Tracing the Influence of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle With Open Mike Eagle

Robert Townsend and Helen Martin in Hollywood Shuffle. Photo: Conquering Unicorn/Sam Goldwyn/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise. (Note: This piece originally published in October 2018. We’re recirculating it timed to Hollywood Shuffle’s newly announced inclusion in the Criterion Collection.)

During an interview with Variety last year, writer, director, and actor Robert Townsend revealed a depressing truth delivered by his agent after the critical acclaim that followed his role in the Oscar-nominated A Soldier’s Story inspired him to go out for more prestige pictures. “My agent told me, ‘Robert, they only do one black movie a year. You just did it. Be happy.’”

That blunt articulation of how black actors are marginalized served as the catalyst for Townsend to write, direct, and star in 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle, a brutally biting satire of Hollywood’s institutionalized racism and its erasure of the nonwhite experience. Shuffle follows Townsend’s Bobby Taylor, a wet-behind-the-ears character actor working his way up the Hollywood pipeline who frustratingly finds himself only getting callbacks to play stereotypical roles like gangsters, pimps, or slaves. The film uses Mel Brooks-ian methods of parody — extended dream sequences, broad visual gags, and movies within the movie — to create the absurdist tone needed to mock just how cartoonishly evil and hostile the entertainment industry can be toward minorities.

Thirty years later and the discourse surrounding inclusive storytelling remains germane as ever (remember when Joel Edgerton played African royalty a few summers back?), and yet Shuffle’s cult-status influence has, well, gotten lost in the shuffle. And this is despite being a surprise critical and commercial hit at the time, earning $5 million at the box office against the shoestring budget of $100,000, which Townsend mostly self-financed.

Rapper and musician Open Mike Eagle, however, felt the film’s fiercely farcical force from a young age and is still singing its praises today. Mike Eagle — who has always been comedy-adjacent thanks in no small part to his collaborations with Hannibal Buress and Jash — recognizes the parallels between Shuffle’s heightened industry hurdles from 1987 and the very unfunny, material ones he experiences today.

With his own self-released, six-song project dropping this week called What Happens When I Try to Relax, as well as his first foray into comedy proper, a black stand-up showcase The New Negroes, debuting on Comedy Central at the top of next year, Open Mike Eagle felt like reminding comedy fans why Hollywood Shuffle is worthy of their attention and more relevant now than ever.

Why was Hollywood Shuffle an underrated comedy you wanted to talk about?
When we were making this season of The New Negroes, which we just put in the can for Comedy Central, it was a movie that kept coming up. It came up while were pitching the show and it came up in the room. It’s such an iconic film. In a way, it marks the beginning of the black Hollywood comedy community that we still see a little bit of today — you know, the whole early-’90s In Living Color era to now. If you look at the legacy of that era of comedy, it all started from a community, and you can see how one of this community’s first major moves was getting Hollywood Shuffle made, which, at the time, the odds were against them. So the film was really on my mind while we were shooting The New Negroes, which is really all about galvanizing this black comedy community around L.A. and across the country.

Hollywood Shuffle was not only a critical and financial success, but it was also an effectively damning satire of Hollywood’s racist practice of reducing the black experience to a one-dimensional cliché. This was 30 years before the #OscarsSoWhite movement caused a sea change in the cultural discussion around representation, and yet Shuffle is rarely mentioned as one of the earlier calls to action. Why do you think that is?
It’s that thing that happens where you see a movie like this and then you temporarily stop seeing things the way they are. Just like when Obama was elected, there’s people around the country who temporarily thought the problem was solved. A film like Hollywood Shuffle ends up being a response to what’s happening at the time in history, and because it existed and shined a light on the problem, it kind of changed the culture for a brief moment. Then it goes away, then it comes back around. And it’s always going to come back around in new forms because the dynamics of race relations specifically, they change a lot from generation to generation.

Today’s representation issues are a lot more subtle than the ones that they faced in the ’80s. It’s clearly the same path, but now, because a movie like Hollywood Shuffle existed, you wouldn’t get a director on set telling an actor, “Stop! Do it blacker.” You know what I mean? They would use some other word that can be interpreted differently, but it’s coming from the same place. Some kind of dog-whistle or some shit. Like, “Can we make it more authentic?” I’m often accused of not being “authentic” enough, and people don’t even realize how vile of a thing that is to say.

Where does Robert Townsend fit in your pantheon of comedy greats? I ask because if there’s a case to be made that Keenen Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote Shuffle, is underappreciated — and I think there definitely is — then that would make Robert Townsend one of the most underappreciated.
He’s the godfather in a lot of ways. Everybody’s got the feelings, the emotions, and everybody faces the same discrimination and challenges, but then somebody comes along and has a vision for how to actually package it and put it out to the world, and you can tell that was Townsend. You can tell he was the guy that everybody in that community trusted to participate and get the vision right. That kind of opened up the whole thing. I don’t know the timeline exactly, but there was this HBO series called Partners in Crime that Robert Townsend helmed. It had some of the same people involved as Shuffle, like Paul Mooney and John Witherspoon, and it was a black sketch show that I feel dovetailed off some of those same issues, but once again built the pathway toward In Living Color, which built the pathway towards Chappelle’s Show and Key and Peele. Townsend played a huge role in the evolution of it all.

Do you have a favorite bit or character moment from the movie?
I watched the film a lot when I was little and I rewatched to prepare for this talk, and one thing that really struck me was how indelibly printed in my mind the one scene is where Jheri Curl’s activator is drying up. Detective Sam Ace, another character from a film within the film played by Townsend, is holding the guy’s activator hostage to get him to talk. They kept cutting back between Sam and Jheri Curl, who was being played by Keenen Ivory Wayans, and they gave him a drier wig every time, and he’s just trippin’ out. That was so funny to me when I was little. It’s such a simple gag, but it’s just so clever. I knew people who had Jheri curls and a bad activator in, but I never saw anyone panic like that, so it resonated comedically with me a lot.

It’s just wild to see a little movie like this with all this big-ass setpieces — to have a small budget but to be so imaginative and to use this story of this one actor trying to figure out how to toe the line between being a working actor and somebody who’s culturally aware and who knows there’s problems he can’t ignore. So you got that foundation story, but it goes into the whole set piece about Hollywood’s first “Black Acting School.” Then it goes into the whole detective piece, and even the movie they’re actually shooting at the end is like a setpiece in itself. It’s really interesting how every phase of Shuffle opens up into this whole cinematic universe of its own.

You’ve got an album called Dark Comedy, you have a song named after Jon Lovitz, and you’ve performed on The Eric Andre Show. You’re clearly a fan of comedy, but how would you say it influences your songwriting process?
It’s a big part of my brain, man. It’s a huge part of how I process the world. I think it’s part of the reason why I tend to get along with, and work with, a lot of stand-ups. The way that I approach the content of my songs is very similar to how they approach building material for jokes. I grew up watching anything funny on television, anything that I could have my hands on that was funny, and I would learn about the world honestly through jokes on TV.

A show that really impacted me a lot was It’s Garry Shandling’s Show back when it was on Showtime. I had never seen anything that was so constantly self-referential, in terms of breaking the form to reference itself, breaking the fourth wall, and talking about the different tropes while deconstructing them. It got me to thinking that way. I’ve always been attracted from that moment forward to things that break the form — breaking form as being a piece of content itself.

Speaking of form, I can’t think of another medium more similar to stand-up than hip-hop. From wordplay and construction to the rhythm established by a single man or woman with a microphone onstage, there’s a lot of overlap in that Venn diagram. Is that something you are conscious of now that comedy has become a bigger component of your career?
I’m very conscious of it, because I watch so many comics that do shows and do their acts multiple times that my ear becomes dialed into how tightly plotted their jokes are. When and why they decide to change things in their act, it’s interesting to me. I can tell when a bit is new and I can tell when it’s polished. It’s really all about that rhythm. The thing is, when you do rap music, having that beat is really a safety net. What stand-up is doing is very similar to rapping without that. They gotta nail it precisely. If they mess up a word or joke or pause, it really ruins the momentum for the act. I think what stand-ups do demands a lot more, honestly. I appreciate that art form a lot. I think I gotta be brave to do what I do just because … most rap has funding. In terms of how we think of rap, we think of rappers who have investors. They make a living that way. So the fact that myself and some independent rappers that I know operate without all that is a pretty brave thing. But I think stand-up is even braver.

Even when your lyrics navigate through heavier subject matter, you still employ a deadpan delivery that adds a subtle sense of levity. Have those satirical, politically charged traditions from Shuffle always been a part of your creative sensibilities?
Yeah, it’s kind of been this journey. Even The New Negroes is continuing the lineage from Hollywood Shuffle and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka to now. I mean, the first time I performed in front of a comedy audience was at UCB Franklin here in L.A. in 2009 or 2010. It just really awoke something in me. I was used to performing for DIY rap audiences who appreciate words but in a different way. They’re more about appreciating the skill or the cadence or the technical aspects of rap. But I found that when I was performing my music in front of comedy audiences, they were following along with my writing in a way that I wasn’t used to. Even if I’m just doing all serious music, they have more of a predisposition toward following along conceptually. So connecting with that feeling just made me want to always do stuff at comedy shows whenever I can. But it’s not all comedy shows either — it’s mostly at alt-comedy shows where they’re used to out-of-the-box approaches. Those audiences seem to be a little bit more dialed-in to listening, or at least trying to appreciate where the writing is coming from versus just how the words sound over the beats. Being an independent musician, it really is all about trying to carve out what your space can be. Me finding that connection with that particular comedy audience has been really helpful in making sure that I have a career.

Why should people go back and watch Hollywood Shuffle through a modern lens?
They’ll be shocked to see some of the things that are said to black entertainers. That’s across genres. That’s across platforms. It’s shocking to see that this was what was happening in 1987 and that a lot of it still happens today in different forms. Shuffle is a great primer to the struggle of what it means to be any measure of culturally aware while also trying to participate in an entertainment industry that’s presenting broad opinions of you in America. That juxtaposition is where all the drama really comes from. Black people tend to be 10 to 12 percent of the population at any time. White America is typically trying to sell stories to white America, so the length that minority entertainers have to go through to get well-rounded visions of their lives put on big screens, put on albums, or put on small screens is crazy, because it’s a numbers game at the end of the day. You have to convince these million-dollar studios that people want to see black people, or any oppressed or minority populations, in different sorts of lights. I think Hollywood Shuffle shows that struggle in a stark and funny way. It’s a great way to get people thinking about representation which, like you said, is an issue we still deal with it today. And you do get to see Paul Mooney with hair!

Talking Hollywood Shuffle With Open Mike Eagle