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“You ain’t gonna outwork us”


Marlon and Shawn Wayans meet me in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in DC. They have their bags packed; right after we talk, they’re off to the airport to head back to Detroit, where they have work to do in the morning. They’re tired, that’s clear enough, but they are serious troopers. As we walk from the lobby to a sort of loungey area, past the bar and more than a few tree-size plants, they smile a bit, and when we sit on a couple of big, fat, expensively fabricked sofas, they look close to ecstatic: sitting down, it’s all good.


The New York-born Marlon and Shawn are the two youngest of 10 children, now aged 29 and 30, respectively. The family has always been close, and when oldest brother Dwayne died last summer, of respiratory failure, they all came together even more tightly. Much of their recent family history has been visible to the rest of us, as they’ve put their considerable energies into their work. Marlon and Shawn both got their tv start on In Living Color, first airing in 1990. From 1995-99, Shawn and Marlon had their own show, The Wayans Bros. on the WB, wrote and starred in Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood in 1996, and became superstars when Scary Movie hit last year. In between the Scary Movies, Marlon made a strong impression in Requiem for a Dream and less of one in Dungeons and Dragons. Both brothers are looking forward to the release of Roaches, animated comedy they wrote together.


While they’re both devoted fathers to young children, Shawn and Marlon agree that they are “workaholics.” Upon the surprise success of Scary Movie (made for relative peanuts, the film earned $157 million domestic), they were immediately pressed to make a sequel. And not just any sequel, but one that tops and so proves the lucrative genius (as opposed to the flukeness) of the first film. The Wayans are all very aware of this pressure, but also assert that they’re not in it to make still more money for Miramax/Dimension and themselves (though that would be nice), but to please their fans. They have a clear sense of what they’re doing with the spoofs with which their names have become associated. Shawn puts it this way: “Scary Movie is about pop culture, Menace is about urban culture, and I’m Gonna Get You Sucka is about urban throwback.”



PopMatters:

How hard was it to come up with the sequel to Scary Movie so quickly?



Shawn Wayans:

We had no idea the first one was going to be that big. We thought kids would dig it, that they would embrace it, but not only children embraced it, so did adults. So it became a thing of its own. Any time something does that well, you gotta follow up.



Marlon Wayans:

We knew we had something funny, in the first one.



SW:

It was the same kind of gut feeling I had when I saw In Living Color for the first time, I knew it was something that no one had done before. And I felt, either I’m crazy, or this is something special.



PM:

Do you have fun making these films?



SW:

We had a ball. And this time, we had less than half the time that we did for the first film. Because the first time, there was no real release date, they didn’t know when they wanted to put it out exactly, and we had time to develop the script before we even gave it to Miramax. We were working on it for like two years. For Scary Movie 2, we had a due date and had to work fast. And though there’s a lot of pressure, as artists, we just block it out. So really, the pressure comes from us. That’s how the first movie happened. There was no outside pressure: we wanted to hit the audience hard. We still have that same burn, to get that same kind of laughs. So whether the studio wants us to or not, we’re going to do it. The money is just a byproduct of coming out with good stuff. Our whole thing is building that rapport with the audience.



PM:

How did you decide what movies to satirize in the second film?



SW:

In the first one we did the slasher films, and for this, we decided to take on the supernatural. We watched everything from The Exorcist to What Lies Beneath to The Haunting and then every other little horror film in between.



MW:

We did so much research.



SW:

The Legend of Hill House.



MW:

Poltergeist. If there’s a haunted house film, we watched it.



SW:

We watched ‘em all, and we chose that set of films because we thought it would be the natural progression of the horror genre, that we hadn’t touched on yet.



MW:

When you’re doing a sequel, you have to do a new genre, to have a well of new jokes. Otherwise, you’re just repeating yourself.



PM:

There seemed an obvious built-in audience for the first film, because the kids who know your work have mostly seen those films. Did you think that older films might not be so familiar to younger viewers?



MW:

You’re right. We had to set up a lot more of the cliches, because the first film could just assume the audience knew them. But now, the beauty of this [second] movie is that even if you haven’t seen those movies, it’s just plain funny.



SW:

The other one was more timely, this one is just straight-up funny. And we pay homage to the people who came before, doing satires, like Mel Brooks; we’re just carrying the torch.



PM:

Do you feel pressured to deliver this kind of film now?



SW:

The studios want this from us, but it’s not all we do. So the next couple of movies we have planned, we want to do just a regular, funny comedy. We don’t want to be known as the guys who have just one move to the basket. Plus, that’s all choices. There’s more than one studio in town—there’s seven studios in town! They might want that one thing from you, but they have to give something to you. It’s a give and take. And we’re happy to prove ourselves in any genre. Bottom line is for us to be consistent, be happy, and continue to be funny.



PM:

When you guys are writing, how do you know when something’s funny?



MW:

Everyone laughs in unison.



SW:

And we’re all really tough critics.



PM:

How do you think about comedy as a way to get inside the mainstream?



MW:

Comedy is underrated, in terms of what messages you can get out three, or what statements you can make. I think that everyone has their own medicine, and comedy is ours. We come from a place where it’s better to laugh at something than cry. Don’t Be a Menace had a lot of social statements, but we made them with jokes. We like the expectation for comedy, because you can really go to the wall with it to show how silly or absurd something is.



SW:

Yeah, without shoving it down people’s throats. It’s easier to digest it in the form of a joke.



MW:

It’s how you say things. No disrespect to drama because I’ve done them both and love them both, but I think drama is easier than comedy, because there are formulas to jokes. There are different equations you must use to tell different jokes and each set-up gives you a different outcome. There’s a lot more thought put into comedy than drama. You say what’s on your mind. Drama’s about being, comedy’s about thinking, performing…



SW:

. . . plotting, setting up, timing.



MW:

There’s a lot more to worry about, even in performance. I think that’s why we tend to go toward the challenge of comedy.



PM:

I’d guess it’s really hard to do comedy on tv, with all the restrictions.



SW:

That’s right. They’ll say, “That’s funny, but, you can’t do that on tv.”



MW:

We were gagged for so many years on tv, but it was great because we found ways to say what we wanted to say what we wanted to say, without seeming to say it. In embracing tv, you grow as an artist. You come to know, when you can’t get away with something, how do you get away with something? That’s the mindset that you have to have. That was the beauty of Seinfeld.



PM:

Do you feel like the people you’re addressing are different between films and tv?



SW:

I think a lot of it is the same crowd. The people who watched us on tv followed us into films, and that was our core fan-base, and it grew from there.



MW:

Yeah, it actually expanded in movies. On tv, we were on smaller networks. But the fan-base—they told a friend and then they told a friend, and by the time Scary Movie came out, it was like, they all wanted to go see this movie. Plus, added to the people we had are the new kids coming up. And there’s so much going on, what’s happening is, there’s no more separation between the cultures or races. It’s all become one culture: youth. Black kids are listening to rock and white kids are listening to hiphop.



PM:

Do you guys watch a lot of movies and tv, aside from particular research for a satire?



MW:

We study it. We watch a lot. Lately I’ve been writing, so I haven’t had as much time as I used to, but I try to see as much as I can.



SW:

We definitely have our finger on the pulse. You have to keep up. We decide what to watch by what’s funny.



MW:

Sometimes it’s a surprise, like The Weakest Link. I turned that on and said, I like this mean girl.



SW:

If you keep up with pop culture, everybody knows the joke. So, then we think, “Okay, how can we get that in there?”



MW:

We try to make it all just funny, so that even if a person doesn’t know the reference, they’re laughing. So we try to make jokes that are more situation than reference. But we also write characters, that is the key. In Scary Movie, that gave us another dimension: character dynamic comedy is the best comedy. All the voices of the characters are strong.



PM:

Obviously, you all like working together.



SW:

We love it. We make a family environment, it’s fun, everybody knows what needs to be done, Keenen oversees the whole thing, we respect him, he respects us.



MW:

While he’s manning the ship, we keep things moving. We all have our functions. And they’re my best friends.



SW:

I think it has to do with how we were raised, to look out for one another. Keenen got us early on. He’s always been like a brother-father figure to us, from teaching us about women, to teaching us about the business, acting, writing, everything.



PM:

What is the process for structuring something like this?



MW:

Keenen is really good at that. He puts it all together. He’s the director, and he needs to have a…



SW:

. . . a clear vision. And we all write, but the script is a blueprint. We can lose whole scenes when we’re shooting.



PM:

You knew early that this was what you wanted to do?



SW:

I knew when I was six. I just knew it; I didn’t care about nothing else. If I didn’t make it in this world, I would probably be homeless. I gave myself that little to fall back on.



MW:

I knew when I was four. I never pictured myself doing anything else, maybe a lawyer. We went to school, only to make people laugh.



PM:

Do you feel confident about what you do?



MW:

We’re confident in our abilities and our work ethic.



SW:

We know that even if we can’t do it now, if we work hard enough, eventually, we’ll get it done.



MW:

There might be people more talented, but you ain’t gonna outwork us, unless you like working 20-hour days. That’s our god-given talent. We inherited that from our father, a workhouse. He did a little bit of everything. He taught us to be men first, to provide for our family, to never quit. And applied all that to something that we love, fortunately. People are so happy to see you, just because you put a smile on their face when they were in a bad mood or had the worst day of their life. People come up to you and thank you for that. We’re like, “We’re no heroes.” You know who’s heroes? Doctors, teachers…



SW:

. . . firemen…



MW:

. . . your parents, those are the heroes. Every now and then, we make you all laugh, that’s good, I’m glad. It’s the ecology of life: we all have our purpose.



PM:

Is there a cost to being who you are?



SW:

You lose your privacy, and sometimes, people don’t see you as human. You could lose someone in your family and run into a fan, and if you don’t come with the right energy to someone who’s meeting you for the first time, you’re an asshole. It’s a weird thing. The problem is that people don’t step back and analyze, what if they were in that situation?



MW:

It’s a hard trade-off. Your personal values are out there all the time. That’s why celebrities stay inside so much. They’re looking for a little down time.



SW:

But at the same time, you have to talk to people. We did a lot of press for the last film and now for this one. We don’t rest on our laurels.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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