ABOVE PHOTO: CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER at the The Neighbohood Celebrates the “Welcome to Bowling” Episode at Pinz Bowling Alley on November 18, 2019 in Studio City, CA Editorial credit: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com
By Gary Gerard Hamilton
NEW YORK — “The Neighborhood” might be a hit sitcom now, but needed some careful planning before laying down a solid foundation.
“We shot the pilot twice. We had to recast. And so, there was moments where you didn’t think the show was going to go,” said Cedric the Entertainer. “But the elements of it, the idea that it was about gentrification, the idea that it was about a Black family kind of staying true to their neighborhood when they saw white families moving in … I think it just caught legs and really resonated with people because we do it in, of course, a sitcom, lighthearted way.”
“The Neighborhood,” now in its fifth season on CBS, follows the Butlers, a Black family led by Calvin (Cedric) and Tina ( Tichina Arnold) as they coexist with their white neighbors, Dave (Max Greenfield) and Gemma Johnson (Beth Behrs), who moved from the Midwest to a predominately Black neighborhood in Pasadena, California. The show celebrated its 100th episode this week.
While not every episode deals with heavy topics, the show has unpacked topics like Black Lives Matter and social justice, pregnancy loss and white privilege. But as more issues emerge like attempts to ban books and critical race theory, Cedric believes his show is more than capable of exploring them.
“One of the great testaments to the show is that we try not to preach it, but we also aren’t afraid to kind of just dive in,” said the former Emmys host. “We try to … deal with all those kind of subject matters on our show without just saying, ‘Hey, this is the line and this is what we believe in.’ We just raise a question.”
The milestone episode was directed by Cedric, who also serves as an executive producer. He said sitting in the big chair has been the next progression of his show responsibilities.
“It was only natural for me to kind of really morph into directing because I can see the show; when I’m reading the scripts, I kind of know where people are going to be. And so, that was something that I’ve been wanting to grow into,” explained the funnyman, who also directed an episode last season.
The St. Louis-area native began his career in standup comedy, although later than most; after graduating from Southeast Missouri State University, he worked for State Farm before diving into professional comedy in his mid-20s. After making a name for himself locally, he eventually secured hosting stints for HBO’s legendary “Def Comedy Jam” as well BET’s popular “ComicView.”
While his sitcom star is brighter than ever, it’s a culmination of years of experience; he starred in “The Soul Man” which ran from 2012 to 2016, but for many, his role as the loveable sidekick, Cedric Jackie Robinson on the ’90s sitcom, “The Steve Harvey Show,” won the hearts of viewers.
“I really believe that that’s kind of led to my longevity: that idea of watching Steve, being right there close (to him),” Cedric said of his good friend and “Kings of Comedy” brother. “The way he hired, the way he got Black people on the show, how he was able to negotiate his deals — all these things were things that I was exposed to just by being the No. 2 guy in the right situation.”
It was an especially huge payoff because at the time, Cedric had a deal in place to lead his own show. But after seeing Harvey’s early sitcom, “The Boys,” last only one season, he chose to learn and observe, rather than jumping into leading a show head-first.
“It’s hard to knock that down when someone is kind of saying, ‘Hey, you’re the man!’ … I kind of saw him fail once. And I was like, I don’t want to run out there and get one season,” said the “Barbershop” star. “I kind of felt like that was the right thing for me to do, and it worked out great.”
Currently, the star comedian is on the 23-city “Straight Jokes No Chaser” tour with D.L. Hughley, Earthquake, and DC Young Fly, hosted by Mike Epps. Cedric notes the current politically correct climate hasn’t necessarily changed his brand of comedy, but believes some programs that provided platforms to create star Black comics might not be able to exist today.
“Def Jam was really one of those rare scenarios where we got to truly voice who we were. You didn’t have to change anything about yourself,” said Cedric. “I don’t think that that kind of rawness, that kind of honesty, visceral, right-off-the-top whatever you’re thinking kind of joke-telling…I don’t think you could get away with that in today’s society.”
And while he coyly says today’s society is “soft as hell,” don’t expect “The Neighborhood” star to get any homeowners association violations.
“I want to come out and make people laugh and have a good time … I’m not that comic that’s there to challenge you or super offend you,” says Cedric. “I got the CBS, Paramount shield with me, and we’re doing great. And I employ a lot of people with this show. … I wouldn’t want to be the detriment of somebody else’s livelihood. So, I’m very careful of it without, at the same time, without being precious.”
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