Marlon Wayans walked onto the Helium Comedy Club stage in a dark blue-and-black plaid shirt. It was neatly buttoned.
But it wouldn’t stay that way.
He clutched a cup of tea; a white towel dangled from the back pocket of his jeans.
He would need both.
The sold-out Saturday night crowd exploded. That’s unsurprising. A celebrity like Wayans, who at 42 is the youngest member of his comedy-royalty family, commands cheers at first sight. From TV and movies (but not so much stand-up comedy — that’s newer for him), the people know Wayans. They know his wide smile, the one that cuts across his face and pushes the boundaries of his angular cheekbones. They know those eyes, which can bounce from squinty to buggy and serve as the most valuable tool in his comedic toolbox.
During his hour on stage, Wayans used those eyes – and a face as pliable as clay, a moldable voice and an athletic physicality – to riff on Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Jay-Z, the Kardashians, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, parental discipline and some made-for-Buffalo material. (Wayans on what it takes to cancel school: “Six feet of snow!”)
Though his Hollywood credits span two-plus decades, he’s relatively new to the stand-up game. Wayans started working the solo stage only four years ago, when he was lined up to play comic legend Richard Pryor in a biopic and decided that he needed to do stand-up to play a stand-up.
Today, that film is still in the planning stages and the lead may be going to another actor, but as Wayans told me in an interview last week, “I stared out wanting to play a great. Now I want to be a great.”
He works the stage with a fervor that matches such a high goal. Most stand-ups adopt a chill, almost laid-back stage demeanor that can give the audience the impression that we, too, could take the stage and be just as funny. They make it look easy.
Wayans does it differently. He jumps and dances – at one point, he climbed atop a table – and cartoonishly transforms face and voice to do impressions. Among those he channeled: Michael Jackson (bug eyes, pointy noise), Jay-Z (puckered lips) and a generic ugly man (cross eyes, barren teeth) that he says approaches him in every city to say, “I look just like you!”
Calling Michael Jordan “the greatest basketball player ever,” Wayans launched into full-body, expression-rich slow-motion depiction of opponents as Jordan sailed overhead to dunk.
Wayans is funny with ease, but he doesn’t make it look easy. He turns stand-up into a cardio sport.
Midway through his hourlong set, Wayans unbuttoned his shirt. Head glistening and vocal chords presumably sore, he pulled the white towel from his back pocket and his tea from the floor, wiped and sipped, then kept going.
Though much of Wayans’ material was pop-culture centric, he delved into parenting too. He reminisced about his fathers’ form of discipline raising 10 kids, which included the occasional smack.
“I can’t be mad,” Wayans said. “I’d rather have him beat us (than) society beat us.”
Then Wayans shared how he disciplines his own children, now 14 and 12: “The power of power words.”
He still made it funny, but it was a brief (and touching) step aside from an otherwise gut-busting evening that concluded with Wayans tearing off his button-down and ripping his white undershirt in a full-on Michael Jackson imitation.
As it ended, Wayans laughed. In fact, he laughed throughout – something else most comics don’t do. But who says being funny can’t be fun?