On his new sitcom, Cedric the Entertainer wants to show how you can raise a serious subject, like gentrification, yet still poke fun at it.
“The Neighborhood,” airing Mondays on CBS, stars Cedric (who also co-executive produces) and Tichina Arnold as Calvin and Tina Butler, longtime residents of a black neighborhood in Los Angeles, which shows signs of changing when a relentlessly cheery, white Midwestern couple (Max Greenfield, Beth Behrs) and their son move next door. Calvin’s wary of how the local culture will change, and airs his views — gruffly, and often — calling to mind Archie Bunker and other crotchety, obstinate sitcom characters of old.
Cedric (born Cedric Kyles), 54, is busy these days, juggling films — from comedies (“Barbershop,” “The Original Kings of Comedy”) to indie dramas (“First Reformed”) — plus TV (besides “Neighborhood” he’s also a regular on Tracy Morgan’s “The Last O.G.”) and stand-up comedy tours. He spoke by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
Q: “The Neighborhood” takes on contemporary subject matter, but still feels old-school. What classic sitcom characters inspired the series?
A: Characters we grew up on, who were both lovable and polarizing — and who we still talk about to this day, be it Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Redd Foxx on “Sanford & Son.” Characters that were free to have a specific point-of-view. And you get to see these characters grow. You think, “Wow, I can’t believe he says that.” Yet … he’s a bit endearing. So those were the things I thought would be important. And with this character, we’re flipping it on its head — it’s the African-American guy who’s stuck in his ways.
Q: It’s a delicate balance — tackling a serious subject, yet keeping it light.
A: That’s the main thing. Jim Reynolds and myself, as we partnered up, we decided we wanted to show opinion — then the other character’s opinion — and … lets not claim to be right. That keeps us from being too preachy. And it allows us to push toward lines, yet at the same time look for the funny that can spark the real conversation. As opposed to the belief that we’re smart enough to have that conversation for everyone.
Q: What’s your own experience with gentrification?
A: For me, the real thing happened with my kids’ godparents here in Los Angeles. They’re kinda in the Ladera Heights area . Not too long ago, you started seeing people out jogging late at night. You know, white people. With their families and strollers. You see the subway system move in. And so you start to say, “OK, this is interesting.” St. Louis, where I’m from, was always…racially divided. It hasn’t changed much. Blacks pretty much stay on the North Side, whites stay on the South, and there’s very little mixture either way.
Q: I’ve got to say, I was drawn to your show because I’ve lived it. I moved to Harlem years ago when there weren’t very many white people there. I loved all the old mom-and-pop shops, the jazz clubs. I hate seeing them disappear, so I get how frustrated your character, Calvin, must be.
A: That’s great. That’s the position we want to be in. We know when you pick a home and you like a place and it’s affordable for you, it’s not necessarily a choice that says, “I’m leading the charge — here I come, guys, and I’m about to open up the door for everyone else.” It’s this unintentional thing. As the show grows, we don’t want to harp on the fact that it’s black and white … won’t always be the defining point of what these people are dealing with. These are just two people who have to be neighbors.
Q: What’s your advice for people like me, who may bring change unintentionally?
A: You have to live in your truth. Be authentic. Be respectful of the neighborhood and the circumstances. Hear people out. You have to be in the mix and be a part of the neighborhood.
Q: One last thing — I hear you’re still doing stand-up gigs, even while shooting this new series. How do you have the energy?
A: Man, I’m a junkie for entertainment. We rehearse here today, I jump on a plane tonight, perform in Mississippi tomorrow night, hop on a plane and fly back home Sunday, and hang out with the family. Then I’ll be back at work Monday. It’s just what I do, man.
Q: And you can still focus?
A: Yeah, I got my jet lag down. I can sleep on a plane like it’s a Sleep Number bed.
Q: Well, I guess it’s better to be too busy than not, right?
A: I always say — I’m just better lookin’ at it than lookin’ for it.
(Article written by Joseph V. Amodio)