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Back in the Fox Hunt

March 29, 1998|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No more tugging at the heart for Damon Wayans. He's aiming for the funny bone again.

Wayans, best known for his cavalcade of outrageous characters on the landmark series "In Living Color," took a creative detour earlier this season when he created Fox's gritty urban drama, "413 Hope St.," about a center for troubled youth in Manhattan. Wayans--who also served as executive producer but declined to appear in the Thursday night series--wanted to show audiences his more thoughtful and serious side.

But "Hope St." became an early casualty of poor ratings and NBC's "Seinfeld"-led Thursday onslaught. The shelving of the show in January left Wayans feeling less than pleased.

However, the actor-comedian is smiling once more in a return to his comic roots in "Damon," in which he plays an undercover detective in a Chicago precinct. The role allows Wayans to take on offbeat personas and disguises while battling crime or dealing with his personal life.

"I'm back in the gymnasium again, working on what I know," Wayans says during a break in filming. "It's fun doing this."

Co-starring in "Damon" is David Alan Grier, Wayans' frequent "In Living Color" partner, and Andrea Martin of "SCTV" fame, who plays the no-nonsense boss of the precinct.

Wayans is still smarting a little over the cancellation of "Hope St.," saying he felt Fox didn't do enough to support the series ("You just don't put a new drama against the No. 1 comedy, and you move it if it's not working"). But "Damon" has taken away much of the sting.

"I don't have time to harbor bad feelings," Wayans says. "I've got to make this show work. I find refuge in my work. I know I did a quality show. It's Fox's loss, not mine."

Providing much of the fun for Wayans is his reunion with Grier, who co-stars as his older brother Bernard, a security cop with dreams of someday becoming a real policeman.

Wayans and Grier were responsible for what arguably was "In Living Color's" most famous running sketch: "Men on Film," which showcased the two comics as flamboyantly gay film critics who employed outlandish sexual innuendo in their comments about movies and their own loving relationship.

"David is my insurance," says Wayans. "I need someone that I can ping-pong with. I'm the racehorse, the one they're putting the money on, but you can't win at the finish line without a good jockey."

Grier, who starred in his own short-lived, post-"In Living Color" series called "The Preston Episodes," and recently starred on Broadway in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," says he and Wayans had been looking for a project for nearly two years.

"We've been friends a long time, and acting with him is like a perfect pass of a baton from one runner to another," Grier says. "We have a common artistic language and trust. If I go somewhere, he will go there with me. And vice versa."

The comedy provides frequent opportunities for Wayans and Grier--as well as Martin--to improvise during their scenes together. Says Wayans: "I'm asking the writers to give us a story that works and a foundation that lets me and David play."

Adds Martin, "What attracted me to this was just the sense of fun that everyone has here. And David and Damon are so mischievous."

But don't expect to see "Men on the Crime Beat" with the new show. Says Wayans: "They wanted us to do a 'Men On . . .' lead-in to this show, and I shot it down. I didn't want to mislead the audience. It does this show a disservice to label it as a sequel to 'Men On . . .' "

In their scenes together, Wayans and Grier display their kinetic chemistry that explodes into impromptu riffs of punch lines and movements. Their interaction is not unlike veteran jazz musicians who take pride in their solos but get the most pleasure out of their harmony.

Though the focus is on laughs, Wayans is not totally abandoning his more sober side. He hopes that audiences will get more of a grasp on him and his views than they have gotten in his previous TV projects and a string of modestly received film comedies.

"I have done so many characters that people don't know who Damon is," says Wayans. He recalled seeing a comic at a comedy club do impressions of African American comedians such as Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Chris Tucker, "but no one does an impression of me. In this show, I'm trying to show who Damon is, and show the code that I live by as a man, a man with morals and dignity."

"Damon" also has much of the envelope-stretching, bawdy comedic flavor that defined "In Living Color," with eyebrow-raising references to sex, body parts and bodily functions. Politics and race relations are satirized, with Wayans sometimes taking on the clipped voice of the militant and cheerless Homey the Clown.

The comedy marks the first series for Fox from the comedy factory of producers Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey, who have produced landmark series such as "Roseanne" and "The Cosby Show." "I'm happy that the show is a bit edgy and pointed," Werner says. "Damon's humor is provocative. This isn't the seventh version of a show about a single woman in the media. I hope it makes a statement. We like to support and protect special talent, and we believe Damon is an extraordinary talent."

Wayans and Grier say they have high hopes for the comedy. "There's so much blandness on TV," says Grier. "But there is an expectation with us. We want to be the show where people can just let out that real deep laughter. That's what we're working for."

"Damon" airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. and moves April 6 to its regular time slot, Mondays at 8 p m. on Fox.

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