If Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Spike Lee and Robert Townsend are starting pitchers-performers who have caused Hollywood to flip up its color blinders-then Keenen Ivory Wayans is pitching relief.
Wayans has not yet received the public attention heaped upon his peers, despite his innings on the mound. He co-wrote Murphy's "Raw," the most profitable concert film ever; co-wrote and acted in Townsend's acclaimed comedy "Hollywood Shuffle," which parodies the white-minded film industry, and wrote, directed and starred in his own film, "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!," a 1988 spoof of blaxploitation movies of the 1970s.
"I was in a dilemma," Wayans said. "I was working with these people and not really being recognized for my contributions. Not so much by the peers I was working with but by the industry and the public. You know, the press. Nobody was even aware that I existed."
That's probably going to change. Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox Television, Wayans' street-smart sense of humor will slice through the airwaves and reach a nationwide audience with "In Living Color." The hip new half-hour show, which has generated a rare critical buzz before the first episode has even aired, features an ensemble of mostly black actors and writers creating comedy sketches in the tradition of "Saturday Night Live."
"But instead of a house band, we have deejays and fly girls," Wayans explained, sitting in his office at the Fox Television Building in Hollywood. "I want to do what Arsenio Hall did for talk shows, and make America comfortable with another entertainment format for black Americans."
The 31-year-old producer/writer/ star was reclining behind a spacious desk wearing high-tops and a T-shirt with rap singer Ice-T's logo emblazoned on it. He said Fox offered him creative control on his own TV project last year after "sneaking in" to an advance Los Angeles screening of "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!"
"I hate TV," Wayans said, crinkling his face as if he had just tasted a sour grapefruit. "I don't watch TV. It seems like everybody has their own version of each other's shows. I didn't think TV was the arena for what I do, because what I do is out there. But Fox was pretty persistent. They told me this was a place I could do anything I wanted to."
Tacked on the wall beside Wayans' desk are dozens of 4x6-inch index cards with the titles of upcoming comedy sketches-"America's Greatest Moment in Black History: Fat Boys Appointed to the Superior Court," "Mike Tyson: Hard-Hitting Investigative Reporter" and "Riding Miss Daisy." Wayans says nobody is safe from his carefully aimed comic attacks but expresses sadness at being called a racist for poking fun at blacks.
"That's a racist criticism," he said, shaking his head, "because it limits the kind of work that I can do. When Woody Allen makes a movie, no one says, 'He's making fun of Jews.' Why shouldn't he be able to talk about his culture? Why shouldn't I be able to talk about mine? Why shouldn't I be able to find the humor in it and share that with people?"
Wayans said there's too much sensitivity in the air right now surrounding black issues. Rather than use the entertainment medium as a "platform to pontificate," Wayans prefers to provide an escape valve with his comedy. "Spike Lee likes to dance on people's nerves," he said, "I like to tickle their funny bones."
The second of 10 children growing up in New York City, Wayans would dress up as a wino, grab a bottle of his father's Scotch and stagger into the living room during his mother's social get-togethers. "I was 4 at the time," Wayans said, smiling.
"Someone once asked me, 'What are you going to be when you grow up?' I said, 'I want to make history.' I used to look through history books in school and stare at the guys in the pictures. I thought, this is a cool place to be. But I never dreamed being a comedian could put me there."
Wayans has indeed helped create a more accepting atmosphere toward the wave of black filmmakers in Hollywood. He cautions against turning the swell into a squalor.
"How can I explain this," he said, pausing. "You can't look at four or five guys as a wave, you know? That's not even a ripple in the water. Compared to the days when there were zero, that's a significant step. But it's only been a step. It's not like we're off and running. It's not like Hollywood is going," he broke into a big Bob Barker smile and waved his arm high, " 'Come on down!' "
In addition to eight episodes of "In Living Color" (which will regularly air Saturdays at 9 p.m.), Wayans' projects include a TV pilot based on "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka!" for ABC, a Universal Pictures film about a black Scotland Yard detective who teams up with a "brother" from Washington, D.C., and a film co-written by his own brother, Damon, also a cast member on "In Living Color."
If the new TV show brings Wayans his long-overdue recognition, he said he's prepared.
"I had a friend who was ready to punch somebody in the face because we were in a car and this person kept following us," said Wayans, who later identified his friend as Eddie Murphy. "They were just so excited. And my friend got really annoyed and said, 'Let's pull over! Let's pull over and whip their ass!' I just said, 'Forget it. You know, a few years ago, that would have been us in that car.' "