- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
HTF recently had the pleasure of talking with actress, comic, business woman, and former 'The View' co-host Sherri Shepherd about Top Five, Chris Rock's second directorial feature about the life of a former comic at a cross-roads in his life and career.
Sherri Shepherd was one of many comedians in the film which included the talents of Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, Cedric the Entertainer, and many others. Top Five arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on March 17.
HTF: I loved Top Five. I thought it was absolutely hilarious. Certainly one of the funniest films I've seen in the last couple of years. So, let me just lead off with probably the obvious question, when you have that many funny people on set, how on earth do you keep it together to get your scenes done?
Sherri: Um, you don't (laughs.) You laugh when you can and when you know the camera's not on you, you turn your head so you can crack up. And then you have Chris (Rock) telling you, “okay, calm down.” But it was really a lot of fun. All of the comics I knew, we go back a long ways, so it was like a big family reunion [shooting that scene] in the apartment.
HTF: Tell me about how Chris, as director, was on set. Because he's funny even when he's trying not to be, but you have to take your director seriously so how did that go?
Sherri: Well, you know what? Chris - and I really admire this about him - he's very focused and knows what he wants to do. Because he's a comic, he knows how to bring what he needs to bring out in all of us, so, he was able to let us go, which a lot of scenes were improvised, and then he was able to corral us back in. But how he did that? I don't know, but he got it together. It was a long day (shooting the apartment scene) I have to say, 'cause we got really silly. But Chris was rolling with it.
HTF: You've said before that you try not to do things that you could do with your eyes closed, that you prefer to run towards opportunities that scare you a little bit. So, did anything scare you about taking on the role of Vanessa in Top five, or was this just a case of “this is just too good an opportunity to pass up?”
Sherri: It was both. It was too good an opportunity to pass up to be able to work with Chris Rock, to play his ex-girlfriend. What a dream. And Chris doesn't like you to just stick to the script. He kept making me do takes over and over and I'm like “oh, my gosh!” So, he knows how to challenge you and push you. So, it definitely was not a role I could do with my eyes closed, at all.
HTF: What's the hardest part about being a comedian? I've always found that the best comedians always take the tragic and find the funny in it, either their own tragedy or the tragedy of other people, and they use comedy as a way of making sense of the world around them. Is that hard to do or is that the easiest part because that's the necessary part?
Sherri: It's hard to do because, and I think it's intrinsic within a standup comic, we look at the world in a slightly skewed type of way and we manage to get that weird thing that nobody ever thinks of out on stage. That's what I love about being a comic. No matter what I'm going through in the craziness of my life, I'm looking at it saying “oh, my gosh. I've gotta get on the stage and talk about this.”
HTF: And is it ever hard? Do you ever find yourself in a personal revelation mid-joke, thinking “should I be doing this on stage or is it just too much? “ Or is it that you’re making people laugh, you say “this is therapeutic I'm gonna keep going.”
Sherri: It's frightening. Are you kidding me? It's so frightening and it's horrific and you feel like am I putting too much on this stage? Are people going to look at me like this girl needs help, that she's completely psychotic? But I think that when you're willing to go there, to go to your ultimate truth, that's when you hit that truth in everybody else who's watching you. When you can take them on that journey and be so truthful, I think when people get on stage, and they try to be who the audience wants them to be, they don't last too long. You've got to live in your truth and you've got to make yourself so vulnerable on that stage, because when you can do that, that's when you connect with the heart of your audience.
HTF As I was watching Top Five, I was reminded how the Academy Awards just once again showed off how much progress is yet to be made in diversity. And I was thinking about Cedric the Entertainer's runaway role of Jazzy D, and how that character sticks with you long after the films closes. It's hard not to feel that both he and comedy films in general get overlooked by the major award events. Why doesn't comedy, which is incredibly hard to do right, get more love from the award shows?
Sherri: You know I honestly feel if Cedric was of a different persuasion, it, that, that he would have got nominated. I really do feel that way. It was so brilliant what he did, and the nuances, and the specificity that Cedric gave this character, I think a lot of the members of the Academy think comedy looks effortless. You know, when you look at a drama, and you see an actor go through a transformation, you're in awe. But I think with comedy, people just think it's just easy, that you can get in there and be a character and be someone else and poof! It's done. But it's very, very hard to do. But you know really brilliant people make it look easy.
HTF: One of the great qualities of Top Five was that it's very, very funny, but when it needs to be dramatic or poignant, it found and achieved that tone well. I think the best comedies throughout time have had great dramatic elements to them. I mean, and nothing against films like say Dumb and Dumber, but people can find those kinds of comedies funny but there's never, or rarely a poignancy, or serious dramatic core to those kinds of films – things that can make good comedies great, and Top Five absolutely had that. Do you think that’s the great gift of comedy is the drama underneath it?
Sherri: Yes, and it goes back to making yourself vulnerable, and I think that Chris struck the right balance between the poignant and the funny. I think because he was willing to show his flaws and imperfections, and those very vulnerable scenes, like with his father, Ben Vereen actually being jealous of him, being jealous of his success, and that pain. It took it over just being, like you said, a normal funny film, and made it laugh out loud funny but also able to touch people.
HTF: In the film, people have fun coming up with their top five, so who are your top five comedians of all time?
Sherri: Oh, my goodness! Well, Richard Pryor. And Bill Cosby, despite all of the craziness and, controversy, I think Bill Cosby still is one of the top comedians. And I love Wanda Sykes. And, you know, last time Chris reminded me I didn't put him in my top five, so I will put Chris Rock in my top five because I've seen Chris Rock in some situations pull out funny where I just didn't think it was going to happen. And Rita Rudner is one of my top five comics.
HTF: That's a great, that's a great top five. Recently you’ve been guesting on the Tom Joyner in the Morning Show, and killing that, and you also guest hosted on The Real, and of course you spent time on The View. You're really natural in that space. Is that a place that you'd like to expand back into? Maybe something dedicated to you? Is that somewhere you think you might want to go?
Sherri: Thank you. Yes, I would love to do my own talk show. It's so much fun give your opinion, and be funny. I am a fan of Ellen DeGeneres, like nobody's business (laughs,) and I think she's just captured making people comfortable. You sit on the couch with her and spill everything. And she’s able to still look at life in such a weird way. I love watching her. I love the fact that she makes you feel like she's your best friend. I would love to do that every single day on a talk show. Radio is fun, too, because to me it's like doing The View, only you can't see me (laughs.)
HTF: Last week on Tom Joyner, you talked about one of the ways to solve the issues with African-American employment rates was to have black people follow around white people and count how many they said a particular word...
Sherri: ...Right -the "N" word (laughs.) We talked about giving white people an "N" word cap. I think Tom said white people should only be able to say the "N" word ten times in a lifetime and they got on me 'cause I said I thought that was way too low. That's only like one time every ten years, you have to make something realistic that somebody can stick to (laughs.) And you know, topics like that, which are so serious and controversial, I love to talk about and dissect and bring out the humor in it because then it makes people think and talk.
HTF: Well comedy gives people a safe place to talk about really serious issues like that.
HTF: It was a funny bit, and it was a way to shine a light on the very serious issue regarding that word. And you can do that through comedy. You can have people laughing and thinking at the same time. That's one of the gifts of comedy when it's done right, when it's done meaningfully.
Sherri: Rights. I still feel, and I hate this, that that we're in a time where everything that we say is under scrutiny. I think that's very dangerous because I think the comedians job is to be the jester that says hey, “you have no clothes on,” and now there’s always some kind of backlash, or you find that everybody's apologizing. So that concerns me, but I love the fact that comedy can make people think and talk and discuss.
HTF: So what have you got next in the pipeline?
Sherri: Right now I'm shooting ten episodes of Cedric the Entertainer's sitcom The Soul Man. I play his cousin, and JB Smoove is around - we're doing a live episode - which will air March 18th, and JB Smoove is here 'cause he's a big guest star, making everybody crack up. I'm also shooting more scenes for Ride Along 2, with Kevin Hart, and I am very excited about that. So those two things are keeping me busy.
HTF: Outstanding. Well it's been fun talking to you. I wish you all the best.
Sherri: Thank you so much. Have a great day!