If John Witherspoon knows what it takes to break out from the crowd, it’s probably because he came from a family of 11 children. The comedian and “Friday” star returns to Buffalo for five shows at Helium Comedy Club from March 3 to 5.
A native of Detroit, Witherspoon grew up with a huge family that indirectly turned him toward a career in entertainment that is going on four decades now. His brother, William, was a songwriter for Motown at the height of its fame. Another brother began taking acting classes that Witherspoon sat in on, and it wasn’t long before he was inspired to try it himself. He talked about the origins of his career during a recent phone interview.
“Once a year, (my acting teacher) Mr. Biggleman would put on a comedy show,” Witherspoon said. “He said, ‘Think of something you can act out of on a comedy show.’ (Lyndon) Johnson was president at the time, and he was always trying to seem like Johnny Mathis, so I did those two characters and I stole the show. I made some money (from comedy) and I continued on.”
Witherspoon soon moved from Detroit to New York, then New York to Los Angeles, to continue his comedy career. His arrival in Los Angeles coincided with a comedy revolution in town, as the West Hollywood Comedy Store club featured hot young comics like Richard Pryor, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Robin Williams.
“You know where you are in the comedy world, and you know where they are, and these are all my friends,” Witherspoon said. “It was easy working there; it ain’t working. It was the move I made moving to California, because I was in the hot spot of all of comedy. I had just got there and everybody was trying to figure out their positions in the world.”
Witherspoon began guest starring on several television shows like “Good Times,” and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” His first notable movie role was in Robert Townsend’s 1987 film “Hollywood Shuffle,” as Witherspoon was hired to help extend the film’s running time with a new character. Witherspoon and Townsend ad-libbed their scenes together, and it made an impression.
“The word got out that I can ad-lib very well,” Witherspoon said. “When we did 'Boomerang,' which is one of my favorite scenes, the whole dinner scene was ad-libbed. (Director) Reginald Hudlin told me you have to rewrite the whole scene. ‘You come in the door, you get some funny clothes, and you do whatever you want with it because you are a country bumpkin.’”
“So I went through the wardrobe department and picked out those clothes: the mushroom jacket, the mushroom belt and the mushroom shirt. Nobody knew what I was going to be wearing. I talked to Eddie Murphy (in the scene), and Eddie is so good at ad-libbing.”
Along with Townsend and Murphy, Witherspoon has worked with Pryor, the Wayans family, Tracy Morgan, Will Smith and virtually every other notable black comedian over the years. Another show-stealing role came in the Ice Cube comedy “Friday,” which led to a number of sequels. As of late, Witherspoon is working on the Aaron McGruder animated show, “Black Jesus,” and his YouTube show, “Cooking for Poor People.”
“All those young cats know that when you’re around comics, you let the comics go,” Witherspoon said of his career opportunities. “Thank God I had a chance to do my own lines because that’s what made me popular later on. All my stuff just snowballed because the fact is if I stayed in Detroit where I grew up, I wouldn’t have done any of this.”
When: 8 p.m. March 3, 7:30 and 10 p.m. March 4 and 5
Where: Helium Comedy Club, 30 Mississippi St.