovereign right to want my people to realize their dreams too.”
If it weren’t for President Roosevelt’s untimely death, he would have revised the Bill of Rights so that it included everybody. Black folks are still trying to make a comeback from that. I told him that I was going to vote for Obama, but he’s still a politician. And whatever kind of affinity [Obama] has to the African American community, I haven’t seen it yet. He’s doing great on the global front, and great on the American front in general, but he hasn’t willfully stepped up for us yet. We still haven’t had any adequate housing, education, and we’re the lowest on the rung even though we’ve been here longer than everybody else.
Do you have an Obama impersonation?
Yes, I do, and that’s what you’ll see when you come and see me in Boston.
Is it a Barack or Michelle impersonation?
It’s Barack — the one that counts, and I’m glad that we have a president that actually cares about the people of this world, and the people of America.
Did you always believe in your heart that a black president would take office in your lifetime?
Nope. I didn’t think it would happen. I know that anything is possible, but I didn’t see that as possible but it goes to show you what I know. I mean, you can see why they wouldn’t. Right? To get white America to vote for a black man is really improbable because they have their preconceived notions about who we are. So yeah, that was going to be difficult, and when they did it, I was really impressed. I was more impressed by white America, because black America is going to vote black.
Has the industry changed for black comedians since your start?
Bad. They’re shutting down the opportunities for us in movies. That’s just my observation.
Do you think it’s because of the current state of the economy or has it been an incremental shut down since a certain time?
I think it’s a combination of the two now.
So you’re saying there is no potential for a revival of “In Living Color?”
I don’t know the answer to the question about “In Living Color,” but anything that can go on TV is going to be up to them because it’s their liberal choice to do so.
What’s on TV is what they choose to put on TV. It’s not like it has to do with anything that’s going to be proven because of ratings, or if it’s any kind of formula. It’s like the Negro League, back in the history of professional sports: they owned the sport so it was up to them if they wanted to let blacks play. That’s how it is in TV. People would love to see “In Living Color” on the air right now, but they don’t want it on the air. They make the choice.
Is there any type of comedy that you do not do? Is there anything that you will not joke about?
Not anything that I haven’t joked about so far. Like I don’t do gay jokes.
You’re going to be in Will Smith’s upcoming series called “Youngin’s.” Can you tell us more about that?
It’s like Fat Albert but it’s just Will Smith when he was a kid. It’s pretty cool. I play Will Smith.
When will “Chicago Pulaski Jones” be out?
It will be out around Christmas time.
What’s it about?
Why does it seem to be that I’m the only one promoting this damned thing? It’s going to be as funny as hell. It’s about a dancer whose brother gets killed and he avenges his brother’s death by having a dance-fu contest. You can put the rest of the story together.
What’s the best thing for an aspiring comic to do to get his or her big break?
Break your ass in. In every city there’s a comedy club, get on the list, and see what you got. You stand just as good a chance as anybody else.
Your response is strident!
Yeah, they ask me how I got to the top, and I say it’s because they wouldn’t let me in at the bottom. You have to fight, and work and put up the effort, and it’s the same game all around, for journalists, actors, musicians and politicians. I had a combination of different breaks. Robert Townsend, Arsenio Hall, Sinbad, Eddie Murphy and Keenan Ivory Wayans gave me all of my first breaks.
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