Wayans, Keenen Ivory

views updated

Keenen Ivory Wayans


Born June 8, 1958, in New York, NY; son of Howell (a retail manager) and Elvira (a homemaker) Wayans; married Daphne Polk, June 16, 2001 (separated, 2004); children: Jolie Ivory Imani, Keenen Jr., Nala, Bella. Education: Attended Tuskegee Institute.


Homem—Los Angeles, CA. Agentm—The Gold/Miller Company, 9220 Sunset Blvd., Suite 320, Los Angeles, CA 90069.


Comedian, actor, director, producer, and screenwriter. Began career as a stand-up comedian at various comedy clubs in New York, NY, and Los Angeles, CA. Cofounder, with Shawn and Marlon Wayans, of Wayans Bros. Entertainment and SMK Merchandising. Actor in television shows, including Irene (pilot), 1981, For Love and Honor (series), 1983-84, and In Living Color, 1990-92; guest on specials, including Motown Thirty: What's Goin' On!, 1990, Comic Relief V, 1991, The Fifth Annual American Comedy Awards, 1991, The Real Malcolm X, 1992, and BET Comedy Awards, 2004; guest on series, including Cheers, 1982, Benson, 1986, A Different World, 1987, and My Wife and Kids, 2001; executive producer and host of The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, 1997-98. Actor in films, including Star 80, 1983, Hollywood Shuffle, 1987, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, 1988, A Low Down Dirty Shame, 1994, Glimmer Man, 1996, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, 1996, Most Wanted, 1997, and Scary Movie, 2000; producer of films, including Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, 1996, Most Wanted, 1997, Scary Movie, 2000, and White Chicks, 2004; director of films, including I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, 1988, A Low Down Dirty Shame, 1994, Scary Movie, 2000, Scary Movie 2, 2001, and White Chicks, 2004.


Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, Screen Writers Guild.

Awards, Honors

Emmy Award for outstanding variety, music, or comedy program, American Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1990, for In Living Color; Emmy Award nominations for outstanding writing in a variety or music program, 1990 and 1991, and outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program, 1991, all for In Living Color; BET Comedy Award for outstanding writing, 2004, for White Chicks.



(With Robert Townsend; and actor) Hollywood Shuffle, Samuel Goldwyn, 1987.

(With Eddie Murphy and Robert Townsend; and producer) Eddie Murphy Raw (sketch portions), Paramount, 1987.

(And actor and director) I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, 1988.

(With Robert Townsend) The Five Heartbeats, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1991.

(And actor and director) A Low Down Dirty Shame, Dimension Films, 1994.

(And executive producer) Most Wanted, Ivory Way Productions/New Line Cinema, 1997.

(With Xavier Cook, Andy McElfresh, Michael Anthony Snowden, Marlon Wayans, and Shawn Wayans; and producer and director) White Chicks, Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures, 2004.


(With Robert Townsend; and actor and executive producer) Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime (special), HBO, 1987.

(And executive producer) Hammer, Slammer, and Slade (pilot), ABC, 1990.

(With others, and creator, actor, and director) In Living Color (series), Fox, 1990n—92.


(Author of foreword) Nelson George, In Living Color: The Authorized Companion to the Fox TV Series, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1991.


Beginning his career as a stand-up comedian, Keenen Ivory Wayans has since demonstrated what can happen when ambition and talent come together. His work pokes fun at racial, cultural, and ethnic stereotypes. In addition to producing, directing, and acting in motion pictures, he has also written many of his own screenplays and has starred and acted in the popular television series In Living Color, which aired during the early 1990s. As Wayans explained to Ebony interviewer Aldore Collins, "I will never get tired of doing comedy. Writing and directing are things I didn't really see myself doing. I only wanted to be a performer, a comedian. But because of the scarcity of projects, I realized that I would have to write." With films such as White Chicks and I'm Gonna Get You Sucka, Wayans treats fans to his controversial, cutting-edge humor, while sometimes also angering more sensitive critics.

Born in the Harlem section of New York City in 1958, Wayans grew up in sometimes challenging circumstances. His father had a career in sales, while his mother was a homemaker. The family lived in a tenement until Wayans was six years old; then they moved into a predominantly white housing project, where the children shared three rooms. It was while watching black actor and comic Richard Pryor delivering a stand-up performance on the family television that Wayans decided that he, too, would be a comedian; in his private moments hiding in a bedroom closet, Wayans dreamed about a future as an entertainer. Pryor was an inspiration for several reasons, not just because he had "made it" as a professional. "He was doing routines about being poor, about looking for money, about being beaten up by the school bully," explained Wayans to New York magazine contributor Dinitia Smith. "It was all happening to me at the time."

Dreams Nurtured by Supportive Family

As the second oldest of ten children, Wayans had the benefit of a ready-made and enthusiastic fan club. This family support and encouragement was crucial; it provided him the opportunity to develop his unique brand of comedy and to practice for a career in the entertainment business. In fact, humor was a main ingredient in Wayans family traditions. Recalling the tradition of making each other laugh at dinnertime, Wayans told Smith: "All of us sitting around the table, the food would just fly out of our mouths! We'd love it when someone would get mad. That's where we get the edge to our comedy."

Because of his flare for comedy, Wayans gained a reputation during high school. "I was a tall, gangly, Afro-wearing teenager who figured his best shot at attracting girls was by making them laugh," he confessed to Hollywood Reporter writer Christopher Vaughn. At school, Wayans and his younger brother Damon were inseparable, rattling off jokes as a team; they made up characters and acted them out for their friends and family. Some of these characters eventually made their way into Wayans's television show In Living Color, which also starred Damon.

Avoiding the drugs and alcohol that waylaid other teens in his high school, Wayans worked long hours as a McDonald's manager to help support his parents and siblings. After graduation, he won a scholarship to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, where he considered studying engineering. "I had such culture shock down there," he admitted of his college experience to Interview contributor Kevin Sessums, describing Tuskegee's small-town setting. He continued to refine and develop his unique stand-up style in college, and after his junior year he left to follow his dream of becoming a comedian.

Returning to New York, Wayans headed for the top: the well-known Improv, where he met Robert Townsend and a sixteen-year-old actor and comedian named Eddie Murphy. As Wayans recalled to Smith, Murphy remarked: "'I thought I was the only funny black guy in New York. Now I see there are two.'" Later in the two men's careers, Wayans would help write Murphy's concert film Eddie Murphy Raw, which was the most lucrative concert film produced to date when it was released in 1987.

Films Hollywood Shuffle

In 1980 Wayans decided to expand his comedic audience; he moved west to Los Angeles, where he continued stand-up while also scouting for parts in motion pictures and television. Landing only an occasional television role, he decided to venture into filmmaking, which he believed was also more conducive to his outlandish form of comedy. The lack of quality acting roles for African Americans was also a motivator. Wayans and Townsend increased acting opportunities for black comicsm—as well as providing black audiences with some fresh humorm—with their collaborative 1987 motion picture, Hollywood Shuffle.

Townsend explained the objective for Hollywood Shuffle to Ebony reporter Marilyn Marshall: "The majority of [acting roles for African Americans] . . . are bogus," he maintained, noting that most roles are based on racial stereotypes. "Yet people fight for them, and in Hollywood Shuffle, I spoke up and said, 'That's not right.' And I tried to do it in a funny way." A satire, the film revolves around struggling actor Bobby Taylor (Townsend), who works at a hot dog stand to support himself. Because Taylor realizes that an African American's chances of landing a decent role in a Hollywood film are practically nonexistent, he accepts a leading role as a pimp in a blaxploitation filmm—a genre capitalizing on the portrayal of dubious black stereotypes, such as pimps, drug dealers and addicts, murderers, and thieves. The movie, Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge, is being written, produced, and directed by white people. The black actors are trained and coached by whites to act more "black."

Disheartened by his role and the fact that he has "sold out," Taylor imagines himself in satirical situations. For example, he envisions an acting school where black people are taught "black" characteristics by white people; defeats a bully named Jerry Curl (Wayans) by confiscating his curl activator; reviews blaxploitation films in a spin-off of film reviewers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's popular PBS television show At the Movies; stars in a blaxploitation film called Rambro: First Youngblood; and becomes a victim of ridicule by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for acting in blaxploitation films. Following his dream sequences, Taylor realizes he has doubts about his involvement in Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge and quits. He also pleads for the other minority cast members to leave the production. Later he auditions for a more tolerable acting role as a mailman in a commercial.

Hollywood Shuffle received generally positive reaction from critics. In New Republic Stanley Kauffmann dubbed it a "lively, knowledgeable film," and Armond White wrote in Film Comment that the movie "offers a shrewd look at Hollywood's benighted attitudes and nonthinking." "Hollywood Shuffle is an exhilarating blast of anger and disgust. Much of it is wildly funny," wrote David Denby in his review for New York.

Teams up with Family Members

Following the success of Hollywood Shuffle, Wayans went solo in creating a satire of blaxploitation films released as I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. Writing, directing, and acting in the film, he also cast siblings Damon and Kim in the comedy, which like Hollywood Shuffle pokes fun at Hollywood stereotyping. As he told Sessums, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka was not intended to "satiriz[e] black people but bad moviemaking."

In the film, Jack Slade (Wayans) goes on leave from the U.S. Army and returns to his hometown of "Any Ghetto, U.S.A." to investigate his brother Junebug's death. When he realizes his brother died as a result of wearing too many gold chains, Slade uncovers the whereabouts of a gold-chain pusher named Mr. Big, and vows to attack Big's operations and avenge Junebug's death. While help comes from 1970s blaxploitation film stars Jim Brown and Isaac Hayes, these film heroes have lost their edge; in battling the bad guys they end up creating chaos, and eventually Slade finds himself fighting alone, aided only by his doting mother.

When asked by Rolling Stone contributor Jill Feldman if I'm Gonna Git You Sucka is actually an example of the genre it attempts to parody, Wayans reflected: "There's really no such thing as blaxploitation. Blaxploitation is just an action-adventure movie with black men in the lead." Many critics agreed, giving the film rave reviews. Stuart Klawans wrote in the Nation that "no joke is too dumb, no pose too embarrassing, in this amiably slapdash and utterly engaging story." Despite the decision of the film's producer, United Artists, to market the movie to predominately black audiences, the film proved successful, grossing nearly seven times its production costs.

Propels Black Films into Limelight

After attending a screening for I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Fox television signed Wayans to produce a television program over which he could have full creative control. In 1990 In Living Color hit the airwaves and wowed audiences, the program's skit format drawing comparison to veteran sketch show Saturday Night Live. Featuring four of Wayans' siblings in its cast of actors, In Living Color consists of bawdy comedy skits parodying television shows and commercials, motion pictures, black stereotypes and culture, and celebrities, especially prominent black figures; it also features dancing by a group called the Fly Girls and performances by guest musicians. As Jeffrey Ressner wrote in Rolling Stone, In Living Color "is about raunch and being raunchy." As Wayans explained to Smith, the program "shows people different sides of black life and black culture. It's important that I do it honestly. I don't just show the black bourgeoisie or professionalsm—or criminals. I try to show every side of black life."

Breaks "Color Barrier" in Television

While In Living Color received generally favorable reviews, it was criticized by some critics for emphasizing stereotypes. The "Homeboy Shopping Network" sketch, for example, plays on the stereotype that blacks are hoodlums; it features two young black men who sell stolen goods. Another, "The Equity Express Card: Helping the Right Sort of People," presents a wealthy black man having problems using a credit card. Wayans also unsettled feminists, who objected to jokes about women's breasts, shaving, and tampon use. One such segment, a parody of a women's talk show, ends with women clawing at each other. Not to be left out, members of the gay community also voiced complaints, citing the characterizations in the "Men on Film" skit, in which two gay black men review movies. Some viewers felt that this segment, in which actors speak with feminine voices and rave about the physical attributes of male leading men, present a dubious portrait of gay men. Responding to such criticisms in Newsweek, Wayans noted: "If the show picked on only one group, I could understand people being uptight. But we get everybody."

Despite the varied criticisms, In Living Color was described as a "groundbreaking comedy show" by Entertainment Weekly contributors Alan Carter and Juliann Garey, while New York reviewer Smith called the top-ranking show "a surprise hit." After almost three years of producing In Living Color, Wayans and Fox officials became entangled in a dispute over the rerun syndication of the show, and in December of 1992 Wayans decided to leave the show. "It was absolutely the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," he told Carter and Garey.

His flirtation with television over, Wayans returned to the big screen with 1994's A Low Down Dirty Shame, which he also wrote and directed. In the film Wayans plays Andre Shame, a former narcotics officer turned sleuth who is given the opportunity to settle an old score with a powerful drug lord. People contributor Leah Rozen characterized the movie as "an action film that's funnier and more entertaining than it has any right to be," while Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman noted that Wayan's "slightly impersonal, smart-mouthed effrontery makes him a winning action hero."

Taking time out to act, Wayans took on roles in Steven Seagal's The Glimmer Man as well as the 'gangsta' film parody Don't Be a Menace to SouthCentral While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, the latter written by brothers Marlon and Shawn Wayans. He also landed the starring role in Most Wanted, for which he also served as writer and producer. In the 1997 film, U.S. Marine Sergeant James Dunn, leader of a covert operations team, goes on the run after he is falsely accused of assassinating the nation's first lady. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Michael Sauter called Most Wanted "a pleasant surprise for junk-movie junkies."

Balances Film and Television Career

In 1997 Wayans returned to televison, this time as the host of the late-night talk show, The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show. Though Wayans garnered praise for his workm—People critic Terry Kelleher described him as "relaxed and confident," and Newsweek contributor Allison Samuels wrote that his "comedy sketches are naturally funny"m—the show lasted less than a year.

Wayans next stepped behind the camera to direct the wildly popular 2000 film Scary Movie and its sequel, Scary Movie 2, which appeared in 2001. Written by Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Scary Movie is "a send-up of such Hollywood darlings as the teen-horror genre (Scream), the teen-romance genre (Dawson's Creek) and some other nonsacred cows like The Blair Witch Project, The Usual Suspects, and The Matrix," observed Jess Cagle in Time. According to Variety critic Joe Leydon, the raunchy comedy "is practically guaranteed to make you laugh until you're ashamed of yourself." Within weeks of its release, Scary Movie became "the highest-grossing film in box-office history directed by a Black man," noted a contributor in Jet. Like its predecessor, Scary Movie 2, another box-office success, also contains "a gleeful ability to poke fun at any sacred cow (this time, the disabled) and a nearly supernatural way of spinning the latest pop culture references on their heads," Robert Koehler stated in Variety.

Continuing to feed the demands of fans of his irreverent humor, Wayans cowrote, produced, and directed White Chicks, a 2004 comedy starring Marlon and Shawn as federal agents who go undercover disguised as white women to prevent the kidnapping of a pair of socialites. "Most of the best jokes are at the expense of unhip white folks or vacuous, rich ho-bags, driven by reverse racial stereotyping," explained Variety critic David Rooney, the critic adding that Wayans also "saves a few digs for black dudes and their treatment of pale-skinned trophies." "White Chicks not only scrambles lines of race and gender but does riffs on class, sex, etiquette, high society and catfights that you wouldn't believe," added Kirk Honeycutt in the Hollywood Reporter.

Since beginning his film work in the early 1990s, Wayans has constantly tested and stretched the barriers confronting African-American entertainers, and within only a decade has watched blacks make it to the forefront of the U.S. entertainment industry. As he told Allison Samuels in Newsweek, his was "the first generation to really benefit from the civil-rights movement, so we had hope for black Hollywood that wasn't there before. We saw no closed doors." Reflecting on his success, Wayans told Samuels: "It's a good feeling, and myself and Eddie [Murphy] and the other guys have all had the chance to feel it. Sometimes we get together and even fall out about the stuff we're doingm—who's got the biggest box office, or the most offers that week. But we always get over it. We've all won."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 18. Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Contemporary Film, Theater, and Television, Volume 41, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.

George, Nelson, In Living Color: The Authorized Companion to the Fox TV Series, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1991.

Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.


American Film, July-August, 1989.

Chicago Tribune, December 14, 1988; December 18, 1988.

If you enjoy the works of Keenan Ivory Wayans

If you enjoy the works of Keenan Ivory Wayans, you may also want to check out the following:

The films of Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Steve Harvey, and Eddie Murphy.

Ebony, July, 1987; October, 1990; December, 1994, Aldore D. Collier, "Keenan Ivory Wayans Bounces Back," pp. 86-88.

Entertainment Weekly, January 15, 1993; December 9, 1994, Owen Gleiberman, review of A Low Down Dirty Shame, p. 48; July 21, 1995, p. 70; January 26, 1996, Bruce Fretts, review of Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, p. 40; September 12, 1997, Ken Tucker, review of The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, p. 120; October 10, 1997, Bruce Fretts, review of In Living Color, pp. 76-77; October 24, 1997, Ty Burr, review of Most Wanted, p. 46; July 21, 2000, "Scare Tactics," p 10; December 22, 2000, Fred Schruers, "Wayans Brothers," p. 34.

Family Circle, April 27, 1993, Jill Brooke Coiner, "Brother and Sister Act: How the Wayans Family Works Together," pp. 45-46.

Film Comment, March-April, 1987.

Hollywood Reporter, January 25, 1989; June 23, 2004, Kirk Honeycutt, review of White Chicks, pp. 14-15.

Interview, December, 1988.

Jet, January 16, 1989; September 10, 1990; November 12, 1990; November 26, 1990; December 28, 1992; May 2, 1994; November 14, 1994, pp. 36-39; August 14, 2000, "Wayans Brothers' Comedy Style a Hit in Scary Movie," p. 58.

Life, January, 1991.

Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1990; February 23, 1992; March 26, 1993.

Nation, February 13, 1989.

New Republic, May 4, 1987; March 6, 1989.

Newsweek, May 21, 1990; August 18, 1997, Allison Samuels, "Bring in 'da Night: Hip-hop Talk from Quincy and Keenan," p. 66; July 9, 2001, Allison Samuels, "Scared Silly," p. 54.

New York, April 6, 1987; October 8, 1990.

People, December 12, 1988; June 11, 1990; December 5, 1994, Leah Rozen, review of A Low Down Dirty Shame, p. 18; September 1, 1997, Terry Kelleher, review of The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, pp. 15-16; October 27, 1997, Leah Rozen, review of Most Wanted, p. 20; November 15, 1999, "Damon, Marlon, Keenen & Shawn Wayans," p. 196; June 28, 2004, Desa Philadelphia, "Q&A Wayans Brothers," p. 77.

Rolling Stone, November 3, 1988; April 23, 1992.

Savoy, August, 2001, Kristal Brent Zook, "Funny Business," pp. 52-56.

Time, April 27, 1987; August 18, 1997, James Collins, review of The Keenan Ivory Wayans Show, p. 77; July 10, 2000, Jess Cagle, "Living Off-Color: Taking a Stab at Horror," p. 100.

TV Guide, June 2, 1990.

USA Today, January 26, 1989; April 13, 1990; April 17, 1990; June 27, 1990; October 26, 1990; January 11, 1993.

US Weekly, April, 1999, Josh Rottenberg, "The Color of Funny," p. 21; July 16, 2001, Andrew Johnston, review of Scary Movie 2, p. 61.

Variety, April 18, 1990; December 3, 1990; December 24, 1990; November 28, 1994, p. 94; July 10, 2000, Joe Leydon, review of Scary Movie, p. 19; July 9, 2001, Robert Koehler, review of Scary Movie 2, p. 21; June 28, 2004, David Rooney, "Cheeky Chicks a Broad Comedy," pp. 31-32.

Wall Street Journal, April 11, 1994.

Washington Post, June 29, 1989; July 1, 1990; October 7, 1990.


Internet Movie Database,http://www.imdb.com/ (July 5, 2005), "Keenan Ivory Wayans."*