By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on April 5, 2010
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) – Comedienne and actress Marsha Warfield had a growing reputation as a stand-up comic when she was offered the role of bailiff Roz Russell on the popular National Broadcasting Company (NBC) television series Night Court.¬† With little training and almost no experience as an actress, Warfield walked onto Night Court and quickly established a strong, enduring character.¬† She was one of the first strong African American actors on network television and her work established a template for many other actors, black and white, to follow.¬† Her dignity and demeanor forever changed the way women and ethnic people would be perceived. Her worked paved the way for a more inclusive America.
It has been said about Warfield that the old expression, “If looks could kill,” was coined specifically with her mind.¬† She is credited with elevating the cynical look to an art form.¬† The character she played in the 80’s sitcom Night Court was a¬†tough, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Chicago woman.¬† To an extent her stand-up routines as well are¬†not an accurate reflection of the performer’s actual personality.¬† Marsha said,¬†“In public, when I don’t have the protection of the stage, I feel vulnerable.¬† I feel small, and I don’t know how to make small talk.”
Warfield was born in Chicago and is¬†the oldest of two daughters.¬† Her father left the family soon after the younger daughter was born.¬† Her mother held a job with the telephone company and her stepfather was a computer operator for the city’s library system.¬† Marsha and her sister, Cassandra, grew up in a comfortable, middle-class home with expectations that each would one day pursue careers that would afford them a similar lifestyle.
Marsha’s parents probably became¬†wary of her intentions while she was still a teenager.¬† An indifferent student, she relied on humor to bluff her way through school.¬† “I was accused of being a smart mouth,¬†so I became a smart mouth. Humor was my shield and my weapon.” ¬†She was large and rather shy as a teen; the type of person who sat in the last row and mumbled one-liners about fellow classmates and teachers.¬† “I guess my social commentary was pretty funny because I made everyone laugh,” she said.¬† “One of my principal targets were the cheerleaders.¬† I’d watch them¬†sweat through their routines and I’d say something like, ‘Imagine going through all that just to end up an¬†airhead.'”
At 17, Warfield graduated from Chicago’s Calumet High and promptly joined her mother working at the phone company.¬† She was married at age 18 and divorced after only a few months.¬† Her job with the phone company was equally short-lived and,¬†unemployed with few prospects, Warfield began to consider a career in stand-up comedy.¬† She performed for her friends, who finally dragged her to a local comedy club and persuaded her to take the stage.
In 1977 a fellow comedian helped her to land a part on The Richard Pryor Show. Unfortunately the show failed and a disappointed Warfield actually considered leaving the comedy business.¬† Then, in 1979, she pulled off a coup when she won the prestigious San Francisco National Stand-Up Comedy Competition.¬† Coincidentally, one of the comics she beat that night was a magician named Harry Anderson, the man who would later become her¬†costar on Night Court.
Warfield has continued her stand-up work, never varying her brand of humor to suit middle-of-the-road tastes.¬† The migratory life of a comedienne has not become easier for her.¬† She told the Chicago Tribune a few years ago that, even though she is now financially secure, “I don’t like traveling because I never get to see anything and I don’t get to go anywhere.¬† In every city, I know how to get from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the nightclub, and that’s it.¬† When I do get time off, I’m usually writing, working on my act and getting ready for the show.”¬† She added, “There are always problems and you get upset, but you do all of it to get back to the stage.¬† So if it’s a little inconvenient, I have to deal with it because I have to perform.”
Warfield has not remarried.¬† She lives in Los Angeles with her sister, who works as her secretary.¬† Her only true love thus far, she has discovered, is working in front of an audience.¬† “Performing is asking people you don’t know to give you a hug – and it’s devastating if they don’t like you.¬† Comedy,” she says is, “Almost like a fix,” to her and she has little to give emotionally when she leaves the stage. “Show business can be a drug, a lover and a whole lot of things,” admits Warfield.¬† “It fulfills that need.¬† I don’t need to¬†inflict that on other people.”
Herald De Paris West Coast Editor USA, Al Carlos Hernandez, talked to the comedic icon about where she has been, where she is, and where she is going.
Wow!¬† How to begin?¬† First of all, I’m not sure there was one single instance that I can remember realizing I like to make people laugh.¬† As a little kid watching comics and comedy on TV, listening to adult people (family members and friends) tell jokes, (even, and especially the ones I wasn’t supposed to hear) was something … I don’t know, special? Fun? Important?¬† All of the above?¬† You want fries with that?
Anyway, I guess I was born with a big funny bone. I got my first library card at age five or six, and the first books I remember checking out were joke/riddle books and cookbooks for kids.¬† Eating and laughing are still¬†two of my favorite pastimes.
I started doing standup as a fluke.¬† It had never occurred to me that comedy was a career anybody, especially an “around the way” girl like me, could pursue.¬† I don’t know, I guess I thought you had to be born into it, or drafted, or something. But when I read an article in the Chicago Sun-Times that Tom Dreesen, who had just broken up with his partner, Tim Reid, was hosting an “open mic” on Monday nights at a club called The Pickle Barrell, I told a dear friend from high school, Evelyn Ivory, now deceased, rest her soul, that I was going to try it.
After being married and divorced by age 20, I was just floundering around from job to job, with no college degree or any foreseeable definite goals.¬† And, though the prospect of doing standup was intriguing, I really had no idea how to do it, or even how to prepare to do it.¬† So I procrastinated until Evelyn picked me up one night out of the blue and told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to the club that very night.¬† So I basically tagged along with her, let her take the lead in signing me up and spent the majority of the night in abject terror, drinking Scotch, relieving my seemingly tiny bladder, praying, and watching the comics.¬† After a while, I started to believe Evelyn when she told me I could do this, and, at about one in the morning, after everybody but the comics and busboys left, I did.¬† And I loved it and knew that my life had changed in a very significant way.
Tom Dreesen and the other comics there were supportive and have been throughout my life and career.¬† Brad Sanders, who was also part of a comedy team back then and is now a radio actor/producer/announcer became like a big brother, both in Chicago and later in L.A., along with my “father figure,” Jimi Cook, out of Philadelphia.¬† Judy Tenuta was also part of a comedy team back then and so was Jeff Doucette.¬† We were all young and fearless and flying by the seat of our pants.
Who was supportive of your efforts in the beginning? Who were the naysayers? What was the biggest obstacle¬†that you had to overcome to move to LA?
We all knew that we would have to move to L.A. if we were serious. The city had just begun to surpass New York as the comedy mecca with the Tonight Show’s move.¬† That was the Holy Grail back then; one shot on Carson with “panel” could make a career.¬† Freddie Prinze was in the process of proving just that. Plus, The Improv had just moved there, and the Comedy Store had recently opened. In the early seventies, L.A. was the only place to be if you wanted to do standup comedy.
Richard Prior once said he used humor as a weapon. He would make people laugh so hard that it hurt. Did you use your comic skills that way? What did you learn about comedy working with Richard back in the day?
I met Richard Pryor not long after I moved to Los Angeles, through Paul Mooney who wrote for, and was friends with, him.¬† Richard was “God” then; in fact, to paraphrase John Lennon, “God” got second billing where Richard was concerned.¬† He was always supportive of me which was huuuuuge in my book. Hell, him even knowing I was alive was awesome validation.¬† For him to say he liked my work and encourage me to keep at it –¬†well, let’s just say Richard’s “Opening Act, Himself” couldn’t have gotten me to quit after that.
When you moved to LA you found a group of aspiring comics at The Comedy Store. Who are some of the people that you started with (Leno, Letterman, your sister, Elaine Boosler, etc)? Do you have any stories about them?
When Richard got his NBC show, Mooney was writing and casting. He told me and a lot of other Comedy Store regulars to come audition.¬† So Robin Williams, (who ironically looked most likely to be the next Pryor/Carlin heir at that time) Sandra Bernhard, Tim Reid, Brad Sanders, John Witherspoon, and a whole bunch of us got hired.¬† David Letterman and Jay Leno were already well on their way to becoming established, as was Andy Kaufman.¬† Robert Klein and Steve Martin were changing the whole show biz pecking order and protocol for comics back then –¬†they were working rock concerts in big venues, Carlin was already a rock star and, if I’m not mistaken, Pryor was the first guy to have a major music act (Patti LaBelle) open for him.
In the past, comics aspired to opening-act-to-headliner in nightclub status.¬† Anyway, the day Richard eloped with Deborah out of the blue, was the day I was due to have the biggest break of my life.¬† At the behest of Mooney, I had been cast in a restaurant seduction scene to be improvised onscreen.¬† We had never rehearsed, there was no dialogue, no script, and we were first up.¬† I was terrified.¬† Fortunately, we pulled it off in one take. I really don’t think take two would have been possible.
Watching Richard do standup taught me to be prepared. He was the biggest star I saw “work out” his material before recording it on vinyl or TV.¬† He also studied notes before a performance just like we all did.¬† But, to tell you the truth, I learned most of what I know from other struggling comics sharing what they learned.¬† We all used to watch each other work out and offer critiques and/or praise.¬† We encouraged each other a lot.
You were the very first African American woman stand up and you broke many barriers. What kinds of barriers did you break and how did your style of comedy change things for the female and the African American comic?
The only black woman I had ever seen do standup was Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who I loved, but she did a different kind of comedy than¬†what¬†I wanted to do.¬† In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of women doing standup, period, back then. Besides Phyllis Diller, all the other funny ladies were actresses.¬† Totie Fields was already gone by then, I think.
That’s why when I met Elayne Boosler it was a revelation.¬† I think she started about¬†six months before I did and lived in New York. By the time I got to L.A. I already knew her by reputation.¬† Watching her work, though, I felt an immediate kinship and respect. She was a woman doing standup with the courage and conviction of any man, and without sacrificing an ounce of her womanliness.¬† “Femininity” is way too wimpy a word to describe the eggs on that chick.
The women in comedy today owe women like Elayne, Judy, Sandra, Shirley Hemphill, Diane Nichols, Shelley Pryor, etc., a tremendous debt.¬† When there were no role models they forged ahead and made a way, each in her own manner.¬† They were, and are, true trailblazers.
Being black is part of who I am and I’ve certainly done my time in neighborhood bars honing my craft.¬† But I never wanted to be a “black woman” comic.¬† I’m a comedian.¬† I think most women in the field, no matter what color they are, are pretty much on the same page.¬† We just wanna do our thing, be who we are, and be judged on that basis.
Night Court was one of the best things that ever happened to me.¬† Not many people can say that their first television series was as much a pleasure as mine was.¬† Really, the minuses are so minute as not to merit mention.¬† It was an all around great experience with people I’m honored to call my friends.¬† Mostly. And even then, all things considered, it was all pretty durned good.
It seems that in the 90’s you dropped out of the spotlight. Did you get tired of the road? Did the industry change? What have you been doing over the last few years?
In 1995, after my brand new house was totaled in the Northridge earthquake, my mother, her sister, my two best friends –¬†my greatest allies and biggest supporter/cheerleaders –¬†died within¬†three months of each other.¬† In the ensuing years the “lifestyle” I was living caught up with me and recovery took a while.¬† By the time sobriety reigned, I was miles away from the spotlight, which had been amply filled by newer, younger talents.¬† Such is life and again, all things considered, any regrets I might have, have nothing to do with show biz.
Looking back on your career, do you have any regrets? Do you think you would have been a bigger act if you were not an African American female?
Everything makes me laugh, which gets me in trouble at funerals, traffic stops, and in court, but it’s been that way all my life.¬† On the whole, I think there are a lot of great young talents, but if there was one thing I could change today, it would be the segregation of comedians and comedy.¬† Black comics, sitcoms, movies exhibited in black venues to all black audiences on black networks and in black theaters seem to me to be unnecessarily limiting.¬† The talents are big enough and audiences sophisticated enough for any diverse audience in any venue to appreciate the talent of anybody, regardless of race, religion or bra size. (I just threw in a gratuitous tit reference for old time’s sake.)
What are some on the things you would like to do now and what projects you hope to do in the future?
I would hope there are some writing and performing opportunities in my future since, as far as I’m concerned, reports of my death, blah blah, blah, ala Mark Twain.¬† So I’m not ready to write my epitaph, or contemplate my legacy or my place in history, if indeed I have one.¬† Hopefully, I can turn this mountain of a bump in my career path into a molehill and go a few zillion more miles before I sleep.
Check out Marsha on Twitter;¬†http://twitter.com/MarshaWarfield