By David Jenison
Comedy may have saved Mike Epps’ life. Sure, many performers believe comedy rescued them from the wrong path, but Epps’ tale is not about some abstract future danger. A group of armed men robbed him and ordered him into the trunk of their car. With the stereo cranked to drown out any calls for help, they started to drive around town, possibly looking for a place to shoot him and dump the body. Epps had to think fast.
“They were blasting the music the whole time, but the moment they cut the music, I started kicking on the seat,” Epps recalls. “They asked what my problem was, and I said I wanted them to play that song again. They started laughing and let me go. Without my sense of humor, there is no way to know which way this would have went. When it looks like your ass is not going to make it, you better use everything you got.”
The Hoosier State native first made a name for himself with the Def Comedy Jam tour and broadcast, but he caught a huge break when Ice Cube cast him as Day-Day Jones in the two Friday sequels. As happened with Chris Tucker after appearing in the original Friday, Epps quickly became a hot commodity, and he racked up several big screen credits with major releases like The Hangover, Hancock, The Fighting Temptations, Soul Men, The Honeymooners and a pair of Resident Evil films. The self-professed “hip-hop comic” also hosted the last four BET Hip-Hop Awards and appeared in movies alongside rap royalty like Cee Lo Green, Method Man, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa. Fittingly, one of Epps’ routines is even sampled in the Eminem and Royce da 5’9” track “I’m on Everything.”
Epps, who reprised his Black Doug character for this summer’s The Hangover Part III, is currently on a stand-up comedy tour entitled Mike Epps Live. As befits a hip-hop comic, Epps recruited iconic rapper and beat boxer Doug E. Fresh to join him on select dates. The tour visits San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino on Jan. 17.
Comedians like Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy were far edgier in their stand-up routines than they were on the screen. How are your shows different?
I am one of those spontaneous comedians who works off emotional content. Whatever my day was like, whatever I’ve seen, you might get 30 minutes of that first. For example, I saw a pimp with a few of his hos, and they all had Christmas spirit, and I told him, “Merry Christmas to you and your hos.” I talked about that at the show.
What city was this?
Wow, I never saw that watching Happy Days. As a performer, you have a lot of crossover with hip-hop. How does hip-hop music and Mike Epps’ comedy fit together?
The era that I grew up in is hip-hop. Back in the day, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor were doing comedy in a funk era. People were playing funky music and wearing bell-bottoms and afros. That is [why] Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were compared to comedians like Dave Chappelle and myself. We are products of hip-hop as the music influences our comedy and our comedy influences the music. On my way to a comedy show, I’m listening to 2Pac or 2 Chainz. You could call me a hip-hop comic. That is why Richard Pryor was saying, “Jive turkey” and “You dig” while the comics now are saying “Word up” and all kinds of slang like that. Everything that we do outside comedy influences our art.
There are all kinds of rumors that the N.W.A. movie might soon be underway. Ice Cube was a controversial figure when the group came out in the ’80s, and a lot of people probably forgot that. Do you think an N.W.A. biopic would help or hurt Ice Cube in trying to get Last Friday made?
I don’t know anything about the politics right there, sir. I cannot answer them questions right there. I just play my part in the movie and keep it pushing. I am not married to none of that shit. It’s a role that I played in a movie. If people like to see me play in Friday movies, I just come and do my job.
Last Friday would be the final movie in the Friday series. Do you have any new information on the status of the movie or on what Day-Day Jones might be doing?
I don’t know if they are going to do the movie. I don’t want to lie to my fans or hype them up to think they’re going to do another Friday. That Friday series, I keep saying it, but it’s like Dr. Dre putting out his [Detox] album.
You have become a mainstay with the BET Hip-Hop Awards. How is it hosting an awards show compared to a regular stand-up performance?
That goes back to your question about hip-hop. That is a perfect example of why they both benefit and service each other. There is nothing in the world like someone cracking a good joke in between songs. It is a perfect segue and hook. That is why they keep using me for the awards show.
This year’s ceremony apparently featured some backstage brawls (Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, Gunplay and G-Unit). Were you anywhere near the fights?
I didn’t see no suckers fighting, man. You know how those rappers are. What makes me so sad about that is, like, why did they wait to get there to do that? Didn’t you guys see each other at the mall earlier in the day? Damn, you’re going to wait till you’re performing to start fighting? You were just at Fatburger together!
You opened the 2012 BET Hip-Hop Awards in character as President Obama. What is it like to portray the President knowing that he might actually see it?
It was really fun. To play Obama is fun because you get the chance to say some shit that you would like to hear him say. You know what I mean? I know he’s not going to say this, but let me say it for him.
What is something you’d like to hear him say?
Get the f@#k off my back.
You portray Richard Pryor in the upcoming Nina biopic about soul legend and activist Nina Simone. Is it difficult to play such a comedic legend?
It was definitely not easy to capture a guy like that because he was so complex and a crazy motherf@#ker. For a minute, I thought I had to be crazy to play him. Then I thought about it and realized if I go crazy to play Richard Pryor, it defeats the art. I really don’t do that kind of acting where I become something for weeks at a time before it’s time to shoot some shit. I like to challenge my art by not becoming that until it is time. That’s what I think.
You tackled a dramatic role in The Supremes-inspired remake of Sparkle, which came out last August. Do you see yourself pursing more dramas?
I have many shades of myself, and I really love doing drama. I think comedians can make some of the best dramatic actors. I do want to do more dramatic parts, but I want to be selective and do the right dramatic parts. I don’t want to do them just because they are in my face and I want to prove myself. It just has to be something that I love.
Do you think your fans were shocked to see you play such a terrible guy in the film? He really does some awful things.
It shocked a few of them. It made some of my fans really not like my character. It definitely opened the eyes of people in Hollywood to let them see that I have range and levels and a lot of character behind myself. I showed them that I can dig and bring out some interesting art.
Sparkle wound up being Whitney Houston’s last film before she passed away. I heard you tell a great story about Whitney singing along to a Michael Jackson song on the set.
That was crazy, right? She was in the trailer getting her hair done, and she was playing Michael Jackson and singing along with the song. I swear it sounded like they were both in there together signing. I don’t remember what song it was, but the trailer was f@#kin‘ rockin‘.
Anything you can tell us about Black Doug’s role in the new Hangover movie?
Yeah, I’m playing another black guy in the movie again. I’m playing Black Doug. I think the third installment is really going to be good. To be brought back into a large comedy, the biggest comedy movie ever, is impossible for me to top. That is the biggest shit I might ever do unless they want to cast me in the next Avengers movie. It was an honor to come back and work with those guys.
You are from Indiana but working in Hollywood, so . . . Lakers or Pacers?
The Pacers. No, no, no, since I’m doing a show in LA, the Lakers.
How do you think the Lakers can get it together before the playoffs start in April?
Dwight Howard and those guys cannot be intimidated by Kobe. Sometimes Kobe Bryant can be self-indulgent to the point where it is all about Kobe. It is hard for the other guys to gel with him and open up. The way he plays is like Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. The other guys seem intimidated by him, but I think they need to stand up to him and let him know that this is a team right here, man.
You are returning to the Inland Empire with a show at the San Manuel Casino. What do you think makes SoCal fans different than other audiences?
I think the Southern California audiences are liberal, real cool, laidback and understanding. They are one of those audiences that really get it in a fun way and not really critical like a New York crowd, if you know what I mean.
Do you have anything else coming up?
At the end of the year, I plan to put out Still Can’t Catch Me. It is a documentary of my journey to become a comedian. I’m going to show Hollywood who I really am because they don’t know who the f@#k I am. They just cast me and deal with me face front. I have been keeping it a secret as to who I really am, but I am getting to that point where I want to show them where I come from and how I did it. I think it will be out in winter 2013.
Mike Epps w/Special Guests at San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino, 777 San Manuel Blvd., Highland, (800) 359-2464; www.sanmanuel.com. Thurs, Jan. 17. 6:30pm. Tickets $35-$45. 21+.