With American funny man and Hollywood star Mike Epps performing in Abu Dhabi this weekend, we survey his journey from crashing on his manager’s couch to cinematic success
American comic Mike Epps: 'A lot of people don’t understand that show business comes with a lot'
When Mike Epps left Indianapolis in search of stardom in his early 20s, he promised that he wouldn’t be back.
Having played a few shows in Chicago to a receptive audience, Epps picked the Windy City as his first choice to set up.
Business was bad, however – the leads dried up and phone calls to comedy clubs were rarely returned.
A few months later, Epps jumped back on the bus for an 11-hour ride to Atlanta. This was in the early 1990s and a decade before the American city would flourish as an African-American entertainment hub.
Once again, the opportunities available were not sustainable, and after a year, in 1995, Epps packed up his suitcase and headed for New York.
It all came to a head in Brooklyn two years later. Epps’s $1,500 (Dh5,509.50) savings, a cash injection from his tax returns, ran out.
He couldn’t afford the rent and there were no gigs in sight.
“I had a manager who believed in me, who told me that I couldn’t stay with him and I have to move back to Indianapolis,” Epps recalled last year.
“I cried my heart out, because I bragged to everybody that I was gone.”
Sensing the gravity of the situation, the manager allowed Epps to crash on his couch for two weeks, providing that he found a job – any job.
Those two weeks became two years. That desperation armed Epps with a newfound steely focus, and finally, the gigs started coming through. As well as landing a coveted spot in influential stand-up comedy television show Def Comedy Jam (which helped discover African-American comic luminaries including Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker and the late Bernie Mac), Epps’s droll humour was noticed by veteran television producer David Chase, who was developing a mobster drama called The Sopranos.
Epps landed his first acting on role in 1999 in the second episode of its game-changing debut season, as a petty criminal who feels the wrath of the crime kingpin Tony Soprano (played by the late James Gandolfini) for stealing the car of his son’s science teacher.
“It just started working for me, but I realised I had to move to Hollywood,” he recalled. “I jumped on the Greyhound again. Thought my life over a hundred times; it took me seven days to get there.”
It was while performing there that he was spotted by Ice Cube. The rapper, actor and movie producer was looking for a comedic foil to his straight guy for Next Friday (2000), the second instalment of the big-selling urban comedy series.
A few days before the audition, one of Epps’s best friends was murdered in Los Angeles. Epps arrived to the audition straight from the funeral.
“I took my suit off in the car, put on my clothes and I was crying” he said.
“I went in there, and saw Ice Cube’s wife sitting there and when I was doing it (performing), and she was laughing hard, and when I see her laughing I was like: ‘Oh boy.’ Cube also started laughing, and when I walked out the room, he nodded his head.”
Epps’s role as street hustler Day-Day synchronised all of his comedic talents; that neurotic personality tempered with a lackadaisical delivery. His darting eyes and rubbery face also showed that he was agile enough to venture into physical comedy when needed.
Epps went on to cement himself on the big screen with winning roles in blockbuster comedy The Hangover (2009), a more-dramatic turn in 2012’s Sparkle and last year’s comedy-slasher flick Meet the Blacks.
The film success hasn’t come at the price of his stand-up career, however. Epps has been a regular performer on the comedy circuit, with regular American tours and rare jaunt overseas, including Australia and, this weekend, at Abu Dhabi’s Al Raha Beach Theatre.
“I saw him last summer during my travels in the States,” Emirati comic Ali Al Sayed says.
“If you have seen the Friday movies, then you will know what Epps’s style is about. He has this great conversational style. He is just telling you stories. Also he is the kind of guy that would just add on to any situation. So if something happens and Mike Epps is in your group, you automatically look at him to see what he thinks of it.”
While Epps went on to appear in his own fair share of movie failures, such as box-office bombs Bait (2000), The Honeymooners (2005) and Soul Men (2008), critics have often acknowledged that his supporting roles elevated the lacklustre material.
It’s one of the reasons why he never found himself out of work since Next Friday – instead of being a star, Epps preferred to focus on making himself indispensable to films.
It’s the kind of approach born out of years of struggle.
“He is one of the hardest-working people I know in show business,” says Mutah Beale, a former American rapper who performed under the artist name Napoleon and was part of hip-hop icon Tupac’s group The Outlawz. Epps was the executive producer of Beale’s autobiographical documentary Life of an Outlaw.
Beale, who presently works as a youth instructor in Saudi Arabian city Jeddah, says he first met Epps nearly 20 years ago in Los Angeles when the comic star was on the rise.
“We knew of each other, and back then he was starring in these big movies, but you know what? He was just a great guy to be hanging around,” he says. “A lot of that comes down from the fact that we all came from the ’hood. He went through a lot himself and he knew that he couldn’t take it for granted. I would visit him in his nice house in Hollywood Hills, and he would talk about the early days and reminisce. He does this to remind himself that all these nice things can go.”
Talking recently to American hip-hop radio show The Breakfast Club, Epps describes show business is all about mental endurance.
“It is the survival of the fittest. A lot of people don’t understand that show business comes with a lot and there are layers that you have to deal with,” he says.
“It’s a mental game and lot of guys can’t deal with it. They can get torn down in their mind about life. The good thing about my situation is that I have been told “no” a lot as a kid. So rejection means nothing to me. I would just say “all good” and come back at you 100 times harder.”
Epps’s performance in the UAE continues to solidify the country as tour stop on the global comedy circuit. He joins a growing list of American comedy heavyweights who have performed here, including Dave Chappelle as part of the 2015 Dubai Comedy Festival and Kevin Hart at Abu Dhabi’s du Arena last year.
The next big-hitter making his UAE debut is Chris Rock, who is set to take the stage at the Dubai World Trade Centre on January 5.
“The bigger the names that come here the more a good effect it has on the region,” says Al Sayed, one of the organisers of the Dubai Comedy Festival.
“With Dave Chappelle coming to Dubai and Kevin Hart saying his Du Arena gig was amazing, it has a trickle-down effect. When people who everyone looks up to say they had a great time performing in the UAE, then everyone will start coming. And we are now starting to really see that.”
Mike Epps performs at Al Raha Beach Theatre in Abu Dhabi on Friday. Tickets start at Dh145 at www.platinumlist.net