When Marlon Wayans answers the phone to talk about his new HBO Max special God Loves Me, clanking noises fill the background. “I just have a crazy day,” he admits. “I feel like the gym is the one hour I get to myself to just think about all the fucking work I have to do.”
The conversation wraps after he’s back home to prepare for an event, the background clanking now from dishes in his kitchen. Despite juggling multiple tasks over the course of his conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Wayans remains clear-headed and unguarded while discussing his relationship to Chris Rock, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, the three Hollywood names involved in one of last year’s most sensitive subjects: the Oscars slap.
It’s the central topic of Wayans’ third hourlong special for the streamer, which arrives just days ahead of Rock’s anticipated live Netflix special, Selective Outrage — anticipated because Rock is expected to speak publicly (beyond that smattering of one-off comedy club jokes) about being slapped by Smith on the Dolby Theater stage during Hollywood’s biggest event. It also arrives just over a week before this year’s Oscars, which has seen Academy leadership in its run-up make multiple promises and changes to the show following criticism of how it handled the incident last year.
For Wayans, whose Atlanta-filmed special is debuting almost a year to the day after that fateful hour, “Slapgate” is bigger than those three people he’s known (and even joked about the slap with) for most of his life as part of the Wayans comedy dynasty. In God Loves Me, he explains how the event is actually about comedy itself, mental health, a white-dominated industry that has made and unmade Black men, and why the path that you ultimately land on is the right one for you.
Fully financed and produced by the comedian, Wayans addresses these subjects while unpacking the questions and differing opinions offered up in the hours, days and months following the incident. The one thing he doesn’t touch is Pinkett-Smith’s alopecia. As much as he argues comedy should be allowed to be cutting and unapologetic, that’s where he says he draws the line — coming from someone who quit stand-up for decades over swipes from Rock.
Ahead of the March 2 release of his special, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Wayans about why he decided to dedicate an entire hour to something that happened to people he knows, why comedians can’t apologize (but others should) and if something positive can come from “the wrong response on the best day.”
When did you decide this special was going to be about the slap, and did HBO Max have any questions about that?
I’d seen the slap when it happened. I swear I watched it like everybody else. And I called Chris, I called Will. See, everybody’s a friend, so I texted Will and was like, “Are you OK?” Chris, I was like, “Where’s your face?” (Laughs.) And I said, “Are you OK?”
I was doing a show in Oxnard that weekend, and I talked about it onstage at the Improv. I had five minutes of thoughts, and I like to speak truth onstage and see where it goes. So I did that and by the end of the week, I had 15 minutes. I kept exploring the truth and it became like a Rubik’s cube to me. I got one side. That’s the Chris Rock side. I got what’s my experience with Jada, and then what’s my experience with Will. What’s my experience in the industry? What’s my experience as a Black person? What do white people feel? Before I knew it, I had an hour of material. I was actually doing a set about my mom, and dealing with the grief of losing my mother. I was like, “Sorry, Ma, I’m gonna put you to the side for a second. (Laughs) I need to explore this.” I did [live comedy festival] Netflix Is a Joke in April, and I had all this material — an hour and a half — and the set all blended, but it was bifurcated. So I decided to separate the two, and before I knew it, I had an hour in this Chris, Will and Jada thing.
Normally you tour material for a year or two. I toured this for three months. I wrote it on a stage, I never put a pen to the things. I experienced the set. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing stand-up so much the past 10 to 12 years, it’s allowed me to have the freedom to create in front of people. Before I knew it, I had this beautiful piece. It felt good. Audiences give me standing ovations. Women loved it. It was just such an honest perspective and didn’t come from a mean place. It came from like a healing place — not just for myself, but for the involved and for people who watch it.
I filmed in August in Atlanta because I did a show there and loved it. It’s a great room. Then I cut it together and presented it to HBO Max, and they did something they never do, which is, they loved it so much that they licensed it. I felt like it was such a special thing that I didn’t want to wait on the industry. I felt like it was ready. I’ve been doing this too long to second-guess myself. I know when it feels good to an audience. It felt good to me. I felt like my mom kissed it and licked the envelope, so I said, “I’m gonna do it.”
You mentioned going out to Rock and Smith following the slap. But did you reach out to them at any time within the timeline of the special to get their thoughts on what you were doing?
No, because in their art, they don’t ask me, “What do you think of this?” I think as artists, we all do what we do. Especially because it’s such a sensitive subject, I didn’t want their opinions. I just hope they gauge and trust that I love them. That I’m being objective. I’m being honest. I’m being real. And that the purpose of this is more healing than it is deconstruction. I did this in Atlanta on purpose because Black women will tell you when you went too far. They will. They’ll go, “Don’t do that.” And this one got a standing ovation. They loved it. They loved what I had to say, they loved the realness of it. They were a sample and if they loved it, I knew that with everybody else was going to love it.
In the special, you talk about the slap joke, but also how Rock’s heckling made you step back from stand-up for years. His style is more cutting than yours, which we see in the special can at times offer grace to your subjects. How do you feel about that more targeted comedy, having been on the end of it yourself with Rock?
I love it. I think there’s a purpose for doing cutting comedy. I’m a cutting artist. I’ve always been. We did White Chicks, Scary Movie. I’m an alumnus of In Living Color. We have always been equal-opportunity offenders. That’s what you can say about the Wayans tribe. And we don’t do things with kid gloves. It’s not to be mean. It’s to make fun. They say mockery is the best form of flattery and that’s the way we look at it. Anybody we’ve ever made fun of, for the most part, even in this sensitive ass time, usually laughs the loudest. That’s why you can’t cancel a movie like White Chicks. You know who loves White Chicks the most? White chicks. It’s just who’s telling the joke.
Chris Rock is a brilliant comedian when it comes to looking at the point of view of what’s funny about people. He’s always been. He gives them the truth about what’s funny, even when it’s us as Black folks. Chris is — I won’t say a mentor, he never took me under the wing — but he’s somebody that I always looked to in comedy. He’s a brilliant comedian. You can’t take that from him. No slap could slap the greatness out of him. He’s just a brilliant mind and a brilliant comedian. He’s always been like a big brother. Because I kind of grew up around him. He and my brother Shawn used to do stand-up comedy together. [Other brother] Keenen [Ivory Wayans] put Chris in movies. We know each other. I know his brothers. I know his family.
So that’s why for this special I had to talk about it. I can’t worry about what everybody’s thinking, what everybody feels. I have to talk about it because nobody else is. I have to come from an honest place as a brother. I felt bad for [Chris’ brother] Tony when this happened. I know me and my brothers would have been waiting outside the Oscars ready to jump Will. But at the same time, I can imagine what Will felt like. So I just felt, in this moment, all I could do is speak truth and hope everybody could see themselves. But most of all, I saw myself as an artist come together over a 30-year period to be like, “This is why everything happens to you.” It’s this thing called alchemy. It’s the little boy that wants to see the pyramid. He’s on his journey in The Alchemist. That’s what this industry is to me. That’s what success is to me.
At the end of this journey, you learn that everything that you go through in life is supposed to happen because it’s a part of your journey. It’s a part of your legacy. It’s a blessing. Don’t try to be anybody else. Keep working toward the best you.
In this special, you tackle about every perspective or question offered up about the incident, except for one major one, which was Pinkett-Smith’s alopecia. Why?
That’s a condition and that’s something that I won’t say I’m making fun of. Nobody knew that she had it. Jada is a very stylistic person. She’s fashion-forward. I don’t think Chris saw the episode of Red Table Talk where she talked about that. So I think Chris is just kind of commenting off the top, and I think they were dealing with the condition of it, and Will was being protective. I just felt that would weigh down the special. That needs its own 10 minutes. And I think that’s a separate piece. And that takes investigation. It’s not what I knew, and I don’t want to be insensitive to anybody that’s going through that. I think that that would have convoluted the message, so I left it out and I just explored what was funny from a place that we can digest. I felt like some things are too hard to digest, so let me not spend that time dealing with that because it becomes something else. That’s a special unto itself.
My hardest critics are always going to be my family. I showed this to my brother Damon before I filmed it, and Damon hates everything I do. Literally. And I’m saying that to be funny, but they are just really hard on me. But Damon saw me — I forgot where I was — and he said it’s a brilliant performance. He said it was brilliant because it’s like you broke a mold in your structure, your physicality. You were like a one-man show, but it was stand-up comedy. He said for him, he’s done stand-up for so long, he’s become jaded and he’s seen it all. He said what he loved about this one is he’s never seen that. Then I showed it to Keenen, and Keenen was like, “It’s a game-changer.” That makes me so happy because it took me to get to 50 to make these dudes proud. That’s the journey. That’s the maturity of an artist.
I have fortunately, and unfortunately, since day one at 17 to 18 years old, had people watch me grow in front of their eyes. People find you at this age and go, “Hey, let’s put this guy out there because nobody’s seen him. He’s developed, he’s ready.” People have been watching me for so long, they don’t even know I’m there. And so this is growth. I think that’s why my brothers were proud — that at the ripe young age of 50, I’m still growing, I’m still working hard to try and get somewhere.
You spend some time talking about Smith’s relationship to white Hollywood, as well as the different decorum dynamics among races. How much did you want to say about how whiteness ultimately shaped that slap moment?
I just wanted to talk about the truth of everything. Will talks about it in his book. I’m not uncovering anything, I’m just saying it out loud. Hollywood is a funny place because it’s like a bank. You get chosen to, like a horse, be bet on. It’s different in some ways for comedians. We have to prove ourselves in theaters. We have to be a proven commodity, where stars, they find you at like 18, 19 or 20, and they go, “We’re gonna ride this horse.” Except for like somebody like Eddie Murphy, who was just that big of a star that he could rock for 40 years. Even Will, he’s an international box office name. He’s a phenom we’ve never seen as Black people, but he talks about that. And there’s a lot of precedent to go with that. So I was just uncovering the truth, from a comedic perspective, not a dramatic perspective.
The special seems to be split up in a way that gives you a chance to elaborate on the character of each person involved, and at times, humanizes them. Was that intentional?
In a perfect world, yes, I would have. But it just happened to work out that way. When I was working the Rubik’s cube, it took that amount of time to work each side. That’s how much attention was needed not just from a Jada, Will, Chris perspective, but who are we addressing at that time. When it’s Jada, it’s the woman’s perspective. But when it’s Chris, it’s the victim and when it’s Will, it’s: What if that was me and what would make him do that? That’s why I felt I had to film this, and I went out of pocket to film and bet on myself because it felt special. It’s not even about them. It’s evergreen. I’m not talking about this one topic. I’m talking about life. I’m talking to individuals in their life and their journey, no matter what you’re going through. That’s what this has — it’s a hero’s journey. What my character got from this situation was the feeling for myself of, after dealing with all this that, “Hey, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”
Basically, I was thinking about it and I just put myself in each one of those people’s positions and just gave perspective from their point of view and from an outside point of view. They all suffer from something similar. Chris cracked the wrong joke at the wrong moment, or the right joke at the wrong moment. And Will had the wrong response on the best day. They mirrored each other in a way, and the experience brought everybody together. It happened, and the discovery for me was hurt watching that because I know them all. This came from a genuine place, and I’m not afraid of them seeing it. I think all of them know my heart. I’ve always been a really good dude. I come from a good place and there’s no harm ever meant. I just hope that at some point they can laugh at themselves.
You dip into the respectability politics that surrounded Smith’s career and that event. How has that impacted you and your own experience in Hollywood? And how did that experience influence your take in the special on what happened to Smith?
If you look at a guy like Will, I gotta say, I’m proud of him. Up until that moment, what that man has dealt with being the biggest star in the world, time in and time out — a proven commodity worldwide. They tell you that you have no value in Japan, and you put yourself on a plane, you go to Japan to sell your movies and people are going crazy. And you’re proving them wrong. Will has always been that guy. He’s been a prime example of what it is not just for me as a Black man in Hollywood, but to erase the racism that comes sometimes with Hollywood’s eyes; to say, “No, you’re not going to label me.”
Idris Elba recently said this. That he just so happens to be Black. We wear Black with pride. I wear my skin color with pride. I wear the experience of being Black with pride. I’m so proud of it. But when it comes to selling me and marketing me, don’t limit my exposure, or your commitment to what my potential could be as a stock. I’m relevant everywhere. The things that I’m doing, it’s not Black themes. These are themes for everybody, including Black people’s issues.
So when we talk about this, it’s just letting people know that our experience is not just a Black thing. It’s an everything thing, because Black people are people. I love Will, I love Jada, I love Chris. I say that in my special. I’m not coming as an enemy. I’m coming as a friend with love, going “Here’s what’s funny about it.” I would have told the jokes to them. Oscars night, I was going around, and I talked to Trevor Noah. I talked to Tyler Perry. We all were sitting there talking. Everybody was talking about this. I’m just not a guy that’s going to whisper it. I got some jokes, I’m gonna say them out loud.
But the pressure that Will has been under for so many years — why aren’t we concerned as his friends? I hit him up and I said, “Congrats on your Oscar, but brother, I want you to go to therapy. Seven hours of therapy on Monday because you’ve got some unpacking to do.” That’s exactly what I said. I don’t think you should bury him and cancel him and all that. I think he’s dealing with it enough in his own time. But yes, the very thing that he was trying to erase, now you’re going to have to deal with for the rest of your life. You just made it bigger. Now it’s about how you process this to do whatever you need for healing personally.
Same with Chris. One day they’ll get together and hopefully resolve this because we can laugh at it now and we can put it behind us at some point. But for me, we got to look at our heroes and be like, “Hey, let’s stop the cancel culture for a second. How about we get this brother some help. Are you in therapy?” Because we don’t take care of our mental health the way we need to. Especially Black people, we don’t do that. I go to therapy two times a week. This is for my own sanity because I deal with a lot. We deal with a lot and we have to act like we’re not hurting. My mama died. I’m still dealing with the trauma of that, and that was three years ago. When you’re these idols in people’s eyes, we don’t have any license to fail. And what you saw was that man fail. That can happen to any and every one of us under these pressures. He had the worst moment on the best day of his life.
You have a section about apologies in the special, and you discuss the importance of timing in delivering them. Apologies in comedy are a sensitive thing, so from your perspective, when is the right time to apologize?
Our job is an unapologetic thing. There are no sorries in what you say in comedy. That’s why comedy is such an interesting art. And it’s probably one of the hardest things to do. You have to work yourself so good that you instantly have a filter. Before it leaves your mouth, you know that’s not the right thing to say. You know because you’ve been on stages everywhere, you played to so many different audiences. And like a scientist, you tried all these different formulas. It takes years to figure out what is appropriate to say in the moment because sometimes the most inappropriate thing is the appropriate thing to say.
Because you work so long at your craft, once it leaves your mouth, there are no apologies. It is what it is. That’s why you have to make sure your intention is right. Who would have known that they were going through that at the time and that [Will] would have done what he did? Sometimes you’ve got to do a little more research, but you can’t apologize. If every comedian walked around apologizing for every joke they told — I mean, Ricky Gervais’ phone bill would be so big. (Laughs.) We have an unapologetic art form. On Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels would still be making phone calls. In Living Color, we’d be making phone calls. People trust comedians to tell jokes, and that’s what was so wrong about what happened. You can’t let people think that’s a license for everybody — because you’re sensitive about something — to attack comedians.
You start that, now you’re gonna attack politicians when they have their point of view. You have to trust the people that we appoint to be the people that give the opinion. Journalists and others like that, I think it’s important that we protect their freedom of speech, we protect that, and that we don’t sit around and apologize. That is not what America is built on. And all this self-awareness, this shaming started on social media. Everybody’s so sensitive. Whereas we used to just take jokes.
Everybody’s got an opinion about it. I don’t like where society is going, but I will say, just like Chappelle said, as a comedian, you have to draw a line and be unapologetic. I’m sorry you’re hurting, but I’m not sorry I told that joke. Because it’s your opinion. So we could tell the same jokes, but my opinion, through my experience, may be different than a different community. Mine comes from a more sensitive place, depending on the topic, than somebody not aware or not in that community, or that topic isn’t of interest. They’re gonna be a lot more callous with their jokes. But it’s comedy. That’s what our job is. Our job is to tell jokes, period. Some we’re going to win, some we’re going to lose. We just watched it globally.
Do you feel that is different for people who aren’t comedians, though? Should an apology be made, as you note in the special, quickly?
I think that could have been a much more immediate response. Like I said in the show, I think that, especially when it comes to something like when you hit somebody, the sooner you get to, “My bad,” that should have been part of the speech. It would have been resolved that night. You can’t hold on to it. You got to know that was wrong.
But for a comedian, they tell jokes. That’s what they do for a living. You can’t be mad at that. It’s kind of like if Will’s in an action movie and he’s fighting some people in the Middle East and Middle Eastern people get mad at him, “Why did you hit that guy like that?” “It’s a movie. It’s what I’m supposed to do.” He was the bad guy. As comedians, all we’re trying to do is make light of whatever we see in front of us. And sometimes you crack the wrong joke. But even then, [Will’s] response is not something that you want to do because that just brings a whole different element. You see the ripple effect of what happened with Chappelle. At a point, you’re sending the wrong message. As icons, we got to be more aware of that. And the quicker we get to apologies, the better.
I wish this could have all been resolved that night. It lingers because there was no self-awareness to say right there in the moment, “Can I talk to you for a second?” Or, “Let’s meet afterward. Let me do whatever I have to do to remedy this.” In my speech, “I’m sorry” would have been the first thing out of my mouth. I’d be confused about whether to apologize to Chris first or thank God. (Laughs.)
The title of this special is tied to two jokes — one that opens the show about Rock and one that closes the show about Smith. You argue that this event was the byproduct of God loving you, with you jokingly extrapolating that this all worked out for you. But, do you feel like something positive can come from this?
I think it’s all relevant to the individual. And it’s for us to look at ourselves, when we’re in those moments, whether we’re Will or Chris. There’s always a positive. When somebody approaches you with that kind of lean-in, defend yourself. Or somebody cracks a joke on you or your lady and you’re going to get up and do something, well, there are consequences involved. I think it’s all for us to think about what the consequences of these actions would be. What are the ramifications? We all have to be aware that we’re all human. No matter what kind of icons we are, what kind of GOATs we are, at the end of the journey, we are just people. We’re damaged people damaging people. And we’re all looking for a more pleasant journey. We’re all looking for elixirs in our life.
I think that this moment really shines a big light on how as people we can limit the ramifications of dumb actions. And I think that it shines a light on mental health no matter how big you are, no matter how much of a hero the world may make you. You saw a playground fight on the biggest stage in our industry and I don’t know if enough people had enough concern to say, “OK, let’s examine this. What’s going on?” Especially in the Black community, I think we all have to look at our heroes and just understand that everybody’s suffering, and that we all need therapists. We all need conversation. We all need to address our mental health and keep ourselves in order.
Try to stay attached to some higher being that humbles you. Because those things talk to you in those moments like, “No, son, don’t do that. That’s gonna be a mistake.” We are not gods. We are human and I think it’s important that we keep our feet nailed to the ground, walk in humility, and have compassion, empathy and forgive. Because that’s what this world is missing. And may we all laugh at this situation. I hope they all heal. I want Black people to see that. I want our industry to see that. I want us to all laugh together and enjoy together.
Interview edited for clarity.