Friday, July 22, 2011

A comedian with heart and a good upbringing

Comedian/actress Shirley Hemphill
A taxi driver in One In A Million
What's Happening cast
Shirley Hemphill, actress and comedian appeared at the Comedy Store in Austin, Texas in 1983. This interview with her lasted about an hour and we covered a variety of issues. Hemphill was born in Ashville, North Carolina July 1, 1947. She died at her suburban hone in California in 1999 of kidney failure. She was found in her home by her gardener. Hemphill, 52 years old when she died, and was the younger sister to her only brother, both of whom were raised by their mother.

Hemphill got started in show business in 1975 when her was discovered and invited to guest on the TV sitcoms All’s Fair and then Good Times. Her big break came when she landed a sizable role in What’s Happening. She played a sarcastic, mouthy waitress. The show lasted for three seasons from 1976 to 1979.

In 1988 Hemphill got a chance to star in her own sitcom, One In A Million. She played a taxi driver who inherited a fortune from one of her customers. She was on air on Tuesdays, in a prime time spot. The show had good ratings. But the show was moved to Saturday nights, Hemphill had to compete with the popular show ChiPs, starring the toothy, smiling Erik Estrada. The show was put to bed after 13 episodes despite of it getting moved it back to Tuesdays. Her audience was no longer there.

After the show was cancelled Hemphill took her comedy act on the road, playing clubs and comedy establishments. In between those gigs she made cameo appearances on TV, and was a regular on late night talk shows . In 1996 she co-starred in her second  movie Shoot the Moon. She had a small part in the movie CB4 starring Chris Rock in 1994, her first movie.

Dorothy: What are your hobbies?

Shirley: Tennis. Movies. I like going to the movies. Let m e see what else. It used to be eating but I’m trying to cut down (laughing).

Dorothy: What is your philosophy about life?

Shirley: I don’t know if I have a philosophy. I just try to be decent and not hurt nobody. I try to learn something everyday.  I don’t always succeed.

Dorothy: What about your favorite comedic male and female?

Shirley: Female....it has to be Elaine Bossler and Marshall Warfield, a Black comedian from Chicago, whose got a movie coming out this summer with Mr. T. I guess Richard Pryor would be one. He helped me a lot in show business. Friend-wise, Bill Cosby. He has been very, very good to me.

Dorothy: When did you first realize that you were funny? Are you a shy person?

Shirley: I was real quite. As a matter of fact I got left back in the first grade ‘cause I wouldn’t talk out. I never realized I could make money in comedy until I came out to California to visit. I decided maybe, this is what I wanted to do. I was a medical secretary back in my hometown hospital. I’ve always had the support of my mom. She said go try it. ‘You got an education, you can always fall back on that.’ I got lucky two years later.

Dorothy: When and where did you first perform?

Shirley: When I came out to California there was this place called the Comedy Store. I got five minutes. I had been going down there the whole week. I saw David Brenner, the late Freddy Prince, all of those kind of people. And the after a week-- I was on a budget--so the club owner said if you want, you can come on at 12  at night, and you don’t have to pay a cover charge. The first five minutes was the worst. Somebody taped it  It sounded horrible. The owner kept giving me those last five minutes until I worked my way up. Then when the TV show came on I went on at 7 o’clock, which is prime time.

Dorothy: When you first started making big money, what was the most extravagant thing you bought for yourself?

Shirley: I didn’t buy anything for myself. I bought my mom a house, because we had lived in the projects for so long. That was my dream to have a house, running water! Things that were ours. I didn’t have a phone until I got in show business. My analyst said I’m trying to make up. I have a phone in every room, a television in every room, even in my bathroom. I never had that before. I bought my mama out to California. She wouldn’t come until the second year. She said 'I don’t want to come out there with you showing off and I can’t face my neighbors.'

Dorothy: What about the other show you were on after What Happening?

Shirley: One in A Million? I don’t know. At ABC they were nice people to me financially. It was the best thing I had eve done. ABC has a tendency to give you four or five weeks, then if your show don’t work out, they let you go. In my case I started out in the top 20, and I did so well until they moved me to a weekend night, a Saturday, which is the weakest night. I was up against CHiPs. I just couldn’t hang with them. When they moved me back to Tuesday night it was just too late. It was good experience for me. When I did What’s Happening

Dorothy: Has fame gone to your head? If so, how do you handle it?

Shirley: The first year it did. I think it did with every cast member. I came from North Carolina where all I knew was my family, and the only credit card I had was from Sears, and they threatened to take that. So you know. . . I didn’t have that much. And all of a sudden you’ve got limousines that will take you to the bathroom and back. Checks you can’t even spend this week before another check is in. I look at it as a business now.

Dorothy: If a young woman ask you how to get started in show business as a comedian what would you tell her?

Shirley: You can’t have a bruised ego and be in this business.

Dorothy: Are you one of those comedians who is turned on stage, but not offstage. In other words, you’re Shirley Hemphill on stage, you’re getting paid. Are you also a comedian offstage, unable to separate the two personalities?

Shirley: No, I’m not like that. I just want to be regular people.

Dorothy: What is the serious side of you like?

Shirley: I fee comfortable at home. I read a lot. I can go weeks without seeing anything., which some people don’t quite understand. My mom does because she has ,lived with me so long. Not that I’m angry or anything. I just don’t have too much to say. I’m trying to get out of that. I worry a lot about my family. I used to worry about things I couldn’t control. Mama said it’s a sign of maturity when you just let go.

Dorothy: Are you a loner?

Shirley: Basically, yeah. I think most comics are. Most of the ones I see . . . we don’t hang in groups. I’m a family person. My mother instilled that in me. It’s not too much more you need.

Dorothy: When you’re on stage do hecklers throw you off?

Shirley: That’s why I have the house lights up. People will heckle when it’s dark, but if you put the house light up where everybody can see them, that cuts down on it. Sometimes you just have to cut hecklers off, zap’em and go on. But if he is the type that doesn’t hear he’s been zapped, and as long as people are laughing at him, that’s the most dangerous kind. If you zap on him too hard, the audience will take his side, and you lose the audience. You can’t insult an audience. They won’t take it. Don Rickles is the only one that can do that, but he shows a little warmth and love when he does it.

Dorothy: What I’ve noticed in a lot of comedians now is the use profanity. Are they trying to imitate Richard Pryor? He was the only one who could be vulgar and funny at the same time.

Shirley: I don’t use it as the punch line. Some times comics will use profanity just to say it. Some comedians don’t have faith in their routine. I don’t talk that way on stage. I don’t know why they do it.

Dorothy: Who heckles you the most, women or men?

Shirley: I don’t have hecklers. What bother me the most are women that are drunk and get a little loud. My father was an alcoholic, so I don’t like drinking. You’re see it more now. Woman are drinking a lot in the clubs. Maybe I’m being sexist, but a man can drink and it doesn’t bother me that much. To see a woman real drunk really upsets me, because I figure she will never be a lady again. That’s the only thing that bothers me in clubs.

Dorothy: Has anyone ever tried to get violent with you while you’re on stage?

Shirley: If you’re talking to some guy you can sense when it’s time to back off. If you can’t you’re in trouble. So that’s why I don’t drink anything so I can stay sharp.

Dorothy: Do men find your sense of humor intimidating?

Shirley: When you start degrading men that’s when they get really upset. I just want them to look at themselves and laugh. I haven’t had that kind of trouble yet.

Dorothy: You mentioned that you have gone to see an analysis. If it’s not too personal, what was the reason?

Shirley: You remember when Freddy Prince killed himself? Well, we (What’s Happening) had such a young cast, and the network was scared, so they suggested we go. Being in show business and thrown all this stuff, sometimes it’s hard to adjust. There are certain things I don’t like about myself. It takes me a long time to trust. I try to take each person at face value. I am not very forgiving. Once you cross me I’ll never trust you again. I don’t express anger. I let things brew for years before exploding over something stupid.

Dorothy: Are you of the notion that love comes before sex or vise versa?

Shirley: Huh? Anybody want to hear this? I’m Catholic! (laughing). Is this 1883 or 1983? In my heart I wish it was the other way around. But now days I think sex comes before marriage. Now for my niece I want marriage to come before sex. Do as I say, not as I do!

Dorothy: How do you feel about marriage?

Shirley: For me, it’s not. I don’t want to try it. It’s not for me.

Dorothy: Do you feel like it would be too binding for you?

Shirley: I want to get up and go when I want to. I think for it to be a good marriage, you have to be accountable to someone else. And I don’t want that in my life.

Dorothy: How do you feel about women suing their live-in mates after they break up?

Shirley: Entertainers are beginning to talk about it, like Jimmy Walker (Good Times). He told me he had this girl that he lives with to sign an agreement. It kind of takes away from love. I love you but would sign this? I have nice stuff, so when you come into my home you’re coming into my home. While you’re there everything I have is yours, but once you leave that’s it.

Dorothy: What would be your reaction if you lived with a man for 11 years and after breaking up he sues you for financial support?

Shirley: (laughing) I try to have him killed! I think I would be very, very hurt. But I hope that when we broke up we could be friends, where we can sit and talk about it.

Dorothy: If you weren’t a comedian, what do you think you would be doing?

Shirley: I would probably be a medical receptionist in my home town.

Dorothy: What do you want people to remember about you when it’s all over?

Shirley: Public?

Dorothy: Public and private.

Shirley: Publicly, I would like people to remember that I was a good entertainer. To my family I want them to remember that I was a good person and a credit to my mother’s upbringing. 

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