Over the past decade, Rodney Perry’s star has climbed to phenomenal heights. From his career-defining performance on Budweiser’s Starting Lineup of Comedy Tour to his side-man antics on BET’s award-winning Mo’Nique Show, Rodney has become well-known for his high-energy, free-for-all performances. As the loving father of five children, perhaps this is a benefit of being constantly surrounded by youthful spirits.
In the midst of a promotional campaign for The Mo’Nique Show’s recent NAACP Image Award Nomination for “Outstanding Talk Series,” Rodney Perry managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the influence of Eddie Murphy, the mentorship of Cedric the Entertainer, and the “fine lines” of comedy.
Clayton Perry: According to your bio, you found your way to comedy by way of the U.S. Navy. Would you mind giving some background on these formative years, and the early lessons that still guide you to this day?
Rodney Perry: Oh, absolutely. To be fair, however, I have to start before the Navy. I had a teacher in second grade that would let me tell jokes at the end of class. And his name was Mr. Thompson. Mr. Thompson kind of realized, at some point, if he afforded me those moments at the end of the day, I would not wild out. So he was really the first person who kind of saw something in me that was different than the other kids. I think I was a natural born comedian. My mother would have get-togethers at the house and they would listen to records. You know, back in the day, people didn’t come over your house and watch TV. They would come and listen to records. And people would come over and they would listen to Richard Pryor. Well, my room was right off the living room, so I would lay on the floor and listen through the crack under the door, and crack up at these great records. But it wasn’t until Eddie Murphy became prevalent, that it really got a face of something obtainable to do as a career. That’s when I started really inquiring. Eddie Murphy gave a face to what I wanted to be. So I would go on and finish my high school life. I always was the guy that went to see talent shows, and hosted this or hosted that. It wasn’t until I got in the Navy that I really started going up and performing as a stand-up comedian.
Clayton Perry: Just as a side-note, when you said that Eddie Murphy made a career in comedy seem obtainable to you: have you met him and expressed those sentiments to him? If not, then what is something that you would say to him, should the opportunity arise?
Rodney Perry: I have met him, but I haven’t said it. You know, I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of “celebrity people,” and Eddie Murphy is the only person I’ve ever been star-struck around, because it was a big deal to be around him; and not only to be around him, but I’ve actually been in his home. He has an incredible house in L.A., and he throws these crazy fight parties. You know, when you’re coming up through the ranks, and Eddie Murphy’s like, “What’s up, funny man?” You know, I was flipping out, like: “Oh, man, Eddie Murphy called me funny man!” But the flip side of it is, in the comedy game, until your peers recognize you as a peer, you don’t really exist. It’s like being a rookie in the leagues. You’ve got to go through a hazing process, so I don’t really even now consider myself as knowing Eddie Murphy, because he doesn’t consider me as a peer. Like Mo’Nique considers me a peer, which is a big deal, because Mo’Nique is a queen of comedy. She’s one of the best comedians, period. And the best, maybe, female comedian of our time. So for that caliber of comedian to consider you a peer, it’s a big deal. So that’s what I would like, for people like Eddie Murphey and Martin Lawrence to consider me a peer.
Clayton Perry: To date, you have lived in several cities across America. You were born-and-raised in Chicago, raised in Monroe, Louisiana, sharpened your teeth in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, California, and now you are currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia. Reflecting on the wide range of diverse cultures that you have experienced, in what ways have they shaped the tone and style of your comedic performance?
Rodney Perry: Oh, it absolutely informs everything you do. The Bay area is kind of my comedy home. I was stationed in the Bay area from 1994 to 1998, so I spent a lot of my formative comedy years in the Bay. So the Bay area may inform my comedy more than any other place; my early comedy, anyway. And when it comes to Chicago, the essence of Chicago is Rodney Perry. But to be from Chicago is to be from the South. Black people from Chicago are from either Mississippi or Louisiana. So that was kind of cyclical with me. So to be from Chicago inherently gives you a Southern vibe where you can communicate with people from the South. But from my West Coast energy, the West Coast allowed me to communicate with the world, because when you’re in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, you’re kind of in a melting pot of people from everywhere else. So my journey has been unique in that I have been able to kind of master different cultures. At the end of the day, if you’re a comedian, you’re a communicator. So it’s allowed me to communicate with people all across the country, and kind of come into their backyard and speak their language.
Clayton Perry: A year or so ago, Kathy Griffin sought advice from Katt Williams before her historic performance at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. When you are performing in-front of diverse audiences, are there any particular subjects you touch delicately, or find taboo? In what ways do you modify your comedy showcase?
Rodney Perry: That is an incredible question. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One thing, I don’t use the word “ni**er” when I’m in mixed company, but I do use it when I’m around exclusively black people, if that makes any sense.
Clayton Perry: Perfect sense.
Rodney Perry: That’s just one example. Or say, for instance, I used to do this joke. And the joke was a church joke. The joke was about Sodom and Gomorrah. And in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord comes back and he gets people. He said, “You, you and you. Come with me. Don’t look back. Simple rules. Just don’t look back.” Well, they’d looked back and turned into pillars of salt. Y’all, if I looked back, as dark as I am, it would’ve been a pillar of pepper.” That’s the joke. When I’m in mixed company, I say, “As dark as I am.” When I’m with exclusively black people, I say, “Black as I am.” So you tend to make little, subtle changes and adjustments without moving the essence of the joke for mixed company. I’ve been to the U.K. So when I go to the U.K., they get everything we get on television. They get satellite. They get DirecTV. But they don’t get a lot of our colloquialisms. So when I go and I play a crowd over there, I can do the same joke, but I have to be crystal clear. I can’t say: “I was bout-it, bout-it in the other night at the strip club making it rain.” I’ve got to go, “I was at the strip club, and man, I was the showering the girl with money.” Certain things that we use don’t translate. When you get on the ground in certain places, you’ve got to get a crash course in their language. You’ve got to get a quick education in how to communicate. But the human experience is the human experience. Like when you start talking about universal themes like relationships and dating and when you talk about men and women, married people; that’s the same whether you’re black, white, Asian, Latin. For everybody that’s married, there’s a dude in there that’s going through it with his wife, and there’s a wife that’s going through it with her husband. So if you’re talking about those themes, thematically you can really kind of be universal without losing anybody. I played a show this weekend in Phoenix, and there was a good cross-section of people, because Phoenix is kind of a melting pot, which I didn’t realize. I mean, you’ve got a large white population, but you’ve got a large black population, and then you’ve got a large African population. You’ve got Ethiopians. You’ve got Latinos. So it’s a lot of everybody there. So when I look across the room, it’s a tapestry of America. And I can’t alienate anybody. My ultimate experience is black, but I have universal themes that touch everybody.
Clayton Perry: Oftentimes, not much is said about the difficulties comedians have from moving from the local comedy club to national prominence, or just being able to sustain a career over time. What do you think is a crucial key to this transition?
Rodney Perry: I’ve been really blessed throughout my career. My journey has always precursored itself. Early on, I got opportunities to work on big stages. Cedric the Entertainer took me under his wing, I want to say, in 2001, and I was on the Bud Light Tour with him. And that tour showed me the stage. I played the Murat Theatre. I played Madison Square Garden. I played the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. I played the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. I played Houston. I played Dallas. I played the Fox Theater in Detroit. I played the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis. So my name wasn’t on the line. I wasn’t a draw, but I had an opportunity to feel what that was like. One thing Ced gave us was a glimpse what it could be like. It wasn’t just me. It was a whole battery of us that he took around with him that year. You know, while we were on that tour, you would have a limo that would pick you up at your home. Take you from your home to the airport. You would catch the flight. You would get off the flight. You would take a limo to the hotel. You would do the show that night. Take a tour bus from one show to the next show, and then you would fly back. All first-class accommodations. Everything they gave to him, they gave us. So we were able to feel what that was like early on, and to aspire toward that. So it was a big blessing. That, in itself, informed my journey. So now, as I grow, I kind of know what to ask for. Like, oh man. I’ve always been a student that way. To ask questions. “So how come he got sandwiches in his room, but I don’t? Well, Rodney, you didn’t ask for sandwiches. Oh, okay. So when do I ask for it? Oh, you’ve got to put that in the contract [in the rider]. They’ve got to put that before you even get here. Oh, okay.” Now I know about that. So that experience kind of opened my eyes as to knowing what to ask for as I proceeded up the ladder. I recently headlined a theatre in Baltimore, and that was the first time that it was my show. And it’s a trip, because a lot of people that I used to open for are now in the shows, with me as the headliner. So it’s kind of going full circle, and at the end of the day, it’s all about jokes. I’m still basically the same human being I was. But how people perceive you changes.
Clayton Perry: Oh, definitely. I can definitely imagine that. As a comedian, I assume that people always expect you to have a good sense of humor and be a jokester of sorts. So how do people closest to you, or people in general, know that you are being serious?
Rodney Perry: I have a small team. Madeline Smith, Charles Gooch, my lawyer Ricky Anderson. Just before this call, before you and I talked, we were on a conference call. We have a weekly conference call. We tend to strategize and try to work out what’s next and how do we approach certain things. Those conversations are always serious, because that’s business. At the end of the day, I’m a businessman. My black-owned business just happens to be Rodney Perry. So I deal with my business accordingly. And in terms of like my family, my wife always tells me: “Stop making jokes around here!” The kids know me. My kids, they know. I’m definitely the easygoing parent, but at the end of the day, they know when Daddy is in the building and he’s not playing. I’m like James Evans. You can have some fun with me, but I will give you the “Big Mac.”
Clayton Perry: You recently wrapped up filming to Madea’s Big Happy Family, which hits theaters in April 2011. As you transition between the concert stage and the “silver screen,” in what ways do you have to modify your comedic approach?
Rodney Perry: Well, Madea’s Big Happy Family, I got that movie from my stand-up. Now, I have studied. I took acting classes, so I’m not just a guy that said: “I’m funny. Put me in the movie.” There is much more to it. Like every medium is different. Like when I’m doing stand-up, I’m the writer, producer, director. All of these things just come through me. Television and film is much more a collaborative effort. So, TV requires big movements because it’s a smaller medium, and film, the minutest movement can be your biggest movement. Like if you look at Dreamgirls, Eddie Murphy had that moment.
Clayton Perry: Oh, yes! That look!
Rodney Perry: Yes, the look! The look was just a look, and then you hear him do interviews. He’s like: “Man, I was just kind of going through it in real life.” At that moment, he was in the throes of a divorce. So when he made that look, that look was small, but when you blow up the look to be 40-feet across the screen, that look is a powerful look. So less is more on the big screen. So I study with Tasha Smith, who has come into her own right over the last few years. She’s definitely the person that gave me the tools. And what was dope about Tasha is Tasha used to be a stand-up, so she kind of got me in terms of a teacher-pupil type thing, in terms of giving me the tools I need to perform. So Johnson’s Family Vacation was one of my first movies, and I played a small role in that. Well, there are no small roles, but that’s where I really cut my teeth and got to learn how to act on a set. And this movie came about. We relocated here to Atlanta. I played a comedy club at Uptown Comedy Corner, and Roger Bobb, who was Tyler Perry’s right-hand man, he came down to see me. And apparently they had been looking to fill this role of Harold for some months. And you know, they had seen like everybody you could see in L.A., and they were still kind of looking for this guy. You know, my character, he has to be kind of a man; but he’s also henpecked, on some level. So the guy would have to know the nuances of that without getting totally beat up. He’s just a regular guy. He’s the same guy as most of us that’s got a woman. You’ve got your woman. You’ve got the kids. You just want to keep the peace. He’s more that guy. And I kind of knew him. I’m fourteen years married. I know how to keep the peace if I don’t know how to nothing else. So the role just kind of spoke to me. So Roger came out, he saw me at the club, he said, “Man, I’m going to give you a call tomorrow. I’ve got something for you.” And I didn’t think nothing of it. I got a call the following day. He came out on a Wednesday. I went in and read on a Thursday. By Friday evening, they gave me the role. And it was just that quick. And I went in, and we began to shoot the movie. And you know, to be in a scene with Tyler Perry is not a game. One thing that I needed from him, is I needed to know he was funny. Because I’m a comic, first. So I just needed to feel that I was being directed by a funny dude. And the first day on the set, he was funny. When he does Madea, you better hold on tight, because he’ll run you over. If you don’t know your stuff, if you don’t know your lines, Madea might do anything, so you’ve got to be ready. And so it was definitely a blessing. I think we got some magical stuff on the screen. I think the storyline with myself and my costar, Natalie Desselle Reid from B.A.P.S. and the Eve show, is really going to speak to a lot of couples out there that’s married, that’s just kind of going through the business of being married, and really not being intimate as they probably should be anymore. So we look at that in a comedic way; and a real way, too, in this film. So, I’m excited, and you know long story short, Tyler Perry’s movies do real good.
Clayton Perry: Oh, yes, especially the Madea films! As Monique’s “right-hand” man, when you look back on the historic taping of the show’s first season, what special memories shine bright?
Rodney Perry: Well, I mean what resonates with me more than anything, and what Mo’Nique and I constantly say to each other is that this show is so much bigger than us. It would be easy to kind of look at yourself and be like: “Man, I did that or we did that or she did that.” But the reality is that we filled a major void. I mean, you’ve got to think since Arsenio [Hall], there hasn’t been that vehicle for us to talk about what we’re doing. I mean, we speak to actors that have never sat on a couch for any reason. A guy like Brian White, who’s done twenty major films, has never sat on a couch, and never talked about what he’s got coming up. So to provide a place for him to go, and to give our sons and daughters something to aspire towards is what makes this situation bigger than us. On the less of a grand scale, it’s a blessing, man. When I’m in my quiet space, I couldn’t have asked for it. When I’m talking to God, I’m like: “Why You ain’t tell me this?” Because I couldn’t have asked Him for it. I couldn’t have got on my knees, and say: “You know, Lord, next year, if you could throw a brother on TV every day, ” I wouldn’t have even known to ask for that. Yeah, I asked for: “Lord, if you could send me a comedy special I’d appreciate it,” or, “I would like to be on TV. You know they doing this little comedy Shaquille O’Neal roast. If I can get on that, that would be hot. That would make me hot.” But at the end of the day, I couldn’t have fathomed the stage that I’ve been put on. There is no way I could have wanted it, which makes me wonder what’s next.
Clayton Perry: Every comedian cannot be a Rodney Perry, or replicate his path to success, but what other little known roles can young, up-and-coming comedians find in the entertainment industry?
Rodney Perry: Oh, I’ve done it all. I’ve done it all along the journey. And what I mean when I say that, I was an audience warm up guy. For every live television show that has an audience, there is a human being that keeps that audience hyped. And I was that guy. So that’s one way to kind of find your way. If you’re a stand-up comic, just continue to tell jokes. Continue to go out. The question I get from a lot of up-and-coming comedians is “Do I move to L.A.,” or “Do I move to New York?” And I think that we all cross that crossroads. I personally made a decision in 1998 to move to L.A. I packed up my family and moved. At some point, you’re going to have work without a net. At some point, you’re going to have to step out on faith. And everybody I know that didn’t step out on faith, are still where they were.
Clayton Perry: That is a really powerful statement.
Rodney Perry: Like there’s never going to be the right time. You’re never going to have the right amount of money. They’re not going to call you. You know, Hollywood is not going to call. They don’t know your number. So there has to be something inside you that says, “It’s time to go.” Like I can’t tell you when. I don’t encourage anybody to quit their job, but I do say: “Get fired. Get so busy that your boss has to go look. You weren’t here like six days or something during the week. I can’t do this anymore.” So the long and the short of it is, is you’ve got to let your passion guide you. I worked temp jobs. I managed an apartment building when I first moved to L.A. So there’s any number of things you can do to sustain you and to take care of your family. But there is no glory without hard work. Like what I do, it’s supposed to look easy. When you look at me, you sort of go, “Man, I could do that.” You’re supposed to say that. I’m not doing my job if it looks hard. So it’s supposed to look easy. But the reality is it’s not easy, and there are like major ups and down. Your family has to go through it. Your friends have to go through it. I can remember Christmases not having the ability to really give my kids toys. But just when I thought I had stuck out, one of my boys would come through. My girl was giving out toys over at the joint, and I got a box full of toys and a card. You get whatever you want. Wow. So you’ve got to just trust that your God, your Creator, will continue to take care of you through the hard times. And I’ve talked to guys before like, “Wow, man. I see you doing it, man. I just couldn’t quit my job.” And I was like, “Okay.” You’ve got to be willing to work without a net. You’ve got to be willing to work without a net. And I can’t say that enough.
For more information on Rodney Perry, visit his official website: http://www.rodneyperry.com