Master impressionist. Successful stand-up comic. Chart-topping singer. Terrell’s Jamie Foxx may be a sitcom star, but he’s so much more than that.
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ON A SATURDAY NIGHT IN MAY, Jamie Foxx was booked to play the Majestic Theatre in Dallas for his last show in an eleven-month national tour. It was a big night for the star of the WB network’s The Jamie Foxx Show: His performance was being taped, hopefully for an upcoming comedy special, and beyond that, it was a homecoming of sorts. The thirty-year-old grew up down the road in Terrell, and Dallasites sporting pale blue suits with leopard collars, pink suits with black shirts, and sequined dresses of every conceivable color enthusiastically filed in to greet him.
A few minutes before nine, clad in a fitted royal blue velveteen shirt and white trousers, Foxx strode out to center stage with the self-assurance of someone who knew he would soon be entertaining 1,600 fans. And, indeed, within the first sixty seconds, he had the entire house on its feet, dancing and calling out to him. Between bits of rousing commentary and even some singing, he offered up the sort of rapid-fire, dead-on impressions that won him raves on the FOX network’s early nineties variety show In Living Color. He did slain rap stars Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, actor Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby as a gangster, and an absurdly beatific Jesse Jackson. He slowed for a second, fixing the crowd with a smile. “Should I do Farrakhan? Should I?” He made them beg with applause and finally ripped into the Nation of Islam leader with an idiotic grin and absurd falsetto. He was even able to pull off O.J. material that would by now seem stale from other comics. He had the loping walk down perfect, the wave, the golf swing. “I just don’t see how he could do it in front of his children,” he cracked, “but kids do get on your goddam nerves.”
Foxx was such a hit that one had to wonder why, at a landmark venue featuring a well-known comic with credits on TV (In Living Color) and in the movies (Booty Call), so few white faces were in the audience. The main reason is that in Dallas, as in most major cities, live entertainment is marketed in a racially segregated way that keeps white and “urban”—that is, black—audiences separate. In other words, many white people in Dallas didn’t know Foxx was touring. When you consider the phenomenal mainstream success of Eddie Murphy’s Raw and Delirious tours a decade ago—not to mention The Cosby Show—it seems that stand-up comedy has regressed. These days, if you’re a fledgling TV network like the WB and you’re trying to build yourself by going after a young, urban audience—as FOX did—and the star of your number one urban show is coming to town, promoters spend their money letting the black radio stations and black neighborhoods know it. Nothing personal; it’s just business. “It’s a money thing,” Foxx himself says. “You have to make a choice: hit our audience first.” (Hit it he did. Foxx’s tour grossed close to $5 million; the only black comic to make more doing a single stint on the road is Murphy.)
Backstage, between shows, Foxx expounds on the race issue, offering the major reason he was compelled to go out on the road: to generate interest among network executives in his two-year-old show, in which he plays a show biz hopeful from Texas who works at his family’s Hollywood hotel. “Some of the execs just don’t get you, so they back off from you,” he says. “They’ll let a show die. They don’t feel that African American shows are worthy of advertisement as far as white people are concerned. ‘Oh, it’s a black show. That’s all it’s ever going to be.’ I keep screaming at the top of my lungs, ‘You don’t understand! I’ve been to Boise, Idaho! I’ve been to Davenport, Iowa! Those people come out for me!’ When you have an urban show, you have to promote it like it’s a club. You have to go get out there and say, ‘Hey, we’re on Sunday nights.’”
But even Foxx suggests that although his audiences in some places—like Los Angeles—are a laughing rainbow coalition, whites and blacks generally want to hear different jokes, or at least different spins on jokes. He has a hilarious, searing bit about the uproar over Princess Diana’s death. He starts it by allowing that although her passing was sad and all, Di wasn’t exactly the black people’s princess. “I just wanted to feel bad because everyone else was feeling bad,” he tells the audience. “Man, you bullshittin’. Diana Ross is dead?” The joke kills in Dallas, but Foxx says that when he did it for a mostly white crowd in Las Vegas, he changed the race angle to a nationalist one (“We’re Americans! Do we give a shit?”). “In our culture, whether you want to put skin or where you come from into it, those are the types of things you want to hear when you go out,” he says. “You can’t blame people for wanting to hear what they want to hear.”
Who knew success would mean this much work? Not Foxx, who has always had in abundance the things that elude so many others: natural talent, self-assurance, agility, charm with the opposite sex. Born Eric Bishop—he changed his name in 1990 on the comedy circuit—he grew up a golden boy in tiny Terrell (population: 14,000). He was raised by his devoted maternal grandparents, who adopted him after his parents split up when he was seven months old, and spent every afternoon at the New Hope Baptist Church. “Though we were broke, I had a great childhood,” he says. “No killing, none of that. Just good fun. It wasn’t a ’hood back then. It was a neighborhood.” By age fifteen he began to find outlets for his first love: music. As the choir leader and music director at New Hope Baptist, he played the piano every week during services—“I was making seventy-five dollars a Sunday. Church is big time!”—and he and his friends started a “terrible” R&B band called Leather and Lace. But he also entertained his teammates on the Terrell High School football and track teams with impressions of the coaches.
After graduating, he enrolled at U.S. International University in San Diego on a music scholarship. He would often drive up to Los Angeles on the weekends, and one night he and his girlfriend found themselves at an open-mike night at a comedy club. All it took was a dare from her, and Foxx was up onstage doing Cosby, Ronald Reagan, and Mike Tyson. “It was the most incredible feeling,” he remembers. “It was, ‘Okay, I think I know what I want to be right now.’”
Foxx dived into stand-up and within a year won the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition in Oakland. He signed with a manager and an agent and quickly found himself in a supporting role on the drama Roc. After one season, he left that show and joined the cast of In Living Color. As Foxx readily admits, there were practically no mythic moments of struggle for him back then (save for a brief stint selling shoes at Thom McAn.) “You know what, man?” he says matter-of-factly. “I went from going to college on a music scholarship and playing modern jazz for the dance class, where I was making sixteen dollars an hour, to Los Angeles doing jokes. And the next thing you know, I was making thousands of dollars a week.”
That was in 1991, the tail end of the comedy boom. Foxx would go to Atlanta, the hot stand-up town at the time, and stay a week, playing to packed houses at the Comedy Act Theater. Other comics called him “the stand-up kid” because he got standing ovations every night. “It was ridiculous,” he says. “We were having a great time. People sharing seats; four hundred, five hundred people soaking it up.” It was during one of those Atlanta shows that Foxx hatched Wanda the Ugly Woman, his signature character on In Living Color. “I ran out of material one night,” he recalls, “so I said, ‘All the good-looking women clap your hands! Now, all the ugly women . . .’ I was surprised it went that big. I think what it was, was she would actually get sad. She had emotions. She was a woman.”
On the strength of Wanda and other In Living Color bits, HBO gave him a one-hour special, Straight From the Foxxhole, in 1993. He also managed to get a recording contract with now defunct Twentieth Century Fox Records; his 1994 debut album, Peep This, rose as high as number twelve on Billboard’s R&B charts. And he began to land movie roles: a bit part alongside Janeane Garofalo and Uma Thurman in 1996’s The Truth About Cats and Dogs, the lead in 1997’s Booty Call.
Foxx was recently in Saskatchewan shooting another comedy, Inconvenienced. When that wrapped, he returned home to his apartment in Las Vegas, a respite from the hectic life in Hollywood. “Vegas is a little like Texas,” he says. “It’s a desert; it’s hot. When you just want to live a regular life, being in Vegas is more regular. You’ll actually see a 1979 Monte Carlo or a Grand Prix. Out in L.A., everyone has to have the latest thing. When you’re thirty, you get a little tired of doing the young thing. You want to chill out, know who your neighbors are, and speak to them.”
But L.A., Foxx knows, is good for business. He’s back there now shooting more episodes of The Jamie Foxx Show. He’s started looking for a new record label. He’s making long-term plans to distribute his new comedy special, and he’s shrugging off the pressures of “crossover” and remaining a hit as only Terrell High class of 1986’s most talented senior could. “You just try to be as funny as you can,” he says. “Universally.”