Marlon Wayans readily admits he and his family are simply incapable of being serious about anything, ever.
“Funerals or wherever, my brothers and I are always looking for the funny in it. It’s kind of terrible in a way really. But that’s who we are,” says Wayans with a straight face, sitting on a couch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. “People always ask me the same question: can’t you just be serious for one minute? And I say no. That’s not the way I’m built.”
Wayans’ and his non-stop sense of humor will be fully on display this week with the release of A Haunted House, a film he co-wrote and stars in along with Cedric the Entertainer and Essence Atkins. Using cues from such iconic horror flicks as The Exorcist and Amityville Horror, A Haunted House takes its viewers down a familiar path of just what happens when you think you’re alone and you’re really not. But unlike its chilling forebears, Wayans’s film—like Wayans himself—is funny.
“I got the idea from sitting at home watching Paranormal Activity and thinking white people do the dumbest things,” said Wayans. “What if a black couple moved into a house with that crazy mess going on? How would that go down, and wouldn’t that be funny? You’re hearing voices, and things are flying around in the air, but you stay. Black people probably wouldn’t, but what would happen if they did? That’s Haunted House.”
Wayans, 40, is the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters who all have a gift for making people laugh. “Being funny isn’t an exact art. It’s like you’re just minding your business, and one day God suddenly says, ‘Here you go son. Here’s an idea,’” says Wayans. “And funny doesn’t work without a story being attached to it. That’s something everyone doesn’t understand.”
Wayans cut his teeth on his brother Keenan Ivory Wayans’s comic variety show In Living Color in the early ’90s and polished his skills with films such as Scary Movie and White Chicks. He also hit it big with the television show The Wayans Bros., which also starred his older brother Shawn.
Wayans points out that A Haunted House is much more a film about the romance between Malcolm and Kisha (Wayans and Atkins) and their desire to take their relationship to a new level by moving in together than it is about pure horror. “I wanted the audience to be invested in the two people at the front of the story,” says Wayans. “Why care otherwise if they are being scared to death if you don’t care about the characters? I wanted people to see some part they could relate to, which is the relationship, and then bring on the scary craziness.”
Eventually, though, he does bring on the crazy, and in spades. There’s the South Central Los Angeles gang members hired to the spook the ghosts who end up spooking themselves and the black priest who uses air freshener to ward off bad spirits and bad breath.
“Even something stupid and funny in a film has to have a point,” says Wayans, “or should have some point, or what is the point?”
Funny as he is, there was a comedic hurdle Wayans had never overcome—stand-up—a fact he quickly changed when producers Chris Rock and Adam Sandler tapped him to play the lead in Is It Something I Said?, about the life of comic legend Richard Pryor.
“I never did stand-up before in my life, and you can’t do Richard Pryor without doing the stand-up,” says Wayans. “That was the core of who he was, and I knew I had get out there and perfect that if I wanted to do this role any justice.”
Wayans admits spending time in small, crowded comedy clubs isn’t always fun every night and that a famous family name doesn’t ensure laughs any night. “Comedy clubs can be brutal,” says Wayans. “Those people are for real, and if you aren’t funny, they aren’t laughing. They don’t care who you are.”
But he adds that the education is priceless.
“You learn timing on the road. You learn structure and how to read an audience,” says Wayans, a graduate of Howard University’s film school. “You learn so much about the business of laughter that you can’t learn on a set, because it’s all on you. Sometimes you bomb, and you know not to tell that joke again ... You just hope people find the humor in the awkwardness.”
He’s also enjoying some flashbacks to his own early days as a comic as executive producer of Second Generation Wayans, a reality show for Black Entertainment Television that focuses on the lives of his two nephews Damien Dante and Craig.
“It’s great to see my nephews at work and to listen to their ideas,” Wayans says about the show, which begins airing next week. “They are funny, and working them reminded of me how it was when I started: all the energy and big ideas you have when you early on in the business. It was kinda fun reliving that and seeing myself and all my brothers in them.”