‘We just write from the soul’ – Marlon Wayans is not haunted by the haters
As the latest comedy from the Wayans dynasty, A Haunted House, hits our screens, director Marlon Wayans tells Tara Brady the secret of their success and why audiences, but not critics, love them
‘There’s math and science to comedy,” the mighty Marlon Wayans muses. “I’m serious. This equals this. That equals that. There is even science to a good fart joke. That’s a hard thing to execute.”
If that is the case then the Wayans Family are among the greatest of all scientific dynasties. Marlon is the youngest of 10 siblings, all of whom are involved in the entertainment industry. A second generation is coming up on the inside rail. Yet no Nobel Prizes for Comic Science have come their way.
This is a great injustice. It is probably fair to say that the Wayans’ broad romps – Scary Movie, White Chicks, Little Man – do not have the verbal grace of a late Shakespeare comedy. But let’s be honest. When was the last time you splurted Fanta through your nose while doubling-up at The Merry Wives of Windsor? That’s what their films are for. Aren’t they?
“Well, thank you,” Marlon says with apparent sincerity. “Sometimes people say that they pee themselves. That makes me real happy. They say they laughed until their abs hurt. I get a lot of compliments on Twitter. Audiences really enjoy our comedies. Critics not so much. But audiences love them.”
The latest film in the Wayans oeuvre, A Haunted House, is not likely to alter that situation. Turning their satirical energies towards the tired genre that is found-footage horror, the various Wayanses hammer their way enthusiastically through the usual breathless series of earthy jokes. As ever, the film did not trouble the fresher areas of Rotten Tomatoes.
“Yeah, sometimes the critics get it and sometimes they don’t,” he says. “If I made movies for critics I’d be making a whole different kind of movie. Critics are above poo jokes. They need to watch comedies with an audience.”
Marlon can afford to shake off the snootier brickbats. Having clocked up dozens of comic hits over the past few decades, the African-American family can, quite reasonably, now regard themselves as proper showbusiness royalty. ° It is a quarter of a century since Hollywood Shuffle, Keenan Ivory Wayans’s satire on the entertainment industry’s attitudes to black people, became a surprise hit at the world box-office. In 1988, Keenan, second oldest of the clan, had another underground smash with blaxsploitation spoof I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. The teenage Marlon took a small role in that very funny flick.
“The confidence came from watching my brother be successful at it,” Marlon remembers. “Once Keenan was on television we thought: we can actually do this. Our dreams can be a reality if we work hard enough. I remember finally seeing I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and thinking: I can’t wait to be doing what he’s doing. I never had a plan B.”
Raised in New York City – by a social worker mother he touchingly describes as “ridiculously talented” – Marlon attended the School for the Performing Arts before making his way to Howard University. In 1992, he turned up on the hit TV sketch show In Living Color, the imprint that launched Jamie Foxx’s career. He hasn’t rested much since. One wonders if the siblings are competitive. How else can we explain their roaring, promiscuous success?
“Never. We are not competitive,” he says. “All of my brothers wish each other success. There really is no rivalry between us. The only rivalry is when we are sitting around talking nonsense. Who has the best jokes? But then we are just trying to come up with the best material. That’s all that is. There’s no squabbling.”
A sort of fork in the road appears in Marlon’s CV at the start of the past decade. The year 2000 saw the release of the brothers’ hugely successful Scary Movie. But that same year Wayans also gave a very decent performance in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Was there – to summon up Robert Frost – a road not taken here? He is a pretty decent actor. He could now be winning awards instead of annoying critics.
“It’s just the way things wound up,” he says casually. “Those opportunities weren’t there for me. There were no doors open after Requiem for a Dream. I did what I do naturally and created some comedy. That’s what I have to do. I just create my own industry and do what I do. I can’t sit around and wait for work.”
At any rate, the Scary Movie franchise fast became a phenomenon. As more than a few commentators observed, the films threw up satirical circles within other satirical circles. The main target for the brothers’ comedy was Wes Craven’s Scream, a film that was itself a pastiche of the modern horror film. Some terrifying class of post-modern sprite seemed to have been summoned up.
“I don’t know how much the success was to do with distribution and how much it was just to do with timing,” he says. “It was before the internet was huge and it was hard to see crazy R-rated comedy. And the success of Scream was a factor.”
And then there was the Wayans’s sly racial comedy. A large part of the fun in the Scary Movie franchise is a result of the filmmakers asking themselves a particular question about certain popular horror films: what would a black guy do in these circumstances? The gags crossed racial and class lines with great efficiency. You didn’t have to be black to love the films. You didn’t have to be white to dislike them. Scary Movie is, in terms of box office, the most successful film ever directed by an African-American (Keenan gets that credit).
“Well the starting point is always: how would this work out if it happened to me? As it happens I’m black. So that’s how the comedy works out. It gets runs through that computer and it comes out this way. We just write from the soul. We don’t really unpack it. This is funny and I want to bring this to an audience.”
The Scary Movie films have a largely unheralded position in the history of high-end independent cinema. The first films were distributed by Bob Weinstein’s Dimension Films, the genre-friendly cousin to Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax. The supposedly low-brow antics of Marlon and his friends were vital to balancing the Weinsteins’ books in the last years of their business partnership with Disney. It could be argued that you have the Wayans boys to thank for film such as In the Bedroom, Frida and Gangs of New York.
Yet, as is often the case when Bob and Harvey are involved, the marriage did not end happily. After the second film, the Wayans were removed from their own franchise. The Scary Movie films continued without them.
“Oh, it’s such a long drawn-out story,” Marlon says. “Bob and Harvey had opinions about comedy and we had different opinions. So there was a disagreement. We wished them well with their franchise and we set out to create a new one.”
Meanwhile cheap (well, cheaper) imitations such as Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans aped the Wayans formula. Some fools even mistook these pictures for Wayans product.
“It’s pretty simple,” Marlon sighs. “If we aren’t in the movie the chances are it ain’t from us. Look at Scary Movie 5. People just didn’t respond to it. It took people two movies to figure out this is rubbish. This just ain’t the Wayans.”
If it doesn’t say Wayans on the label, it isn’t Wayans in the jar. For good or ill, A Haunted House is the real thing. Accept no substitutes.
A Haunted House is out now