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Cedric the Entertainer on Touring, Comics and All Those Hats

Cedric the Entertainer is a man who wears many hats, both literally and figuratively.

Born Cedric Antonio Kyles, he launched his career in standup comedy more than 30 years ago, while still working a day job as a claims adjuster at State Farm Insurance in St. Louis. Since then he’s parlayed his brand of straightforward, crowd-pleasing comedy into such successes as the record-breaking “Kings of Comedy Tour,” acting in films including “Barbershop” and such shows as TV Land’s “The Soul Man” and TBS hit “The Last O.G.” Along the way, he’s proven he can tackle hosting (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”), Broadway (“American Buffalo”) and voice work (“Disney’s Planes” and the “Madagascar” series). He’ll be recognized for his achievements with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the live theater/live performance category at a ceremony on July 19.

And then there are the actual hats. Outside of John Wayne, it’s difficult to think of a performer more associated with trademark headwear, something Cedric started sporting while still in high school. “It’s a very St. Louis thing,” he notes. “There were a group of guys in high school who were the dressers, they had style. And they would wear these hats. Me and my friends wanted to be those guys, so that became a thing.” When he began performing onstage, the hats went with him. “If you wanted to represent yourself as a stylish male, you wore nice clothes and hats were a part of it. Coming out of the Midwest, trying to make a name for myself, the hat became part of who I am and where I’m from. ‘Oh, I’m from St. Louis, you’ll know by the hat.’”

It’s not just any hat that will work, though — there is a method. Often it’s about color coordination and comfort. “And you have to be careful when you’re on stage,” Cedric says. “Wider brims tend to cover your eyes. I’m facially expressive as part of my comedy. And I don’t want to wear my hat on the back of my head.”

He’s become such an expert that in 2011, Cedric even launched his own designer hat line, Who Ced. The only drawback is that, as expected, he now has too many. “My wife is like, ‘You’ve got to get rid of some of these hats!’ And I’ll say, ‘OK. But not that one. No, not that one, either!’”

While he says he doesn’t have any “lucky hats” per se, odds are he’ll pick something special when accepting his Walk of Fame honor. The recognition comes at an auspicious moment in his career. In addition to celebrating 30 years in comedy, he’s hot off the success of “The Last O.G.,” which snagged the best premiere ratings for an original series on TBS, and the critically acclaimed drama “First Reformed” with Ethan Hawke. In the fall, he’ll star in the CBS show “The Neighborhood,” which he is also exec producing. And of course, he is always working on his standup; in addition to his solo shows, he’s on tour with “The Comedy Get Down,” which includes George Lopez, D.L. Hughley and Eddie Griffin.
It’s a long way from his desk at State Farm Insurance. Growing up, he’d listen to comics including Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, and watch “The Carol Burnett Show” with his family. “I knew that I could entertain from a fairly young age,” says Cedric, who begged his mother, Rosetta Boyce Kyles, to let him attend a performing arts school. “My mother was an educator, a teacher, and she said no. I had this desire, but I never saw stand-up comedy as a viable thing.” Thus, his job as a claims adjuster. “Growing up in the Midwest, you’re happy to get a job. It was a fairly good life, I had a company car and a little expense account.”

There was only one problem. “I wasn’t a very good claims adjuster, because I would spend too much time having a good time,” he admits with a laugh. “I was the funny guy in the office and kind of this beloved character.”

“Whenever I would go by his office, there would be a pile of claims a foot high and people gathered around his desk,” confirms manager and producing partner Eric Rhone, who met Cedric in college and eventually ditched his job at Monsanto to move to L.A. with his pal. “He was the life of the party, the life of the office. But in six years, I never once saw him process a claim. Everybody would be having a good time.”

While it made him bad for insurance work, it was perfect for comedy. By this point, he was finding standup more accessible, thanks to such shows as “Evening at the Improv” and “Saturday Night Live.” He was also inspired by seeing Robin Harris, an actor and standup famous for his routine about “Bébé’s Kids,” perform. “Robin Harris came off like a favorite uncle who you knew really well,” says Cedric.

Clockwise from left: Cedric the Entertainer as Eddie in “Barbershop 2,” in “The Last O.G.” and with Steve Harvey.

Another lightbulb moment occurred when Cedric was about 25 years old and met his first stand-up comedian, Percy Crews. “I had never heard of a travelling comedian. He told me he made $1,100 one week and $1,400 the next. I asked how and he simply said, ‘Telling jokes.’ Even having this corporate job, I wasn’t making that kind of money.”

It was Crews who helped sign him up for the 1987 Johnnie Walker National Comedy Search. “I saw that Cedric had that ‘It’ factor and that people were drawn to him,” Crews tells Variety. (Crews was also responsible for putting the aspiring comic in touch with a friend of his, one Steve Harvey.)

From his first moment on stage, Cedric was sold. “It was one of those experience that hooked you in for the rest of your life,” he admits. “To go up and get laughs, and to do well, that was it.”

Cedric won $500 that night, and a career was launched. But still being cautious, he kept his day job for a couple more years while he hit every open mic he could find. And though his mother had always pushed for security, it was thanks to her that Cedric got a big break.

“She was living in the same apartment complex as the general manager of the Funny Bone, they had all these clubs around the country and could get you booked all over. She told him about me and he came to see me. He booked me and said eventually I could be on the national tour. When that happened, I was able to quit my job and just go for it.”

Though many comedians burn out touring or see it as merely a means to an end, i.e. a TV show or film career, Cedric still loves it to this day. “I like the immediacy of it. When you do television or film, you have a lot of people who are involved. When you do standup, it’s really your commentary. And you get an instant reaction. It’s just you and the audience.”

He also loves the camaraderie of touring and partnering with other comics such as on “The Kings of Comedy” and “The Comedy Get Down.” Though often regarded as a cutthroat business, Cedric says he thinks of it as a team sport. “Comedy is subjective. People can get into competitions about these things. And I just feel this is the one business where there isn’t direct competition.”

He points to when Kevin Hart took off as a comic. “People said, ‘Yo, dude, don’t you hate that?’ And I was like: Why would I hate that? I love that. He’s his own person, his lane is his lane, and that works for him. And when a comic like him gets big, it only shows you there’s room out there. It’s not like being an athlete where I have to win a championship to prove I’m the greatest.”

So he’s more than happy to share the screen with other funny people, be it co-starring with his King of Comedy pal on “The Steve Harvey Show” for six seasons or supporting Tracy Morgan on “The Last O.G.” Ask who makes him laugh now, and you’ll get answers as varied as Jeremiah “J.J.” Williamson, who frequently opens for him, and George Lopez, Bill Maher or Billy Crystal. Coming up, some of his favorite comics were the late Richard Jeni, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams.

Like Carrey and Williams, who moved from comedy into acclaimed dramatic work, Cedric is starting to explore more dramatic roles. He’s already worked alongside the Coen brothers (“Intolerable Cruelty”) and Spike Lee, who directed “The Original Kings of Comedy” concert film. He won raves for his turn opposite John Leguizamo in “American Buffalo” and hopes to return to the stage in the near future. And he’s also garnering great reviews for his pivotal role in “First Reformed” as Pastor Jeffers, the leader of Abundant Life and who helps guide Ethan Hawke’s struggling man of faith.

Cedric the Entertainer continues to tour around the country in between TV, film and the occasional stage roles.
Jeff Daly/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

He met with writer-director Paul Schrader, who Cedric says, “wanted someone that people believed and trusted automatically, right away. He didn’t necessarily want an actor. In his mind, he was kind of thinking, ‘like Steve Harvey.’” Someone recommended Cedric, and Schrader wasn’t sure he could do more than comedy. “So I told him, ‘I understand this completely. I get what this role is, I understand this guy.’”

The second time they spoke, Schrader said he had the role, and Cedric calls the experience “perfect,” reveling in the opportunity to do a fully dramatic role. “And I love the idea of doing smaller, scene-stealing roles so you can grow your audience in that direction.”

Schrader, for his part, loved being with Cedric both on and off set. “Walking around New York and Toronto with Cedric was a delight and revelation,” he tells Variety. “People’s eyes light when they recognize him. He brings joy wherever he goes.”

In between his many projects, Cedric also finds time for charity endeavors: He has been raising awareness for Type 2 diabetes the past three years, and has hosted an annual fundraising gala in St. Louis since 2013.

“I admire how engaged he is in social issues and always uplifting the community,” says Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who is scheduled to speak at Cedric’s Walk of Fame ceremony.

For his turn in “First Reformed,” Cedric did something he hadn’t planned on since he made a name for himself; he went by his real name. In the movie, he is credited as Cedric Kyles. He admits he wasn’t sure about the swap at first, but now feels it was the right choice.

“It all began because I would be introduced at clubs and the emcee would keep introducing people as, ‘This next comedian …’ And I didn’t have enough jokes in the beginning, and wasn’t comfortable calling myself a comedian,” he explains. “I did a hodge-podge of things, really, and only had a few minutes of straight jokes. So I said, ‘Call me an entertainer.’ And he introduced me as ‘Cedric the Entertainer,’ and I had this great show and got a standing ovation, and it stuck. And I kept it.”

What: Cedric the Entertainer receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m., July 19
Where: 6212 Hollywood Blvd.
Web: walkoffame.com

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