What a character!

John Witherspoon at Dayton Funny Bone

By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin

Photo: John Witherspoon performs Friday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. at Dayton Funny Bone

For 40 years, John Witherspoon has been stealing the show with his memorable roles in blockbuster movies, music videos and TV shows. From Willie Jones in the smash “Friday” trilogy to “Pops” on The Wayans Brothers, Witherspoon’s unforgettable patriarchs have made him a mainstay in pop culture. The Detroit-native’s current projects include playing Lloyd on Adult Swim’s Black Jesus and touring the country with his standup act, which will come through Dayton Funny Bone this Friday and Saturday.

The amiable Witherspoon recently took the time to talk on the phone with Dayton City Paper from his home in southern California. After merrily recalling time spent in southwest Ohio during his youth (“We used to go to Wilberforce, Ohio, at Central State University there and just hang out.”) and shying from talking politics (“I don’t talk about politics. I think it’s very bizarre this year. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens.”), Witherspoon got into what it really takes to become a comedian in today’s world.

Did you always know you’d be a success?

JW: Oh, no. Nothing is promised in Hollywood. Like everybody says, the word is it takes 20 years to become successful. Twenty years. People don’t understand that. It’s true. I’ve been in the business 40 years. I only started making money about 25 years ago.

What are some of the pitfalls of Hollywood?

JW: It’ll chew you up and spit you out.

But you haven’t been spat out, and you’ve managed to maintain yourself. How did you do that?

JW: My thing is, I don’t go out and hang out with the Hollywood people. I don’t do it. I want to go home. I don’t do anything. I go and I have cars that I play with. I don’t go out to Hollywood parties. I really don’t know many people in Hollywood. I just do my own thing.

Thinking about the future, what do you hope to leave behind as your legacy? How do you hope to influence the future generations of comedians?

JW: Well, you know, it’s hard for a comedian because a lot of them have to be something, someone else. My thing is, I can play myself. I’m lucky enough to play myself in all my roles. I don’t got to be nothing else. I try to be myself. A lot of guys are very boring. Their real personality is boring, so they have to put on this character. And I didn’t have to do that. I just go out there, and I’m naturally funny—thank God. I just have to come out and deliver my lines. A TV show I was on called The First Family, I play the president of the United States’ father. The president is my son, and I’m proud of him. But I can just deliver my lines and be funny. Also, the TV show I’m doing now, Black Jesus, I play a homeless guy. It’s like me being homeless! I was broke when I was coming up, so I know that role very well. I wasn’t homeless, but I was one step from being homeless, so I knew how to play Lloyd. That’s where I got my roles and stuff from because what I did when I was kid was I would ad lib in these movies, and they would tell me to stick to the script. But I would ad lib and my stuff would be so funny that they had to put it in. So the word got out that I’m a great ad-libber, so they told me to “just say what you want to say.” They don’t tell me to stick with the script anymore. When I did “Friday,” Ice Cube would send me the script a month ahead, and he said, “Do what you want with your part.” So I would re-write my part, so that’s how I did it.

So what we’re seeing on screen, that’s you?

JW: That’s really me! That’s what I told my wife, that I have no neck anymore. I look at my neck, and it’s gone. I’m going to start wearing a necklace and collar-less shirts or something like that because I can’t see my neck! They sent me the first season of Black Jesus, and I looked at about five of them the other day, and I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t have a neck!” My head is big as a watermelon now. That’s why I’m on my diet right now because I’m shocked I look like that.

I don’t know that I noticed your watermelon head.

JW: Oh my god, you got to take a look at Black Jesus and see. It’s horrible.

Well, that’s all I’m going to see now!

JW: You’ve got to look at my neck. See if you can find my neck. No neck there.

See if you can find John Witherspoon’s neck this weekend at Dayton Funny Bone, 88 Plum St. in the Greene. Performances will take place Friday, Jan. 22, and Saturday, Jan. 23, at 7:30 and 10 p.m. For tickets, please call 937.429.5233 or visit daytonfunnybone.com. 

 Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin is a writer and amateur cartographer living in Dayton, Ohio. She has been a member of PUSH (Professionals United for Sexual Health) since 2012 and served as the 2015 Chair. She can be reached at JenniferHanauerLumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com or through her website at jennerlumpkin.com.

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About Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin

View all posts by Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin is a writer and amateur cartographer living in Dayton, Ohio. She has been a member of PUSH (Professionals United for Sexual Health) since 2012 and is currently serving as Chair. She can be reached at JenniferHanauerLumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com or through her website at jennerlumpkin.com.

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