This week, Tracy speaks with the multi-talented actor and director Robert Townsend. They talk about the classic "Hollywood Shuffle," his love of superheroes, and directing Beyoncé in the cult classic "Carmen: A Hip Hopera." Also, Tracy shares her love of Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold.
This week, Tracy speaks with the multi-talented actor and director Robert Townsend. They talk about the classic "Hollywood Shuffle," his love of superheroes, and directing Beyoncé in the cult classic "Carmen: A Hip Hopera." Also, Tracy shares her love of Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold.
Tracy: Welcome to Strong Black Legends, the show where we give flowers to the legends of black film and television, brought to you by Netflix and Strong Black Lead. I am your host Tracy Clayton, the pre-ex-wife of André 3000. And I know what you’re thinking. It’s okay. We still love each other. We’re great friends. We’re co-parenting excellently because you just don’t throw away a love like that, you know? I guess you could say he’s my prototype.
Tracy: It has been so much fun watching everybody tweet at Strong Black Lead and #StrongBlackLegends with suggestions for who else we should interview, because sometimes you actually get it right, sometimes. Does not happen often. I suppose that’s because there are so many amazing people to choose from. But I will tell you that you actually got some right, and here is one. Folks, friends, family, and etc., I know you-all know about Robert Townsend, but what you-all know about Robert Townsend?
Robert: A lot of times people are afraid to go after their dreams because they’re surrounded by negative people or, you know, we all have insecurities as artists, and it’s like, can you conquer your insecurities to live your dream?
Tracy: Yes, yes, I know, I know. I can feel your excitement, and I cannot believe it either. So basically like everybody else that we’ve had on the show so far, he has been responsible for or involved in so many of my favorite things, but also in the most educational and like informative parts of my media life, right? Hollywood Shuffle, for example, and in my opinion is one of the best and most important black movies that my blackass eyes have ever seen at least. And I feel like that’s a great barometer for something’s greatness.
The movie, if you haven’t seen it, it’s basically about the messed-up way that Hollywood works when it comes to race. It’s kind of sad that it holds up so well, but such is America, for better or for worse. Anyway, you will be able to hear the reason that I loved doing this interview so much. And it’s because he trolls me pretty much the entire interview. But luckily, I’m from a family of trolls. If any of my family is listening now, I mean that lovingly. And trolling is my love language. It’s how I know that someone cares.
I started this interview very nervous, and if you’re beginning to sense a pattern, it’s because I am the Beyoncé of mood disorders. But thankfully, he soon loosened up, and then I loosened up. And then he started trolling me, and then I felt like I was at home with my family, my lovely sardonic, sarcastic family. But just like family, at the end of the interview, he gave me the warmest hug, and that is not just me projecting. I really think that he likes me because he said that we were like family, too.
So that’s it. I’m going to see you at the reunion, Uncle Robert. I miss you. So please, please get into and enjoy this interview with my Uncle Robbie. He’s so crazy.
Tracy: Mr. Robert Townsend, do you know how incredibly crazy it is that I am sitting across from this table and like looking at you in the face?
Robert: Oh, bless your heart.
Tracy: It’s nuts.
Robert: Bless your heart.
Tracy: It is so nuts. It is. I feel like this whole series is just me screaming about, ahh, meeting people that I never thought that I would meet. So thank you for making my day and thank you for being here.
Robert: Thank you so much for having me.
Tracy: Question one, do you want to know how I prepared for this interview?
Tracy: Good, because if you said no, you would have ruined the thing. Okay. So I’m in my hotel room, right, and I’m looking over my questions. And I’m like, okay, I should like talk out the questions and like, you know, looking through whatever. And so I go to the mirror and I look. I go, “Tommy. I love this dude, baby.”
Robert: I didn’t know you were going to go there. Okay.
Tracy: It’s just my favorite thing, Hollywood Shuffle, like—I feel like it’ll sound like I’m being extra if I say that it changed my life, but it kind of did, sort of, I think. We’ll get into that a little bit later though. Real questions now. So you were born and raised—well, you were raised in Chicago—
Tracy: ...during the Civil Rights Movement by a single mom. What do you wish that people knew about Chicago?
Robert: When I think of Chicago—you know, I grew up in the hood, but I always considered it glorious and beautiful and—You know, it’s so funny because, you know, when people think of it as nasty or the gangs and all of that, you know, yeah, but I think in all communities, you have that other side. I think the misconception about Chicago is that there’s so much poverty and everything is wrong, but there’s a lot of beautiful people.
And where I came from, you know, it’s like the neighborhood—the village raised the village. You know what I mean? It takes a village to raise a child, you know, and it’s like, there was a community. Everybody cared. And so that’s what I really remember, and I think that’s what I would really send the message and say, you know, don’t judge a book by its cover because you hear about a few things. But my childhood, I just have the best memories of growing up. And, you know, when you don’t know what’s in everybody else’s refrigerator, you don’t know what you’re missing. So as a kid, you know—
Tracy: I love it.
Robert: ...I had no idea, but we—you know, we had love and we had God. And that was the most important thing.
Tracy: Got to feed the soul. I love it. What was baby Robert like? Like when you were younger, what kind of kid were you?
Robert: When I was a kid, I was—because I lived in a rough neighborhood, I would rush home from school, and all I did was watch television. And so back then, when I was like eight years old, my nickname was “TV Guide” because I watched so much television. I could tell you everything about TV. So I was this kid that saw the world through television. And I watched everything on television, even PBS.
Tracy: Wow. As a kid.
Robert: So as a little bitty kid, I had this vocabulary like none other and an appetite for the world because of what I saw through that little black-and-white television.
Tracy: What were your favorite shows when you were younger?
Robert: Oh, man. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Guns of Will Sonnet with Walter Brennan, Wizard of Oz, you know. And when I was a kid—this is where, you know—like everybody talks about how did you get started in show business. I discovered that God had given me a gift as a little kid. There was a time the television went off.
Tracy: I remember that.
Robert: And when television went off, I discovered that I could do characters and impressions, and that’s when I was really born as an artist. And I was like nine years old.
Tracy: So is that when you were like, I’m going to become a filmmaker? Is that when you knew what you were going to do?
Robert: No, no. I wanted to be an actor, and that’s when I first discovered like, “Oh, my god. I want to play different characters. I want to try different things.” And it was in that moment that I found theater. So I found theater when I was like—
Tracy: The gateway drug, they say.
Robert: Yeah. 14 years old I found theater. I was a member of the Experimental Black Actors Guild, X-Bag, and that’s kind of where it started. And that started my journey.
Tracy: Talk to me about the Experimental Black Actors Guild. What was experimental about it?
Robert: You had new playwrights, new directors, you know, new actors, and we were in a 60-seat theater in the basement of this rec center. But they aspired to do the best theater ever because everybody had their eyes on New York. And so Clarence Taylor, the gentleman who ran the theater, and Chuck Smith and Paymoon Rommey [phonetic] [00:08:38], those were my first mentors. And because I saw them, you know, writing, directing, building the sets, it gave me—it planted seeds in me.
Tracy: Yeah. Was there anyone else in the guild that went on to super stardom like you did?
Robert: You know, please—
Tracy: Just you? Just you?
Robert: ...please, please. You know, I mean, there’s a lot of people that came out like—oh, Mary Alice, who is one of the finest actors—actresses ever, she was in the original Sparkle. She was in The Matrix. She’s just a brilliant actor. She came out. Felton Perry, who’s an amazing playwright and actor, came out. So just different people that graduated out of there.
Tracy: And you also did Second City in Chicago?
Robert: Yes. I studied with Jo Forsberg, improv with her, and she was Bill Murray’s improv teacher.
Robert: So I was—you know, I was a kid, like 17, 18, and I was doing theater with X-Bag as well as studying at Second City.
Tracy: What was Second City like? I always hear like amazing things about it from the people who like went through it and went to it.
Robert: You know what? I learned my manners as an actor at Second City because what they taught you was that, if you can improvise and create something from nothing, when you have the props, you could change the world. And so they—you know, you had a chair, and that chair could be a rocket ship. That chair could be, you know, whatever, you know, so you just had all these illusions and things that you created. But I learned so much by understanding the ability to create with nothing.
Tracy: What is your fondest memory of Second City?
Robert: My fondest memory...We would do improv on the main stage. And I just remember there were certain days that I started to find my characters on that stage. And it was like—when improv really works, it’s heaven. And at first I was a little nervous, and then I finally found my rhythm. And I think being on that main stage where John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and all those great improv artists started—so that was probably the highlight as a little kid in Chicago.
Tracy: Is that where you fell in love with comedy?
Robert: No. You know, I fell in love with comedy watching I Love Lucy, watching The Beverly Hillbillies, watching Green Acres, watching—
Tracy: I love Green Acres.
Robert: You know, those shows were so well written, and they still hold up. The Andy Griffith Show, you know, I mean, all of those things. Those were the shows—I Dream of Jeannie—that I think about that really made me laugh. Get Smart. You know, there were so many like just great classic comedy.
Tracy: What do you mean by classic comedy? What makes comedy classic?
Robert: The way the joke is structured. You know, there’s a setup, there’s a punch, and then there’s a few more layers that you don’t see coming. And I think that’s—because like sometimes, you know, it’s how a joke is structured. If you can, you know, set us up—and the great comedians would always do that. They would—and the great shows, they would—you know, you think you know where the episode is going, but there would be so many twists and turns along the way. And that, to me, is great writing.
Tracy: I feel like I should know this, but I’m drawing a blank. Did you ever do stand-up or ever try it?
Robert: I did stand-up for a lot of years. I started—I left Chicago when I was 18 and went to New York City. And when I got to New York City, I was doing television commercials, and I started doing stand-up in New York City. And then—
Tracy: That sounds terrifying. Of all cities.
Robert: And I was at the Improv, and back then at the Improv, Jay Leno was the emcee. You had Robin Williams; you had Billy Crystal; you had Robert Cline; you had Rodney Dangerfield. And I was on line to audition to get into the club with a young comedian named Keenen Ivory Wayans.
Robert: And so we were the only brothers there auditioning, and so we both had the dreams of comedy. So I started doing stand-up there, and then Keenen eventually helped me get into the Improv.
Tracy: Another one of my favorite movies is a movie called Cooley High, amazing movie that you were in—
Tracy: ...directed by Mike Schultz.
Tracy: Am I pronouncing that right?
Robert: Michael Schultz, yes.
Tracy: How did that experience influence you as a filmmaker?
Robert: Cooley High was my first movie that I had lines in, and it was shot in Chicago. I had two lines. And, you know, I’m a young actor and I’m doing plays and I’m at Second City. I was doing TV commercials. And then I do this movie, Cooley High. And, you know, I was all excited. And then when I saw the movie, I just remember watching it and having an experience like I had never seen a movie starring people of color that truly I felt was authentic and really resonated with me like those were my friends, that’s my mother, that’s my—I love basketball, so I was like, “How did he do that?” And it just—and the music was amazing: “How do I say goodbye to yesterday?” I mean, so—
Tracy: That scene. That scene.
Robert: The music—So for me, I was like—I didn’t know I was going to be a filmmaker, but I was like going, “This is a great movie.” And I think it planted a seed in me that later on, you know, as I started to create what—you know, the movies and television shows I’ve created, it started back there.
Tracy: Yeah. And not only was it like—not only was it a great, amazing movie, but like you mentioned, it was very financially successful. What did that mean to you as a young black actor? Like seeing a movie with black people in it and, oh, my gosh, it made a lot of money?
Robert: Well, I didn’t think so much about the money, to be honest, you know, I mean, you know, because back then nobody was savvy in terms of “box-off” grosses and all of that. I mean, Michael Schultz and probably the producers were more in line with that. As a young actor, you’re just like, “Hey, I’m in the movie, and it’s good. And people are crying or talking about it.” And I think that was the biggest takeaway for me.
Tracy: Just—I can still see Glynn in my head going, “Nigger, I know you don’t like poetry, but I’m going to read it to you anyway.” My feelings, my emotions...
Robert: Oh, my god. No, that was—that scene—I mean, Glynn—on his birthday, I just tweeted on his birthday, you know—because he’s really my idol. You know, he’s really one of my idols that I love. And his work in that was just—He did a whole full-page monologue, and then Michael Schultz told me eventually that he did it in one take.
Robert: And, you know, Glynn Turman is a theater—He was on Broadway with Raisin in the Sun playing the little boy with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.
Tracy: Ah, I didn’t know that.
Robert: He goes way back. I mean, that—he’s been acting since he was a kid. He’s a legend for real.
Tracy: Hm-hmm [affirmative]. What I really love about these interviews is that I’m learning so much stuff that I just did not know. And like I don't know what I don't know. You know what I mean?
Robert: That’s real talk. There’s a lot. There’s a lot.
Tracy: Yeah. Also during Black History Month, it’s wonderful, teaching the babies and the childrens. Okay. Hollywood Shuffle is one of my favorite movies of all time. I don’t—I think I was in college when I first watched it. And I went to—like think of the whitest college and then make it whiter. You know what I mean? Like I went to school in Lexington, Kentucky. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, and I mean, it was just like—not only was it white, but like Confederate flags everywhere and people dressed as Confederate soldiers for some reason, you know.
Tracy: I know. So that’s where I discovered Bamboozled and Hollywood Shuffle. And those two movies, they just—they just stuck with me, and that’s why I fell in love with them. So the movie, unfortunately—and fortunately I guess—still holds up today because of the state of everything. Like the black acting school, like, yes. You know? Like, ugh. So how has the industry changed since you first started?
Robert: Well, you know, here’s the thing. I think it’s a different time in Hollywood; it really is, because there are more images. So when you think in terms of the characters that Shonda Rhimes has created, you know, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, when you think in terms of the shows that are on OWN, like Queen Sugar, when you think in terms of BET and, you know, The Quad and different shows, everybody—you know and HBO, Insecure, there’s a lot of new images out there. There’s new voices. And I think that the game is changing. Is there room for more? Yes. But the game is changing, I think in a good way, though there is still baggage from the old days.
Tracy: Right, right. Do you ever worry or wonder, or am I the only one who does this, that like—And it is—it’s a worry. But like do you ever worry that this like—all these new opportunities and like more images and pictures of black people, do you ever worry that it’s like a trend? Because like the ‘90s were super, super black, you know, like all of the sitcoms that were out. And then they just went away. And then there was like super, super white again.
Robert: Well, you know, I don’t look at it that way. I just think that a new generation of filmmakers is being born every day of color. And as they are born, there will be fearless filmmakers that will take the mantle to the next level. Now the game has changed so much because technology has made everything so affordable. So now you can make a film with a iPhone if you really have the hustle. You can edit on your computer. Back in the olden days when you had to shoot with film and you had to edit on a eight-plate and you had to—
Tracy: On a who?
Robert: An eight-plate. And it was a big machine this big, and you had to rip the film and put it in a bin. So it was really—Now if you want to look at your cut, you can hit a button and see nine different versions. So I think the only thing that’s going to stop this new generation of filmmakers is just fear. Because a lot of times people are afraid to go after their dreams because they are surrounded by negative people, or, you know, we all have insecurities as artists, and it’s like, can you conquer your insecurities to live your dream?
And so I think that, you know, could this be a trend right now? Yeah. But I don’t think about that. I just know that, when I see how affordable technology has made making movies and you can shoot with digital cameras, there’s nothing to stop these—there’s a way to figure it out.
Tracy: Hm-hmm [affirmative]. Do you think that filmmakers of color, especially right now, given the current state of everything, they have a particular responsibility with the art that they create, like...
Robert: Well, see, I think everybody’s got to live in their own skin. You know, I mean, you—if you can sleep at night—I mean, I don’t tell anybody what to do. I know the code that I live by, and there’s certain things that I won’t do. And, you know, like now my daughter, Sky, she—
Tracy: I love her.
Robert: She is taking the mantle. And she is very political and very funny, and so I feel like I’ve done my job on another level because she’s creating art and she’s getting an audience fired up in a funny way and sometimes a political way.
Tracy: Oh, my gosh, hysterical. So for our listeners, if you’re not familiar, Sky, who is Robert’s daughter, does the most incredible impression of Beyoncé that I have ever heard—or seen. Like she gets the smile down and the eyes, and it’s just—
Robert: Let me explain the inside track on that.
Tracy: Oh, please do.
Robert: When Sky was a baby, one of the films I directed was Carmen, the Hip Hopera with Beyoncé.
Tracy: Familiar, hm-hmm [affirmative].
Robert: And so Sky was on set with Beyoncé, and Beyoncé was teaching her the moves from “I’m a Survivor” and just playing with them. And she looked up at her like, you know, the goddess of life and—but she looked at her so hard that she all of a sudden started doing her voice. And she would come home and say, “Beyoncé said this,” and “Beyoncé said that.” And then I was like, “You sound like her.”
Tracy: Oh, my gosh.
Robert: And then eventually, you know, as she developed into a young lady, she started—like she’s got so many different characters that she does. When I used to take them to school, we used to play characters in the car. And we would switch the radio dial to different music, like country and western or this or that, and we would play voices. And so when I see her—But she’s taken it to a whole nother level, so I’m just proud. I mean, just proud Daddy.
Tracy: It’s incredible. I don't know if this is a question that you can answer, but how do you just make yourself sound like somebody? Like can you do any impressions, like celebrity impressions?
Robert: Let me see. You know, back in the day—well, I could do the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz: “Why, I’d have never gotten my brains if it wasn’t for you.” I could do Alfred Hitchcock: “[Unintelligible] [00:21:59]. They found the body in the alleyway.” Walter Briddick [phonetic] [00:21:58]: “Well, dagnabbit, [unintelligible] [00:22:05].” I used to do about 50, 60 voices.
Tracy: How? What do you do in here that makes it sounds so like spot-on?
Robert: You know, I would watch television, and when television used to go off when I was a kid and my mother missed a show, I would do the shows for her. And so I would say, “Mama, and then—and then Jimmy Stewart was this dude that—from Washington, and he said ‘Well, well, you got to see here. Well, you see, you see’—And Humphrey Bogart said, ‘Out of all the stinking gin joints in Casablanca, she had to walk into mine.’” I mean, I could—and then, you know, I love movies. So I would do—I mean, I could do a lot of characters.
Robert: And Sky can do a lot of characters as well.
Tracy: Can you do a Beyoncé?
Robert: I can’t do Beyoncé. If I worked on it, I could.
Tracy: A challenge—I challenge you to work up a good Beyoncé. So it was Beyonce’s first movie.
Robert: It was Beyoncé’s first movie. Let me tell you this. You know, the thing about it is that MTV at the time—She was in Destiny’s Child, and MTV was kind of giving me pushback on casting her because she had never acted before. And so she had to audition. And so I was like, “You guys, I know she can do it.” And they said, “No, we don’t—we are not convinced.”
Tracy: They made Beyoncé audition?
Robert: So she flew to New York, and she shows up at the audition with the head of A&R, some woman that was like A&R executive, and a bodyguard. So she was really nervous. And so I’m like—I could see that she was sweating and she was, you know, like just nervous. And so, you know, and I think quick as a director. So I said—to the A&R woman, I said, “You’re going to be in the sketch, too,” and to the bodyguard, “You’re going to be in the sketch, too.” And the bodyguard: “Mr. Townsend, I don’t act, Mr. Townsend.” I said, “Well, you acting today.”
And so they got so nervous that she got comfortable, and then when I watched her get comfortable, then we started to play. And she was dressed in this, you know, whatever, Chanel. She was dressed in the suit, duh-duh-duh. And we did her death scene, her rolling around the floor, like 20 times doing the scenes. And as she did it again and again, I could see the makings of who Beyoncé is now, because she was fearless and she wanted it. And every day she came to the set, she was overly prepared.
Robert: So, you know, so when I think about her, you know, I was her first director, but she—you know, she’s an amazing talent. But in that audition, I saw it all.
Tracy: That is an amazing trick. Is it something that you learned from somebody else, like when you were like, “You’re going to be in a sketch” and “You’re going to be in a sketch” to like the nerves thing?
Robert: Well, starting out as an actor, I understand when an actor is getting nervous and they’re not right there and I got to calm them down. And so part of it is just calming them down. Because sometimes I think directors will, if a person gets a little nervous, you say, “Hey, you’re okay. This is really good. Let’s have fun. Let’s play with this.” And then they breathe, and then you start to have fun and you find the good stuff.
Tracy: Though The Five Heartbeats was a fictional group, did you feel like you were documenting an important era of history?
Robert: Yes, I did. Let me say this. The Five Heartbeats, people love that movie.
Tracy: Yeah. So good.
Robert: When I was a kid—it all started—Five Heartbeats really started when I was a kid and The Temptations broke up in 1968. And when they broke up—you don’t understand, like when you’re a kid and you live in the hood and times are rough and hard, that music was a saving grace. That was the thing that got us through it because the songs had hope, the songs, you know, saying a beautiful love that is only to be dreamed of. And so when they broke up, I was like—I didn’t understand. Like something went like, you know, like, “They got hit after hit, and I love them. They’re smooth. They’re cool. Why is David Ruffin leaving?”
And that stayed in my head until I became an adult. And after Hollywood Shuffle, I was like, “What do I—what’s the next movie I want to do?” And I said to Keenen, who wrote The Five Heartbeats with me, I said, “We should do a movie about what happened to The Temptations.” And that’s really how it started, because I said, “Well, how did they break up?” And so that started this journey to make The Five Heartbeats.
And it was really because of The Temptations, and then eventually—you know, I just finished a new documentary, Making The Five Heartbeats, and it’s about my journey. And it’s—I think it’s really good. And it’s just the journey of how I made the film. But in the documentary, I talk about how I wanted David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks to be my technical advisors and Fox said no because they would think that is was—
Tracy: The real ones?
Robert: The real ones.
Tracy: Wow. And they said no?
Robert: Because they said no because everybody would think it was the Motown story, and then we could get sued if they said, “Hey, oh, you’re trying to say this is Motown.”
Tracy: Got it. Got it.
Robert: But The Five Heartbeats started there.
Tracy: Interesting. Do you have any good behind-the-scenes stories or tidbits for fans? For me, basically.
Robert: Let me say this. In the documentary, you see my casting process. And I saw close to 10,000 actors to be—to find the five guys that—the four guys that would play The Heartbeats in the cast. And you see a kind of a who’s who of young actors now that are in the industry that are stars that were on line to audition. So the documentary is really kind of a master class, you know, because you see this young filmmaker, the good, the bad, the ugly. Nobody wanted to make the movie. And so people were rejecting the script, and then Keenen had to leave because he couldn’t wait any longer. And then he started doing In Living Color. And so the documentary is really the journey of how I finally finished the film.
Tracy: So you said that you saw 10,000 people when you were casting?
Robert: Hm-hmm [affirmative], yes.
Tracy: How long does that—did it take, and like how do you know when you’re like, “Okay, this is the one,” when you’re looking at so many different actors?
Robert: You know, what I would do is I would bring them in 20 people at a time. And I said, “If you sing, just sing a little bit for me.” And if somebody does a little bit of a riff, I can tell they got a strong voice in just a second, you know. And then a lot of the people didn’t know—have any monologues, I’d give them an improv. I’d say, “You’re boyfriend is leaving you. What will you say to him? You caught your boyfriend cheating on you. You know, give me something.”
And I would just throw things out, and, you know, you’d find—like I found the little girl that played my sister in The Five Heartbeats. She was on line at the Regal Theater in Chicago. And so you see her audition. And then after she sang, she inspired me and I went back to the hotel and wrote the scene that you see in the movie.
Robert: So I talk about, you know—and you see here auditioning. So you see the whole—But, you know, the thing for me is that I think a director’s job is casting, you know, finding the right talent to play the role. And when I saw the 10,000 people, there were people that are stars now that you see me talking to them in the movie. And I knew they had something, but I just didn’t know where to put them.
Tracy: So you knew that Beyoncé was going to be queen of the world basically.
Robert: Uh, yeah. You know, I mean, I think—you know, in hindsight, you go, “She’s got something, but I don't know how determined”—Well, I did know she was very determined, but I didn’t know to what degree.
Tracy: Let’s talk superheroes. You seem to have an interest in them according to media—Media Man. Golly Moses. Media Man sounds like a terrible superhero.
Robert: Media Man. He fights fake news around every corner. Media Man. That’s not a real story. Meanwhile, I will get to the bottom of this news.
Tracy: Please let me breathe at some point. Okay. So there’s Meteor Man, which is a much more interesting superhero than Media Man. And there’s Up, Up and Away, which was about an entire family of black superheroes.
Tracy: What’s your attraction to superheroes?
Robert: You know, I just love, as a director, touching different things, and I love fantasy. And Meteor Man came about because, when my nephew was really little, I was—I live in LA, and my family—you know, he was living in Chicago. And he was a little kid. He’s like six years old. And I said, “For Halloween, who are you going to be? You going to be Spiderman? You going to be Batman?” And he says, “I can’t be them because they’re white.”
And I was like—as a little kid—And I was like, “No, I love everybody. You could be whatever you want.” And then when he said that, it kind of hurt my heart. And I was like, you know what? I’m going to create a superhero of color to fill that void. And then that’s when I started to write Meteor Man and come up with the legend of, you know, Meteor Man and making a superhero from scratch.
Tracy: Were you to any degree offended when people were like, “Yay, Black Panther. We finally got a black superhero”? And you’re like, “Hello, Meteor Man.”
Robert: Well, you know, on social media people were defending me and different things. “Robert Townsend been in Wakanda for 25 years. What the hell you-all talking about?”
Tracy: They’re right though. They are right.
Robert: But here’s the thing—here’s the thing. When I see Black Panther or Luke Cage or Black Lightning, those are all my cinematic sons and daughters. They really are, because I know I planted a seed. And when I think about Black Panther making a billion dollars, you know, I was going for a billion dollars back then. It’s just that the audience didn’t catch up to the vision. And so when I created Meteor Man, I had every celebrity. I had—from Naughty by Nature to Nancy Wilson to Luther Vandross, to Robert Guillaume, Marla Gibbs, Sinbad, you know, it was a all-star cast. So, you know, but I just feel that, you know, I’ve always been a pioneer on certain levels where I try stuff that other people wouldn’t. And sometimes you get a little—it takes a moment for the audience to catch up to you sometimes when you have that kind of vision.
Tracy: Must be hard being so far ahead of the curve. Is it lonely?
Robert: It is.
Tracy: Is it lonely at the top?
Robert: It is. From The Five Heartbeats? You know what’s funny, is like people love that movie. When New Edition was getting their BET honor, Ralph Tresvant did a joke. And he went to the mike, and he says, “Hey, thank you guys, BET, for this honor. You know, I got a new album coming out next week. You know, it’s lonely at the top.” And I laughed. I laughed so hard.
Tracy: Why you laugh at Ralph Tresvant? That’s not nice. Okay. I’m not sure of this, but I think that the first time I became aware of your existence as a person on the earth was The Parent ‘Hood, which everyone loves—everyone that I knew loves. And I liked it because it was a black family that wasn’t the Cosbys. Like I liked the Cosbys, but I was just like, you know, I would like another black family to check out and check in on. That is a show that depicted a black middle-class family.
Tracy: What was it like being a sitcom dad?
Robert: It was a lot of fun. I had an agenda when I was doing The Parent ‘Hood. I created the show because I felt like there were a lot of kids in the hood like me that didn’t have fathers, and I wanted to create a role model and kind of raise a generation of kids so that, when they would go home and watch television, I would teach them old-fashioned morals and values every week. And that really was my agenda. So there were life lessons that I go—as basic as this is, kids are not being fed this anymore. And so that was my real Trojan horse, you know.
So all the lessons that I learned from Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, I was trying to instill those lessons to a generation of kids that I was touching every week through that television screen. And now I feel like I’ve been successful, because young people will come up to me and say, “You know, you were my dad.” “You know, you helped me get through a hard time.” “I was learning lessons from Zaria and CeCe and Nicholas, and how you dealt with your wife made me deal with my relationship in a healthy way.” And so, you know, sometimes, you know, it’s like you plant seeds and you say, “I hope people are watching.” And they were. But that was the real reason.
And so I felt like I did a really—I felt like I did a good job, but it was a lot of fights with the writers because sometimes they wanted the kids to be disrespectful. And I just didn’t want that to go across the airwaves, you know, because everything—you know, I’m a comedian, but everything is not funny. And then you don’t want to plant seeds that kids think it’s okay to disrespect your parents.
Tracy: Do you think that that sort of moral voice is missing today?
Robert: What I would say is that there are some people that have a moral compass and live—and take the high ground, and there’s certain people—And I don’t judge anybody as artists. Every artist has the freedom—and that’s what makes this country so beautiful—to do whatever they want to do. And so certain things I won’t do and—but, you know, this is the best of times and the worst of times, what we’re living through right now. You know, a lot of stuff has really gone wrong. But out of the chaos, all these new leaders are being born and new voices that are emerging, that wouldn’t have, but have come forward because of these times. So I always see the positive.
Tracy: How do you remain optimistic? That’s it. Just like in these times, you know.
Robert: You know, the thing that I would say is that, what our jobs are really about as artists is to create change through our art. Any time you can get a chance to say something, to create something, we—You know, it’s kind of like the fool in King Lear. You know, the fool says a lot of good stuff and strong stuff, but he uses honey to say it and use it. So I think, you know, you can get depressed or you can get sad by what’s going on. But I tend to look, and I go, “Look what happened. You know, people are getting”—People said, “Oh, the Civil Rights Movement is over with. We don’t have to do anything,” you know.
And it’s like—I was getting an award with John Lewis, and I was sitting at this table with John Lewis. And I was talking to him, and he said, “The pendulum has swung back.” He said, “I thought all of this was gone.” And he says—when he’s seen everything, he says, “I’ve got to dig my heels in now and fight even harder.” And I feel the same way as an artist, as a filmmaker. Everything I’ve got to do, I’ve got to sprinkle in my messages that will hopefully plant other seeds in people that listening.
Because it’s not about just being funny or being stupid or what have you; it’s—as artists, and especially artists of color, I want to plant those kind of seeds. You know, I want—you know, like knowing that The Parent ‘Hood did help raise a generation of babies to do positive things and want to do the right thing, I feel really happy. There’s other stories that I want to tell, and it’s about looking at tough times and saying, “How can I make it better?”
Tracy: Great answer. I’m inspired. I’m optimistic. So you mentioned the upcoming documentary that’s coming out. What else are you up to? What else are we—can we expect?
Robert: I have been having a ball. I just directed an episode of Black Lightning, and I’m also on the show. And so—
Tracy: Also about superheroes, yes?
Robert: Yes, about superheroes and I’m having fun. I’m really excited as well—I did American Soul for BET. It’s the story of Don Cornelius—
Tracy: I cannot wait to see it.
Robert: ...and how he created Soul Train and his rise and all the things that this young man of color with a vision had to go through to get that show on the air.
Tracy: Oh, my gosh. I can’t wait.
Robert: The episodes I directed are just—I just think are amazing, but I just think that it plants seeds of hope and it inspires entrepreneurs of all colors to go after your dreams. But he—it’s an amazing story. So that. And then the year before, I did Love Is, which is not around anymore, but I had the best time doing that for OWN.
Tracy: Okay. Last segment, and then you can go make some more movies.
Robert: Yes, ma'am.
Tracy: Okay. This is our rapid-fire segment. I’m going to ask you some questions. One or two-word answers. Then you’re out. Then you’re out of here. You ready?
Robert: Yes, ma'am.
Tracy: Dominoes or spades?
Tracy: You are in a Soul Train line; it’s your turn. What dance is going to carry you down the line?
Robert: The Robot.
Tracy: Good one. I think you’re the first one who said the robot.
Tracy: Who was your first celebrity crush?
Robert: [Makes beeping sound] Who is Pam Grier?
Tracy: Correct. Who is your current celebrity crush?
Robert: [Makes beeping sound] Who is Halle Berry?
Tracy: Correct. How did you know that?
Robert: I just—She’s fine.
Tracy: Okay. Tell me one underappreciated black artist that you would like to give figurative flowers to.
Robert: Ooh, ooh. Max Julien.
Tracy: Who is that?
Robert: Max Julien is writer, director, producer who did The Mack. He did Cleopatra Jones; he wrote the script to that. He did Thomasine & Bushrod.
Robert: Brilliant actor. He is known for The Mack, and he is the reason I am not a pimp, because I saw that movie.
Tracy: Wow. He saved you from a life of—
Robert: [Makes beeping sound] Who is Max Julien?
Tracy: Correct. Robert Townsend, you have been an absolutely joy.
Robert: That’s it?
Tracy: This has been fun. That’s it.
Robert: What do I get?
Tracy: A hug from me.
Robert: That’s it? I’m out of here. This is great. I’m a black lead.
Tracy: I should have threatened to hug you a long time ago.
Tracy: It’s time for bumpa-na-nuh-na-nuh, Tracy’s flowers. Yes, applause, thank you. Thank you. Oh, please. Oh, no standing ovation. Come on. Come on, guys. I’m too humble. I’m way too humble for this. Okay. So this is the segment where I get to buy flowers for a black thing or person that I enjoy. That’s that. This week’s flowers go to—a drumroll please [drumroll]—Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold. Yay.
So I was going to buy flowers for funny black women in general. But then I thought about it, and I was like, that’s redundant. You know, of course black women are funny. We have to be funny, because the way that this world treats us is a joke, so we always got to have at least one hot one ready, you know. So I instead wanted to specifically shout out two of my favorite funny black women ever. And that’s Tisha Campbell and Tichina Arnold. First things first, I absolutely love with all of my heart, forwards and backwards, up and down, Tichina and Tisha’s friendship.
I first saw the two of them in one of my favorite movies ever, which is the screen adaptation of a play called Little Shop of Horrors, which featured a downtown like doo-woppy Motown -inspired Greek chorus. And by that, I mean they helped to forward and push the story along like the muses in Hercules, who were also black and banging. Look at that. Look at that. From a cultural standpoint, we all know at least one of those girls who are just—who always keep you in stitches, they always got the roast hand ready, they can spend the entire day snapping on you, but no matter what, is always, always there for you when somebody else tries to come for you. You know, like I can mess with my people, but don’t you dare. And I just love that so much.
That definitely absolutely describes I think Tisha and Tichina, but on a crafting, structural, technical like acting level, which I think is consideration that black actors don’t get enough of, they are comedic geniuses. Like it’s one thing to be funny; it’s another thing to know how to deliver that funny. Their natural hilariousness also comes with impeccable timing, impeccable timing.
And I was reminded of this actually when I saw a video clip of one of the best moments I think—I think in black sitcom history. And that is when Tichina’s character, Pam, meets Biggie Smalls for the first time. I hope you’re already laughing now because you know what I’m talking about. And she just like kind of like gallops in, and she’s doing like the ‘90s Mary J. Blige like half ditty bop. And then she starts singing, and Gina comes out.
Tracy: Another fantastic thing about these two is that they have social media so you can check in on the hilariousness whenever you want. Tichina, for example, I love because I feel like she’s me when I have a kid. And here’s what I mean by that. So her daughter, Alijah Kai—And I’m so sorry if I’m mispronouncing this. We care about the pronunciation of names and we looked for it, so a thousand apologies if I mess it up. But she is adorable, and of course she can sing as well because her mama can sing down any song in the world.
You absolutely have to find this one video where Tichina and Alijah are singing together, right, which is a thing that they do, and they are covering Beyoncé’s song, “Party,” which, such a good choice. So they’re doing this while they’re parking. And they’re singing together, and Tichina is being supportive and she’s giving Alijah some shine, tons of shine. But she also kind of sneaks in a little, you know, like a little Aretha moment where she’s like, “Don’t forget where you got it from.”
Tracy: Her daughter’s face is just—that is the response I am anticipating from my own kids and nieces and nephews once I get to the point where I can be like, “What you know about this,” which, remember, is my whole goal in life. Tisha’s social of course is hilarious, too. And I know that my favorite video is one where she is in the car with her son and he wouldn’t’ stop calling her Gina. And you can just—you can hear her face.
Tracy: Also as you know, she’s still in the studio. She’s still working on her music. I have a theory that that video with her son calling her Gina inspired a song that is now one of my theme songs and my motto and the soundtrack to my life and my mood at all times. It’s called “Lazy Bitch” and, in parenthesis, “This Ain’t Gina.” Lazy bitch, this ain’t Tracy. Damn. This is my gospel song because I, like she, am still here. And so, thusfor, henceforthly, etc., etc.—in conclusion, folks, if you have ever said that women, black women in particular, are not funny, then it is very clear that you do not know enough black women, which is a thing that you got to fix within yourself. I can’t do that for you. And so, Tisha and Tichina, who I have been calling Tisha Arnold as my own personal portmanteau, these flowers are for you-all.
Tracy: Honorable mention goes to Kim Wayans, Kym Whitley, Kim Coles, pretty much any black girl named Kim, [unintelligible] [00:47:30] girlfriends living single. And I could go on and on and on, but I’m hungry and I got to get out of here.
Tracy: And that wraps up season one. I can’t believe it. It has been such an immense joy to be on this ride with you-all. And I really think that this experience has cemented my belief in unapologetic blackness, because, guess what, one of the reasons that this was so much fun is because we were able to be ourselves. We can talk like we talk and we can honor who we want to honor with nobody else’s permission, and it was liberating. We had so much fun. I hope that you also feel a little more liberated, a little freer, and keep being as black as you want to. It works. Success.
I do not want to get too emotional here, but since I am nothing but a five-foot-three emotion with legs—and feet, it’s possible. But I have to say thank you because this project was my very, very first time inside a studio at all and back on the microphone in over a year. I got super depressed. I got super anxious. I had to take care of myself. And I was like, will people remember me? Will I remember how to talk into a microphone? Is anybody going to care? And you-all were so warm and you were so nice and you were so encouraging and you felt happy to see me like you knew me in real life. And I can’t tell you what that did for my heart and for my spirit and my anxiety at that time.
And like right now it’s still doing so much for me. You-all have helped me see that [unintelligible] [00:49:12]. I told you I was going to get emotional. Thank you-all. I love you-all. I just want to shout out to there still being good people in the world. It’s so easy to forget that. Once again, thank you. Thank you, thank you. Eight million thank-yous. I like you-all so much.
If you’re wondering about season two, keep an eye on the Strong Black Twitter account where updates will be posted as they come in. so keep your ear to the internet streets and see what else is going to happen. This show is produced by Strong Black Lead and Netflix with Pineapple Street Media. If you want to, I don't know, host a party with all of your friends and listen to all the episodes of this season once again, guess what, you can listen. Guess how you do it. Just like you doing it now.
This podcast will still be available where all free podcasts are sold. Our music is via DJ Don Will, the hardest-working DJ in the podcast business. You can follow him on Twitter @donwill. And a thing that he likes to tweet is, “Quick, somebody pay me to do something.” So he’s out there for all of your DJ needs. Please hit him up. I have been your host, pre-Beyonce’s best friend, Tracy Clayton, fingers crossed, fingers crossed, fingers crossed. Or maybe I should get in good with Blue Ivy first. I don't know. I’m going to think about that.
But you can find me on Twitter and see how this is going, how it plays out, @brokenmcpoverty. Come and say hey. Send me videos of people who are laughing so hard that they can’t stop because those make me feel so good, so, so good. Make sure to follow Strong Black Lead on all of the socials at Strong Black Lead. And don’t leave us just because this season’s over. You going to miss out.
If you enjoyed what you heard, please do spread the joy. Don’t forget to rate and subscribe to Strong Black Legends on Apple Podcast, Spotify, wherever you get your podcasts. And I do believe that that is that for season one, good people. Once again, thank you so much for taking this ride with us. I had a blast. I hope you-all had a blast. So until next time, keep shining like Whitney Houston’s vocals at the end of her performance of “I Will Always Love You.”
Tracy: Because guess what I’m going to do forever? Love you-all blackasses. I am. I’m going to love you-all forever. Bye.
Tracy: Josh, am I nuts? Can you highlight the Carmen part?
Josh: All right.
Tracy: Scroll up, with multiple P’s. Okay. He made it like this big. All right, Josh. Calm down. Okay. Thanks.
Robert: Scroll up with multiple P’s.
Tracy: Like 15 P’s.
Robert: “Where’s my computer at? Josh, no. I think not, Josh.” All right.
Tracy: You do such a good impression of me.
Robert: “Josh. Hell, you do it, Josh.” Anyway, let’s continue on.
Tracy: If you make me laugh, I’m not going to be able—Okay.
Robert: Josh, it’s all Josh’s fault.
Tracy: Damn it, Josh.