Talking with Chicago-born comedian Michael Colyar
Most comedians make their name in the clubs. Chicago-native Michael Colyar made his on the streets, or really, the sand. Following his Chicago upbringing where he fell in love with theater and comedy, Colyar moved to Los Angeles and became a fixture of the Venice Beach performing arts scene for about 10 years. His Redd Foxx-inspired stand-up sets – rapid fire acts exploring racism and other taboo topics – earned him acclaim among area street performers and kick started a career that took Colyar to “Star Search” (where he won $100,000), BET and HBO. He’s also landed roles over the years in “The Longshots,” “House Party 3,” “Martin,” “Norbit” and the Disney film “The Princess and The Frog.”
On Friday, Colyar comes back to town to host “Laughs 4 Lives,” a stand-up showcase at the Harold Washington Cultural Center, with proceeds going toward The Danny Clark Foundation. Colyar talked to Chicago Beat en route to an audition about his act’s origin and his future plans for his career.
Chicago Beat: How did you get into the comedy game and how did growing up in Chicago may have influenced you to be a comedian?
Michael Colyar: Well I started doing comedy on the streets of Chicago, but before that I did theater in Orland Park. I grew up on Chicago’s south side, and we moved to Orland Park my junior year of high school. I never saw a play at that point, never saw white people. When we moved, my high school was 30% black, 70% white. And we had theater, we had four years of Latin. This school had everything. I went to a play, and the play that year in 1971 was “Guys and Dolls.” And I saw people transport, change themselves, become something else. I hung out for the cast party in Beverly and there were really nice homes there where there were white people, black, Asians, Hispanics and everybody was friends with everybody. It blew my mind. I knew the rest of my life was going to be in theater, and I did the school play every year after that and got the lead. Then me and two friends from the theater company went away to the military and I spent three years in Germany and even there there was a theater department and USO shows. And when I came back to America, the hottest cat was Eddie Murphy. That was in ’84, ’85. He was as hot as a pistol. He had the number one movie, the number one concert, he got his start on “Saturday Night Live.” He was young, black, cute, and he was doing all of that because of jokes. So I picked up Redd Foxx albums, I’d take three jokes, and I’d go around to nightclubs and ask if halfway through the evening for 10 minutes I could do comedy. I’d say, ‘If you love it, I didn’t say like it, if you love it, let me perform. If you don’t love it, you don’t have to give me nothing.’ So halfway through the night, they’d stop for a break and I’d do my comedy. And if I failed, I’d still succeed because they’d be laughing their heads off watching me fail, and they’d sell more booze. I made $300 a week doing two or three jokes.
Then I started doing street performing in ’85, but the police would be on us on certain streets during different days and hours. So I sold everything but my 1967 Buick LeSabre and drove out to California to stand on the street and do this all the time. It got to me Venice Beach where I did five one-hour shows Fridays through Sundays noon to 5 p.m., and I smoked them.
Halfway through my [Venice Beach] career [from 1986 to 1995] I won “Star Search,” and gave half the money to the homeless. Then I was back to the beach in 1990 and HBO shot me live on the spot on Venice Beach. Once I got to Venice Beach, everybody and their Mama was on Venice Beach. It’s the second largest attraction in California, second to Disneyland, and everybody wanted to go to get a slice of pizza for a dollar, see girls in bikinis in the afternoon. Out there on a Saturday or Sunday there’d be 300,000 to 500,000 people on Venice Beach, so if you actually had a skill, it cleaned up. During that time though, everybody would see my show. My first movie, “Hollywood Shuffle” with Robert Townsend, he saw me on Venice Beach and invited me to be in his movie. Tupac Shakur and Janet Jackson saw me on the beach. I was in “Hot Shots! Part Deux” because Charlie Sheen saw me.
CB: Most comedians try to build a career at open mic and at smaller comedy clubs, where the environment could be a bit brutal. I’d imagine it may be even harder to perform stand-up in an environment where there’s so much else going on. Was it a challenge to maintain an audience for your Venice Beach act?
MC: It was not that challenging. I had a theater background and when I was in Chicago before I started doing comedy I joined a theater company called Free Street Theater. I had to sing and dance and act and four days a week we had rehearsals and we’d perform a full-fledged show on the street. So I was really good with performance, doing theater at school and being outgoing. Once I started doing street performance in Chicago, it took me just four days to figure it out. I was really comfortable with it. [Performing on] Venice Beach, that ain’t no joke, but it’s the same principle. And when I went out to Venice Beach, I really became the guy. Most people would go out there on the weekends, but I’d be there all week making stupid amounts of money. I started out getting change doing Red Fox jokes, and a white bum came up to me, he was homeless, he was dirty, and he told me ‘Why do people call black people colored? The colored people are white folk. When they’re born they’re red, when they’re cold they’re blue. They’re the colored people.’ So I took that and made a routine on how silly racism is and overnight it changed my life. My act was about making you think and helping you laugh. I would tackle topics like racism, I would be talking about condoms, and in ’86 there wouldn’t even be newspaper ads about condoms. Those nine years defined my life.
It almost didn’t happen. I had been performing in L.A. trying to do street performances, but the police would shut me down. I had not heard of Venice Beach at that time. On my 29th day in town, I met my wife. I was leaving town the next day, but I met her at a restaurants. She changed everything. It was like God sent her directly to me. She made it through my crack addiction with me. I would come home cracked out, sweating like R. Kelly on a playground, and instead of attacking my character, her first concern was making sure that I was ok. She would stay with me until I got to the other side of it. She is the most remarkable human being I have ever met.
CB: What should people expect from your show Friday?
MC: I’m a better artist and a better man because of what my mother gave me. This will be my first Mother’s Day weekend performance since she [passed away]. So I’ll be talking about lessons I learned from my Mama. I’ll be talking about this incredible president who I love so much, I’m doing a documentary that I’m now editing to be out in September. Beyond that, I’m also a jokester. So I’ll have little jokes in between the routine. It’s going to be bananas.
CB: Where do you hope to take your career from here?
MC: I’m exploding in every direction. One great blessing is I was a part of the first black animated feature film from Disney. I had nine lines, but I’m in the movie, and in the Wii game, I had 89 lines. It’s just a brilliant opportunity for me to get into animation. Right now I’m driving to an audition for a weekly Disney cartoon. I’m a gladiator. I live life for adventure. I get one shot, then I’m on to the next one.
I tell you where I’ll really make my money is motivational speaking from a comedic point of view. First of all I’m a [former] crack head, and I have the speaking abilities that my Mama gave me. I’m trying to be the greatest human being I can possibly be. With every project I do there’s humanity and humor behind it, making you feel good about life.