Topper Carew: Remembering Robin

Robin Harris is arguably one of the best stand-up comedians the average HBO subscriber never heard of. Yet despite his anonymity within mainstream circles, Harris was revered in the realm of Black comedy. So much so, that greats like Martin Lawrence and Joe Torry credit a portion of their success to the late comedian, who […]

Robin Harris is arguably one of the best stand-up comedians the average HBO subscriber never heard of. Yet despite his anonymity within mainstream circles, Harris was revered in the realm of Black comedy. So much so, that greats like Martin Lawrence and Joe Torry credit a portion of their success to the late comedian, who died before graduating to superstar status.

Harris often paid dues by performing in local bars, bowling alleys and strip joints, and always stayed close to his family. His unique outlook on life, coupled with audience interaction, introduced a new style of humor that changed the way comedians approached and perfected their art. As a result, Harris’ star rose in the late ‘80s and early ’90s with roles in I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, House Party, Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues.

Sixteen years after his death, Harris’ manager and friend Topper Carew is keeping the funnyman’s memory alive with the release of We Don’t Die, We Multiply: The Robin Harris Story, a 90-minute documentary DVD that takes look inside Harris’ world and the influence he had on his peers. The award winning TV and film producer recently sat down to chat about Harris’ legacy, his comedic style, the difference between Black comedy and white comedy and why Hollywood was brought to him. Alternatives: How would you describe Robin?

Topper Carew: I would describe Robin Harris as one of the greatest Black stand-ups who ever lived and the greatest master of ceremonies who ever lived. Robin could do something no other comic could do. He could go out into the audience and make the members of his audience the subjects of his comedy. He could go on for hours with that.

When you went into Robin Harris’ room where he was on stage, you did not want to get up and go to the bathroom. You did not want to come in late. If you came in late, he would throw the spotlight on you and talk about you from the door until you got to your seat. If you got up to go to the bathroom, he’d talk about you from the time you got up until you got to the stairs to go to the bathroom. And as soon as you came back, he’d talk about you from the time you came down the stairs ‘til you got back to your seat. If you were making a bad fashion statement, he would talk about your fashion, and he could do this in a way that would make the subject laugh about it. It was never mean-spirited. It was never harsh and you, the subject of his comedy, would have to laugh along with him and the audience as well.

The other thing about Robin that’s so curious, is he never used the n-word and he never used the mf-word. I mean, he didn’t rely on those devices for his comedy. He basically relied on his experience and his wit and a deep sense of humor.

Robin grew up in South Central, lived in South Central, worked in South Central, did his grocery shopping in South Central. His comedic point of view was of an everyday, regular kind of guy who happened to be funny – who happened to use people that he observed and experiences that he had as the source of his humor. He was a little bit overweight. He was a little bit short. He had bloodshot eyes and a chipped tooth, and he did not fit the pretty boy mold that was so prevalent in Hollywood in that day and time. He was someone who could’ve been your cousin, your uncle, your friend, your schoolmate.

AHHA: What motivated you to do this documentary?

Topper: I knew Robin, and I was concerned that his memory would slip away. I want Robin to have a place in the Black comedy annals of time. I want to make sure that people who never saw him or people who didn’t know him get a chance to observe and experience the special comedic gift of Robin Harris.

AHHA: How long did it take to put this documentary together?

Topper: It took about 18 months, because it required a lot of thought. How to tell the story of this man, how to best represent him on film and how to tell his life story, which has a tragic ending, in a way that it wasn’t a full handkerchief weeping job, but could cause you to get a sense of his special gift of humor. But at the same time, have a sense of his life story

AHHA: Was it a challenge getting people involved?

Topper: People love Robin like he was here yesterday. It’s amazing to me. He’s been gone for 16 years, but people still remember him and love him, and people even recite his jokes. The comics see Robin as a special figure in their lives. D.L. Hughley said he was like Moses leading us to the promised land, but he never got to see it. Cedric [the Entertainer] said that he opened doors for many of us.

Robin’s style was such that he created a new authenticity for Black comedy. It wasn’t joke joke joke joke joke. It was comedy that was more about the real everyday experience of real, everyday people. And because he sort of broke that pretty boy mold, and because his comedy was unsanitized by Hollywood, he created a new tone that Black people could respond to.

AHHA: Can you break down the difference between the white comedy style versus the Black comedy style?

Topper: I think that Black comics, the authentic Black comics, work very hard to keep it real. And the challenge in that is to keep it smart and not to necessarily be crude or raw… And so I think that white comedy tends to be more out of the head and Black comedy, Black comics tend to physicalize their acts and be more concerned about the storytelling, sort of acting it out and walking it out. They love to own the stage and they look for that call and response and that interactivity that you get at a good music concert or that you get in the Black church. They want to know that the audience is with them, and so Black comics, more regularly than not, go after the audience.

Now I’m talking about pure Black comedy. I’m not talking about comedy that’s been sanitized. What I’m saying, is that if you go into a Black situation or a Black room, Black comics want to know that that audience is right there with them and they’re engaging that audience and they want that interactivity. They crave that interactivity.

AHHA: Robin was your first management client. Based on all the stuff that you said about him physically, he may not have been the ideal client to start off with. What exactly did you see in this guy?

Topper: I saw an enormously gifted talent who was the funniest person I’ve ever seen in my life – who I believed deserved a shot. My contemporaries were saying, “He is incredibly funny, but he’ll never make it, because he doesn’t fit the Hollywood cookie cutter mold.” In my belief, that’s criminal when you have somebody who was as gifted and who was as talented as Robin Harris. So that’s why I got into the management business – because I felt that Robin Harris deserved a shot.

AHHA: In the DVD, you touch on the concept of bringing Hollywood to Robin. Can you explain that a little more?

Topper: Traditionally, you present talent to the buyers in Hollywood and so we started out like that. The word had started to circulate about Robin… and people wanted to start taking meetings with him. Robin was a neighborhood person who had big ideas and big dreams, but he wasn’t yet accustomed in his career to making those Hollywood meetings in those big towers with those big marble tables and the big leather chairs. It wasn’t happening, because in South Central he was the king. But suddenly when you go to one of these meetings, you’re not like the king anymore. So it just wasn’t fitting his temperament or his style.

We made a decision that we would start to bring people to the club in South Central to see him, so I would caravan people from Hollywood to South Central. Executives and agents and producers to see Robin Harris on his stage, in his neighborhood, doing his thing with his audience. When people realized that they could go to his club and see him and it was a safe environment…It wasn’t the South Central that they had come to believe through all those gangsta movies and rap videos. In fact, it was a pretty solid neighborhood where people raise families, got jobs, have aspirations…

When they realized that you could come to this club and see him in his world, you now understood how powerful he was as a comic. That’s a very different experience than sitting across from Robin Harris in Hollywood in a conference room. To get a sense of his real power, you had to see him in his environment making an audience laugh for a couple of hours.

AHHA: With today’s comedians, no one really acknowledges the influence of Robin. In your opinion, about what percentage of today’s comedians’ style have been influenced by Robin?

Topper: I think Robin opened the door for a generation of comics. And I think that Bernie [Mac], Cedric, DL [Hughley], Joe Torry, Buddy Lewis.. I think a few of them have been directly influenced by Robin Harris…I think there are definitely some people who have influenced by him who are in that present success generation.

AHHA: Why hasn’t Robin gotten the recognition of, say, Richard Pryor as far as being one of the greatest stand-ups around?

Topper: Because our community is slow to acknowledge greatness, and Robin was about to cross over in a big way. When he died, he was about to have his own series on CBS. He was about to do three movies for Paramount. If he hit mainstream, people would’ve said, “Yeah there he is. He’s one of the greatest.”

He’s one of the greatest in the Black community, but for everybody to be unanimous behind him as one of the greatest, you gotta be doing mainstream stuff. And because he never got to do that mainstream stuff, he never gained the level of acceptance and recognition. So I’ve taken the initiative to say that here was a great one. He never got to the mainstream, but in the Blackstream he is easily one of the best comics that ever lived.

AHHA: If Robin were alive today, what do you think he would be doing right now?

Topper: If he was alive today, he would be opening the door for as many of his friends and open the door for as many young comics as he possibly could.

AHHA: Many comedians have segued in to the world of drama or family film. Do you think Robin would’ve progressed into either of those realms or something entirely different?

Topper: Hmmmm. I really don’t know what Robin would’ve done. I wish I could tell you. I don’t know.

AHHA: What do you miss most about Robin?

Topper: I used to go see Robin every Thursday night for years, and no show was the same. So I miss seeing Robin Harris perform. And I also miss the friendship.