David Alan Grier speaks out about his career, comedy, and his current challenges.
David Alan Grier, ’78, is a multifaceted actor who has appeared on the Broadway stage (“Dreamgirls”), in Hollywood films (“Peeples”), and on popular television sitcoms (“In Living Color” and “DAG”). Now starring in “The Carmichael Show” — NBC’s mostwatched summer comedy on the “Big 4” networks in eight years — Michigan Alumnus recently caught up with the three-time Tony and Grammy Award nominee during rehearsals for a live production of “The Wiz” airing on Dec. 3 on NBC.
Most alumni probably assume you were in U-M’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. But you were not. Can you tell us how you discovered your passion for performing?
I took a year off of U-M to live in New York, thinking I wanted to become a musician. While I was there, I hung out with a bunch of professional actors. One of them told me, “You are an actor. This is what you are going to do. This is your life path, and you are wasting your life until you realize that.” I returned to Michigan and never looked back. But my mom did not want me to go into theater — she thought that would be a waste of education — so instead I majored in radio, television, and film with a minor in journalism. It was as close as I could get to a theater degree. But I participated in every production I could find at the Frieze Building, Lydia Mendelssohn, the Power Center, everywhere. My first play was “Othello.” I played the other black guy and had two lines, “A messenger from the galleys” and “Here is more news.” My mom said to me afterward, “I see no extraordinary talent here, but have fun.”
You have worked in every form of entertainment, from “Dancing With the Stars” to now playing the Cowardly Lion in “The Wiz.” Do you have a favorite medium?
I like variety. Like what I am doing right now. I am in a sitcom that was just renewed, but then I am also rehearsing for “The Wiz.” It happens to be the first Broadway musical I ever saw — during spring break while I was at U-M. I got a ride from Ann Arbor on the U-M ride board, drove nine hours straight with a woman who had a portable cassette player with a long play list, and paid $6 for my ticket in the last row at the Majestic Theatre. It was like attending Woodstock, the stage was so small and far away. But it was amazing. For the current live TV production of “The Wiz,” we have an eclectic and wonderful cast that includes Stephanie Mills, who I saw in the original “Wiz” production, and Queen Latifah, who I know from “In Living Color.” I love creating and building a character through dance and music and acting with a strong narrative that will entertain and captivate the audience. We are rehearsing for two months for one performance that will open and close on the same night, so you have to put it all out there and go for it. But it is funny. I used to be the youngest person in shows and now I am the oldest. Actually, Toto is older than me. He is 10 years old, so in dog years that is 70. The costumes alone for “The Wiz” are just incredible. My 7-year-old daughter keeps asking me, “Are you daddy as a lion or just a lion?”
What appealed to you about “The Carmichael Show”?
I met Jerrod Carmichael (one of the writers of the show) in 2010 in Montreal at the comedy festival. I was already a big fan. I liked his comedy style, intelligence, and the way he approached stand-up. I ended up auditioning for the show with Loretta Devine, who I had known since “Dreamgirls.” We were playing a couple married for over 30 years, and I have known Loretta for that long. The producers picked up on that. What I like most about the show is that Jarrod blends comedy and realism. I think there are a lot of TV shows that exist in a bubble and don’t have any real connection to what is happening outside politically, socially, and sociologically. But whenever my family gets together, particularly around the dinner table, it might not be politically correct, but part of our ritual is talking about what is going on in the world today. You might have an uncle or aunt who has a strong, if not warped, position on the Iran arms deal. And that might not seem like humor, but it is funny when it gets all mixed up with comments about the potato salad and going to church on Sunday.
You have never shied away from roles that deal directly with the issue of race, from being in David Mamet’s play “Race” to playing the role of Jackie Robinson to writing a book, “Barack Like Me: The Chocolate-Covered Truth.” Do you consider yourself an activist?
One of the things people saw in “The Carmichael Show” was how much we tried to attack current issues. Not knowing if we would be renewed for a second season, we held nothing back in the first six shows. Now, we can stretch with 13 shows and go into some really interesting areas. A lot of comics don’t want to talk about topical things, but for me it’s a natural attraction. My book was initially going to be a funny take on Obama, who had just been elected. But then I realized my reaction was all wrapped up in my relationship to this country, which was wrapped up in the way I was brought up, which was wrapped up in the time and place, Detroit, Michigan, in the ’60s. My whole family marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit. So it organically became a memoir.
I am going to say very candidly, “No!” I did not almost get the role because that would have required a call back and an actual reading with Jerry Seinfeld. Instead, I remember thinking in the audition, “Wow, these jokes are not funny. Poor Jerry, he has a show that won’t do well at all.” How wrong was I? My other great prediction was, sitting next to Jim Carrey at the premier of “Ace Ventura,” I thought, “I am going to laugh really loud for my friend so he feels great because this movie is going to flop. Jim is just too crazy for audiences.” Wrong again. Oh, and then I thought, “America is not ready for their first black president.” Wrong, wrong, wrong … I thought “In Living Color” would not be a success because people were not ready for such a wild show. We won an Emmy the first year out. Basically, I am the anti-Nostradamus … I have down the “No” in Nostradamus!
Have you been back to U-M at all over the years?
I came back a few years ago and taught the kids a master class on North Campus. They have beautiful facilities now and a whole musical theater department. It was great. I love Ann Arbor.