Wayne Brady wields words masterfully. When he improvises, they flow loosely, though still purposefully. When conversation dances into the more sensitive areas of life – what a black man can be; or his own inner struggles – Brady measures his words, but doesn’t soften them. The comedian, who performs at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Seneca Niagara Events Center, uses words to make you think and laugh, to help you.
Maybe even save you.
Words are Brady’s baton; we, the audience, are his orchestra. When the maestro wants to laugh, he’ll amp up the energy, and punctuate the jokes with those lively eyes that pierce the camera on CW’s “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and break out the warm but mildly (and sometimes wildly) mischievous smile that’s helped him turn CBS’ “Let’s Make A Deal” into something much more than a simple game show. He may bust out the punchy vocals and buttery dance moves that, atop the rest, make him comedy’s truest triple threat.
But after all that, it comes down to language. It’s all about the words. Brady knows how to use them, and how to avoid the ones he doesn’t like — including these five words, exactly in this order: That’s just what it is.
“Anything I do, I’m going to push it creatively so it’s not the easiest version of what that thing is,” Brady said in a telephone interview this week. “I never want to do the ‘that’s just what it is’ version. There’s no excuse for that – to me, at least.”
Brady, 42, recoils at the notion of simply doing what needs to be done. Give him a one-sheet job description, and he’ll add a second – and probably better – page.
Take his show that hits Niagara Falls Saturday night. A member of the “Whose Line” cast since 1998, Brady is probably best known as an improv comedian. He could fill the entire show with a series of “Whose Line”-stye improv games and the audience would be tickled. Instead, Brady has turned the show into an “improv musical rock concert,” as he describes it, filled with spontaneous song numbers, an audience Q&A in which Brady is as likely to respond with an improvised sketch or song as he is with a straight-up answer, and yes, games from “Whose Line.”
Virtually all of the show is driven by suggestions from the crowd, a strategy that addresses the skepticism commonly faced by improv comedians: Are you really making it up?
“You can prove the veracity of what’s happening because I just got it from this lady in the front row,” Brady says. “It’s really important to me to always make sure people know what’s happening is really happening.”
Joining Brady onstage for the live show are fellow improviser Jonathan Mangum and musical director Cat Gray, both of whom are Brady’s castmates on “Let’s Make a Deal.” (Brady is host of the CBS show; Mangum is the announcer; Gray plays keyboards.) Mangum and Brady have been close friends since the late 1990s, when the two of them worked together in Orlando’s improv comedy scene.
“We have such a great camaraderie,” Mangum said. “It’s almost like one brain up there doing this magic trick.”
That comedic vibe translates both in the live show and on the “Let’s Make a Deal” set, where Brady and Mangum have broken the “that’s-just-what-it-is” mold by transforming something standard – a game show – into something new – a game show/comedy/variety revue. Between, and sometimes during, deal-making, Brady breaks into songs, improv scenes and sketches. Offscreen, just for the studio audience, Brady and Mangum will riff on – or rip into – each other. Mangum will rib Brady about a mistake; Brady will poke at Mangum with a joke about dating his mother.
“There have been several times this season where I can’t actually cut the show because I’m laughing so hard,” said “Let’s Make a Deal” director Lenn Goodside, “and it’s not just me. It’s everybody in the control room, from producers to associate directors.”
But even when you’re a comedian, laughs don’t permeate life. Last November, Brady revealed in an interview with “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent Nischelle Turner that he’s waged a long battle with depression, one that culminated on his 42nd birthday in June.
“I was there by myself, in my bedroom and I had a complete breakdown,” Brady told Turner. “Just go ahead and imagine for yourself a brother in his underwear, in his room, you got snot … and that birthday was the beginning of, ‘OK, I’ve got to make a change.’ ”
In his interview with The News, Brady was precise in describing his decision to reveal his struggle with depression. Asked if speaking out was “cathartic,” he clarified the use of the word.
“It was cathartic in a way,” he said. “For it to truly be a cathartic thing, it would need to be something that … was building to a pressure-cooker point, and that really wasn’t it. It was more like being aware of something for a long time, and just knowing it was there.”
The decision to speak out, Brady said, was driven by Robin Williams’ death and by reading stories about kids committing suicide.
“(It) made me say to myself, “ ‘OK, I’ve got to say something, even if it helps one other person,’ ” said Brady, who has a soon-to-be 12-year-old daughter with his former wife.
It wasn’t the first time Brady had spoken out on sensitive topics. In 2013, he took issue with comedian Bill Maher, who used Brady in a punchline about President Barack Obama by calling him “President Wayne Brady.” It was Maher’s way of poking fun at both Obama and Brady’s credibility as black men.
On Twitter and in a Huffington Post interview, Brady jabbed back.
“Bill Maher has a segment of America’s ear,” Brady told the Huffington Post. “When he says that, that’s OK for somebody at home to go, ‘That’s right. Guys that actually talk well and are black – that’s not black…’ That hurts me for our culture.”
If Maher’s joke – as a white comic – stoked the notion that you can’t be simultaneously educated, well-spoken and black, the example of Brady as a comedian stands as a serious counter argument.
And sometimes it takes more than words to make that point.
One week ago, Brady was hosting “The BET Honors” in Washington, D.C. He opened the awards gala with a ’90s-style b-boy hip-hop number – “a hilarious song,” said Mangum, who wrote material for the show, which will be broadcast Feb. 23 on BET.
As the number ended, the rapper Kanye West was the first person to rise and applaud, which triggered a standing ovation.
“That just made Wayne so happy,” Mangum said, “and I was so happy for him that he got that from Kanye.”
It was an endorsement that required no words.