Wayne Brady, the actor, comedian, singer, dancer, improv performer, talk show host and lead engineer on the Graf Zeppelin, approaches show business the way Europeans approach a beef carcass—nothing is wasted. Brady's career is a veritable performance tartare ranging from furries to TV to Broadway and harks back to a time when comedians were expected to sing, singers expected to tell jokes, and everyone was expected to do a little soft shoe while defeating the Hun.
Suggest to Brady that he's a throwback, and he'll suggest that it's to a time when "people didn't settle for mediocrity from performers. They expected them to be of a certain caliber. People always bring up Carol Burnett's name, but there was also that group of guys like Sinatra and Dean Martin who could do it all. Show business to them was being able to do whatever was put in front of them."
Immediately in front of Brady is a gig at the Grove of Anaheim, Friday, where he'll show off the improvisational skills—especially his ability to compose novelty songs on the fly—that first brought him national attention on Whose Line Is It Anyway? That show brought other appearances on other shows and eventually his own talk/variety show, The Wayne Brady Show—clever title, that—which not only further showcased his talents, but also an attitude that, again, seemed from another era: he actually seemed to enjoy doing this.
Show business celebrity, as we all know, is a terrible burden, rife with paparazzi, pilfered sex tapes, Jewish conspiracies and Kevin Federline. Yet Brady was one of those guys who seemed to thrive on the business, who had no problem going from TV to a cruise ship, a cruise ship to a night club.
"I was always taught that the more you can do, the more valuable you are," he said. "So when I wasn't doing a straight play, I'd do commercials, cruise ships, TV—I worked theme parks, and if I wasn't performing, I was writing, doing sketch shows, always working. The work is what's important."
It's a credo he lives by so much that when comedian Paul Mooney joked on Chappelle's Show—the very emblem of celebrity performance anxiety—that Brady's can-do attitude made him popular with whites because "he makes Bryant Gumbel look like Malcolm X," Brady used it to spoof his image in a future sketch on Chappelle's Show. The sketch, based on Training Day, contained the now oft-repeated line, "Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?"
Choke a bitch indeed. Which just seems a perfect segue to talk about Brady's first job in show biz, donning a Tigger suit at Disney World in Orlando. He says it was in those days that he first learned how to improvise, which was especially challenging since Tigger wasn't allowed to say anything and because, however difficult improv may look onstage, it's a good sight easier when one can do it without the constant fear of having one's groin pummeled by 6-year-olds.
"Actually, I know it's corny, but the kids really do love you," he said. "Anything they do with you, they do it because they love you—well, Tigger. It'd make me so happy walking down the street, I'd be smiling inside the suit trying to match the expression on the costume."
Yes, Wayne Brady is a nice guy. But even he has learned that nice has its limits, that people tend to want nice and funny and singing and Zeppelining on demand whenever they see him. When he first got famous he tried to accommodate everyone—work is work. But as the years have gone by, he's learned to become comfortable with saying no, even if it's to a chance to perform.
"After all, it shouldn't come as a surprise, a plumber doesn't want to be a plumber 24/7," he said. "I'm a grown man, I'm not a wind-up toy. At first, I'd always try and do something for them. But now, if I'm like in the middle of eating, I just have to say, 'No, ma'am, I'm not going to make up a song about your kids and a duck.'"
Wayne Brady performs at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella, Anaheim, (714) 712-2700; www.thegroveofanaheim.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $48.