He made us laugh on TV’s “In Living Color” (1990-1994) and in movies like Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000).
This Thursday night, Tommy Davidson comes home to Bethesda Theater, formerly dubbed Bethesda Blues & Jazz.
“I went to high school there in Bethesda, so it’s going to be really interesting what’s going to happen to my mind at that show because there I am, again from age 15 to 18, so who knows what’s going to be sparked,” Davidson said. “I’m already an in-the-moment comedian, but boy, you wait until this show right across the street from where I became who I am. You can expect the unexpected. [Impersonates the former president]: Maybe Obama will show.”
It’s a homecoming for Davidson, who was born in Mississippi but moved to the D.C. area at age 5. He later graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School before attending the University of the District of Columbia.
“I probably would have been the starting guard for the basketball team, but I broke my ankle in JV,” Davidson said. “I actually was showing off because I could dunk it, but I couldn’t dunk it on someone. We were having a varsity practice and all of a sudden I decided to dunk on one of the big guys and landed on my ankle and that was that. But that opened up my boxing career, and I also got [on-the-job training] at a hospital, so that really shaped my future.”
Not only did he work in the kitchen at Walter Reed, but he also bussed tables at IHOP in Wheaton, Maryland.
“All of my jobs: the IHOP on Georgia Ave., then the Roy Rogers on Georgia Ave., then the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, and then from there it was the Ramada in Bethesda,” Davidson said. “Then from there it was the Ramada in Fairfax, Virginia, where I did a project with Campbell’s Food, I was the butcher when they created Lean Cuisines where I worked with a guy from Rutgers … Those were all of the jobs I did before I left D.C.”
He actually launched his standup career at The Penthouse strip club in Park View, D.C. on Georgia Ave.
“My friend asked me to try comedy and convinced the manager to let me go on stage,” Davidson said. “I said, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ He said, ‘Just say something on the mic.’ The first thing I said, people laughed. Three or four months later the place is packed every weekend, I’m going on stage at this freakin’ club … I met Martin Lawrence and Dave Chappelle the same night at a comedy club called Garvin’s … so we’ve been on the same trajectory.”
After winning an amateur standup competition at the Apollo Theatre in New York City in 1987, Davidson moved cross country to Hollywood where he began performing at the famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles. There, he caught the attention of comedian Robert Townsend, who asked Davidson to open for him on his HBO special.
“Exactly the time we got there, Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Eddie Murphy and that group really lead the way,” Davidson said. “Me and some younger comedians hit Hollywood in [our] peak. That was me, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and a few comics from back east, but it wasn’t like now, where all these people are there and all this stuff is going on. No, it wasn’t. We were like the frontiers of the new generation of comics that were coming.”
Upon arrival, he’ll never forget seeing Robert Townsend’s cult comedy classic “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987).
“My manager said, ‘I want to show you something,’ and he takes me to Century City in L.A. and shows me a movie poster of Robert Townsend in ‘Hollywood Shuffle,'” Davidson said. “I had already seen Spike Lee’s first movie in D.C., ‘She’s Gotta Have it.’ My manager said, ‘There’s a wave of moviemakers coming and you’re here at the right time.’ He was right. … Robert put me on his show, Arsenio put me on his show, then Keenen put me on his show.”
That show, of course, was “In Living Color” (1990-1994) as Davidson starred alongside Damon Wayans’ Homey D. Clown quipping, “Homey don’t play that,” or Jim Carrey’s Fire Marshal Bill shouting, “Let me show you something!”
“I’m in the eye of the storm, bro,” Davidson said. “I’m living the dream. It’s like being a middle linebacker for the ’77 Steelers, or something. You know what I mean? I’m on the team! It’s not like they’re going, ‘Ehh, we’re not going to give you the ball.’ They’re going, ‘Hey, man, your turn for the ball! Tommy’s gonna run this play! Tommy! Tommy! Tommy! Come here! You’re gonna be a part of this!’ I’m Franco [Harris] in there. [Or in D.C.] that would be Riggo.”
His personal favorite sketches were his celebrity impersonations.
“My favorite sketches [were] when I started doing Spike Lee, Sammy Davis Jr. and especially Sugar Ray Leonard, [imitates voice], ‘When it comes to fighting, I gotta fight the way I fight, and I know I don’t make sense when I talk, but you like the way I kind of hesitate, how I knock people out.’ … He’s a Maryland guy! We all looked up to him because he was the first real athletic star that we could identify with. Come on, he was the world champion!”
He even reunited with his “In Living Color” cohorts on the big screen, joining Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995) and Damon Wayans in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” (2000), a stinging satire of Hollywood blackface stereotypes as Davidson and Savion Glover play Sleep-N-Eat and Mantan in modern minstrel shows.
“I just saw it the other night, as a matter of fact, and it still holds up as a great comedy,” Davidson said. “It’s a parody, it’s a good movie to watch so you understand what has happened to Blacks in Black entertainment. You really do see that what’s funny to us is funny to everyone. We are seriously in one country. You can get a room full of us together from every walk of life and they would love ‘Lucy,’ ‘Carol Burnett,’ ‘In Living Color,’ it’s who we are.”
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