It used to be said that soul singer James Brown was the hardest working man in show business. One contender for that title today is Cedric the Entertainer. A cultural touchstone for contemporary American society, Cedric entertains us in a multitude of ways—as a comedian, actor, TV-show host, and singer, performing both on screen and live on stage.
I caught up with Cedric recently in a phone interview. He was working in New York., but will soon be in Pittsburgh for a four-show run (all shows have sold out) April 4 and 5 at the Pittsburgh Improv. On the phone, we started by talking about his early background and went from there.
The Making of an Entertainer
Cedric was born Cedric Antonio Kyles, in Jefferson City, Missouri. He first discovered he was entertaining as a student at Berkeley High School in St. Louis’s northern suburbs. In the school lunch room, his friends would often call on him to tell jokes during impromptu meal-time comedy sessions. Cedric has since made up for those antics by giving a scholarship to a graduating senior from his high school each year through his Cedric the Entertainer Charitable Foundation, which also funds other scholarship and outreach programs in St. Louis.
He attended Southeast Missouri State University, majoring in mass communications. After graduation he got a job as an insurance adjuster. He says he was successful in the position because he was bilingual: “I spoke regular [English] and angry negro. I was sometimes put on cases where we had to converse with a customer who was speaking in angry negro,” he quips.
Then one night, on a dare, Cedric went on stage at a comedy competition. He did so well he won $500. This soon led to more gigs—including the one that gave him his stage name. While appearing in a comedy revue with many other performers, he noticed that the announcer kept adding “the comic” to the end of everyone’s name. Cedric says he told the man, “I’m not just a comic. I sing also; I’m an entertainer.” So when his turn came the announcer said, “Next up is Cedric the Entertainer.” Cedric liked the sound of that so much that he instantly knew to keep using it, and thus a legend was born.
As it became evident that show biz and not the insurance biz would be his future, Cedric polished his craft. He counts as his comic influences the often-cited Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, but also Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, and Robin Harris.
From Stage to Screen
After some early success in live comedy Cedric became a contestant on the TV talent program “Showtime at the Apollo.” He also appeared on HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam” and BET’s “ComicView” (which he would later host). Cedric was an award-winning co-star on “The Steve Harvey Show.” His numerous movie credits range from Spike Lee’s The Original Kings of Comedy to the screen version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and the animated Madagascar films, in which he voices the lemur Maurice. Cedric also has his own production company, A Bird and a Bear Entertainment. His 2006 HBO Comedy Special, “Cedric the Entertainer: Taking You Higher” was their highest rated special of the year.
Cedric even portrayed the iconic character Ralph Kramden in the 2005 movie The Honeymooners. He says that playing the role made famous by the late Jackie Gleason “was a challenge for me to pull off. I was a fan of Gleason’s; me and my mom would watch his TV comedy show. Gleason was stylish and cool.” He continues: “We were hoping that movie would be the first in a series of The Honeymooners movies, but although successful, the film was released during a spate of summer action blockbusters and got somewhat lost in the shuffle.” Looking ahead, Cedric says “I would love to perform more roles of a dramatic nature and further increase my range as an actor.”
Cedric can indeed entertain us not only as an actor and comic, but also as a singer. When younger he sang in his church’s choir and the high school chamber choir. Today, starring as the Reverend Boyce “The Voice” Ballantine in the TV Land series “The Soul Man” (Wednesday nights at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time), he portrays a successful R&B singer turned minister. In that show the beautiful and funny Niecy Nash plays his wife. And just recently he and legendary actress/comedian Betty White, who stars in TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,” did guest appearances on each other’s shows. “She’s a true legend, sharp, witty, present,” Cedric remarked about White, adding: “I had to be on my toes around her.”
His other “day” job is as host of the long-running syndicated TV quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” His easygoing comic sensibilities provide a nice counterweight to the tensions of contestants trying to win a million dollars by answering some tough questions. Chilling with his family, bike riding on the beach, and playing golf are some of his favorite down time activities.
On Voice Work—and the Desire for a Steelers Gig!
His children enjoy the animated characters he’s voiced, especially Leadbottom in Planes and Maurice in the Madagascar movies. Cedric explains why he, in turn, enjoys voice acting: “You’re pretty much alone when you’re reading your character’s lines, and it takes me back to when I was a kid—playing with my army men and toys, sketching, and using my imagination a lot.” He’s been to Pittsburgh several times, enjoying his trips and finding our city somewhat reminiscent of his home town, St. Louis, with good energy.
When Cedric mentioned he was a longtime Steelers fan, I exclaimed that he should sing the national anthem at a home game. His voice rose and he said “Make sure that gets in the story.” Are you listening, Pittsburgh Steelers management?
If you aren’t fortunate enough to have tickets to see Cedric the Entertainer this weekend at the Pittsburgh Improv, you can still catch him on TV Land’s “The Soul Man,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and in the movie A Haunted House 2 which opens April 18th.
All told, Cedric’s recipe for success is simple. He has a genuine talent for humor and acting. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. And he likes entertaining an audience. Here’s hoping he’ll be entertaining us for years to come.
Photos courtesy: Cedric the Entertainer and publicist Marla Winston.
Rick Handler is the owner/executive producer of Entertainment Central Pittsburgh and enjoys great comedy.