Wayne Brady: 'You have to earn the right to be dirty in comedy'
Wayne Brady has spent almost two decades proving his improvisational mettle and vaudevillian flair as a comic on "Whose Line Is It Anyway?", the host of "The Wayne Brady Show" (where he picked up two Daytime Emmys), and now as a voice actor on the Disney Channel series "Sofia the First." His family-safe version of comedy made him a fitting emcee for Charmin's "Keep It Clean Comedy Show," where New York high school students performed their cleanest versions of bathroom humor earlier this week. We caught up with Brady to discuss what makes for good clean humor, the worst cliches in comedy, and the challenges of taking over for Billy Porter in Broadway's "Kinky Boots" beginning November 21.
You just hosted a Charmin-sponsored event where kids aged 14-18 told their best clean versions of scatological jokes. That seems like a challenge. Were you optimistic about what the contestants could produce?
Well, that's why I agreed to do it with Charmin. If you look at any comic who's worth their salt and does improvisation, to be facile and smart enough you can't just drop the F-bomb. Just because you curse doesn't make it funny. Or just because it's dirty doesn't make it funny. You've got to be smart on top of that. To give kids the challenge to do something that was funny without going there, I just really wanted to see it. I think especially young kids are capable of doing that. Maybe as an adult if I say "f*ck you," I assume that's the funny part. In my opinion, you've got to earn the right to be able to curse and go to dirty places during your comedy. First make someone laugh by telling a story or being able to paint a picture. Then you can slap on all the scatological stuff you want to, because at the heart of it it's funny. Some things can be funny whether they're dirty or not, and that's the litmus test to me.
Though there are dirty voices in comedy now, it feels to me like the peak era of gross-out comedy was in the mid 2000s with movies like "Wedding Crashers" and the "Scary Movie" franchise. Do you think we're trending away from gross-out stuff?
I don't think we've really moved on. I think it depends on the project. Take Amy Schumer. She's a smart lady, but some of the sketches go to a certain place. There are movies where someone's idea of a punchline is seeing a teenage with their clothes off, getting caught by dad, and jumping out the window with his balls swinging. That's their idea of funny. That's what they think is appealing to someone. I don't think that's ever going to go away. I think it's all in the fact that certain voices can be heard over the dim. It's like 'Whose Line" when we go right up to the line, dance on it, and do inappropriate stuff -- but it's smart.
Do you have a least favorite comedy cliche?
Something that I can't stand the older I've gotten -- and I'm sure I've done it myself when I was a kid -- is when a character comes in endowed with effeminate traits and someone makes the joke of "That's the gay version of...!" or "That's the gay this!" It's so easy to pull that word out and not think of it in the pejorative sense. It's too easy. Sometimes I have to warn myself about the same thing and not fall back on any racial tropes. "That's the black version of..." or "That's the Mexican version of..." or "That's the Chinese..." No. It should just be whatever the character is. There are definitely times and places to whip that out, but not consistently. I think a lot of people who haven't done comedy as long fall back on those crutches that aren't meant to be crutches. They're meant to be little shocks.
Has your taste in humor changed over the years? Are you surprised by what you find funny now as opposed to ten years ago?
No. I'm still a kid. A funny joke makes me laugh. Cleverness makes me laugh even harder. My dog running too fast and running into the porch door makes me laugh. Tickling my daughter until she farts, that makes me laugh. Some things don't change.
You've made a lot of memorable guest appearances. You were fantastic as Liz Lemon's bad date on "30 Rock" and I thought you were an amazing judge on "So You Think You Can Dance." Do you have a favorite project that's been outside your comfort zone?
None of those things have been outside of my comfort zone, to be completely honest. I'm open to all of it. While someone else may have a preconceived notion and say, "That's so different!" That's you. That's not me. Maybe because of my improv background I'm just open and ready for stuff in general, and I'm looking for that challenge.
Even when you're not taping "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" do you feel you have to hone your improv chops constantly?
We only tape "Whose Line?" a couple times of year. Last year I went around on my "It's My Line" tour and went to Europe, South Africa, and Australia. That muscle, by virtue of "Let's Make a Deal" especially, I'm always using in one sense or the next.
You have to be pretty energetic to host "Let's Make a Deal" for six years. Who are your favorite hosts?
Someone like a Ricky Gervais is my favorite type of host. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Anyone who controls a room with charm and then turns around to be as funny as acerbic as needed while still being lovable.
Do you ever watch TV, or does producing so much TV turn you off from it?
Oh, I watch "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." "Doctor Who." "Orange is the New Black." I'm a big sci-fi nerd. Two years ago I got to play Jafar, a lord, on "Stargate." That was awesome.
Finally, you'll be replacing Billy Porter in Broadway's "Kinky Boots" later this year. Seems like a perfect role. What will be the most challenging aspect of that performance?
I just need to be able to walk in the damn shoes! That's honestly the biggest challenge. That and vocally taking care of myself, since it's a demanding role vocally. But I love the character of Lola, and I look forward to coming and putting my stamp on that.