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Cedric the Entertainer brings his authentic self to ‘The Neighborhood’

The veteran actor/comedian/producer is about being funny — and changing television

“I played both shortstop and third base when I was younger,” says Cedric the Entertainer. The respected comedian and screen veteran was raised in Caruthersville, Missouri, just three hours from the baseball-crazy city of St. Louis. “I was a decent hitter, but I got to that high school level where you start to meet the kid bound to be in the pros. That’s when a dude threw a fastball at me, in my freshman year … probably 93 mph. That ball came in tight and shook me to my core. (Laughs) I’m thinking, man … if you would have hit me … I ain’t doing this right here. We used to throw rocks at each other in my little country town, so I know that rocks hurt. I wasn’t going to be getting hit by a baseball!”

Cedric, 54, is star of the feisty hit The Neighborhood, CBS’s first black-centered comedy since 2000, a gentrification sitcom about an African American family adjusting to white neighbors. Cedric is also a scene-stealing regular on Tracy Morgan’s gem on TBS, The Last O.G., which recently returned for its second season.

As the older heads say, Cedric the Entertainer can keep a job.

So it’s kind of thanks to the baseball gods that Cedric Antonio Kyles found his true calling in the stand-up world. During Cedric’s stint as a claims adjuster at State Farm Insurance in the late ’80s, a friend persuaded him to enter a St. Louis comedy competition. He ended up winning the whole thing, took on his now-famous moniker Cedric the Entertainer and honed his craft on the cutthroat comedy club circuit. By 1993, his folksy, around-the-way humor earned him a hosting gig on BET’s ComicView.

Since landing his first acting gig on The Steve Harvey Show in 1996, Cedric has appeared in the record-breaking 2000 Kings of Comedy tour, featuring Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac; voice work in the animated classics Ice Age (2002) and Madagascar (2005); and an acclaimed role in the hit Barbershop (2002). Cedric has also headlined his own TV Land sitcom The Soul Man, tackled Broadway as a cast member of 2008’s American Buffalo and hosted Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC. As the older heads say, Cedric the Entertainer can keep a job.

The Neighborhood and The Last O.G. are mainstream shows that stand with ‘hood, underdog spines. Is this something you look for when choosing roles?

It comes naturally for me. Even with The Neighborhood, I needed my character to have authenticity. You don’t want to … sell out what you represent. So it was important that a family man like Calvin Butler represent black men and grown folks the way I see them and the way I want them to be seen and recognized. Same with The Last O.G.’s Miniard [Mullins], who is supervisor of a halfway house. He’s just trying to improve the lives of people.

Before we dig more into The Last O.G. and your stand-up career, we have to talk about how you first became involved in The Neighborhood. Is it true you didn’t like the original script?

I was in a development deal with CBS. They had The Neighborhood script with Jim [Reynolds]. When I read it, I had a lot of reservations. Jim was writing a story loosely based off his life experiences. And of course, he totally had the black people wrong. (Laughs) I was like, ‘Nah, bruh. We don’t feel that way.’ I stepped away from the project.

“The joke was: How do we even get my audience to look at CBS?”

What made you come back to the table?

I finally got the chance to meet Jim, and we talked. He earnestly wanted The Neighborhood to be right. He was like, ‘I just really was kind of speaking from my point of view. And I thought what I was saying was the right thing.’ From there we had robust dialogue, and then we started to develop the show together. That’s how I became the executive producer on The Neighborhood.

There is also a Norman Lear feel to some of The Neighborhood’s third-rail topics — gentrification, political polarization and racism — as well as the multi-camera, throwback way it’s shot.

We’re definitely paying homage to Lear. [I grew] up when Norman Lear was producing some super prime-time TV shows — and they also happened to be extremely controversial. Not only did they make you laugh, they made you think, ask questions and stretch. From Good Times to All in the Family to The Jeffersons … those comedies changed the world.

Have you received any pushback for some of your character’s views on race?

It was the audacity of Calvin to not want white neighbors. (Laughs) We saw this when people viewed the pilot. And we saw this on most of our social media responses. And more than anything, white men that are of the Donald Trump age were the most highly offended. You cannot say anything about them. They feel the world should accept everything that they do. That’s when you hear things like ‘reverse racism.’ But what they don’t understand is Calvin has a stance about his neighborhood. They don’t understand that gentrification is a real issue.

It gets lost in translation.

Right. My character has a stance about earning this right in the world to have his block and the things he has earned. There are a lot of people who think black people don’t deserve that. Calvin represents the grown black man who has worked hard and supports his family, takes care of his boys and wife. He feels like, ‘Hey, man. You can’t tell me nothing. I own this.’ The direction of the show and what I’ve always wanted to say is we oftentimes place people in these monolithic groups and we make them Republican, liberal, conservative, black and white. But what we find is there are spaces where you can actually disagree with [people] and still get work done.

When The Neighborhood was first announced, there was a lot of talk about how the series was CBS’s loudest acknowledgment of the criticism about the network’s lack of diversity. How aware were you that it was the first sitcom headlined by a mostly black cast since 2000’s Cosby?

Acutely aware. It was a part of how I negotiated my deal. I was like, ‘Look, y’all haven’t had any black people on here since the second Cosby show.’ (Laughs) I have to mention Jermaine Fowler, the kid who was on the show Superior Donuts … he was one of the lone black actors on CBS. The Neighborhood is me with a black wife, black kids … a heavily African American-related show. I knew our series was something out of CBS’s wheelhouse. The joke was: How do we even get my audience to look at CBS?

How cool is it that Tichina Arnold is finally being acknowledged as one of the best comic actors of her era?

Tichina is such a high-level talent. When we were casting for the role of my wife, we were getting down to the end of it and we kind of went through all the usual suspects. All of the other star actresses were working on other projects, and Tichina was actually up for another project. She literally at the 13th hour became available. She’s so dynamic as a personality. You can go to her for comedy and drama. She has all that real stuff that kills the game.

Your sports fandom as a St. Louis Cardinals fan is well-known. But you have to explain how you became a Pittsburgh Steelers and a Chicago Bulls fan.

The weird thing is before I moved to St. Louis, I lived in the small blue-collar town called Caruthersville, Missouri, and everybody there was a Steelers fan. This was back in the Franco Harris and “Mean” Joe Greene days. I had Pittsburgh Steeler jerseys and lunch boxes, skullies. It was literally embedded in me. That was my team, man. And because we didn’t have an NBA franchise, Chicago was our closest team. We would jump on Southwest and 45 minutes later we’re in Chicago hanging out and going to the Bulls games and watching [Michael] Jordan, [Scottie] Pippen and them.

I know you have great Bernie Mac stories.

When I was on tour with the Kings of Comedy, I used to go on first [during the inaugural run]. We were in Oakland, and there was an intermission before Bernie’s set. So before he performed, people were hanging out in my dressing room. A lot of celebs, like E-40 and Gary Payton, were there, and Bernie just started doing comedy in my dressing room. He had everybody dying, and he just turned around and walked out. And I’m like, ‘Hey … this is my room, man!’

You’re not only working with one of the pros behind The Big Bang Theory, you are also featured in The Last O.G., executive produced by Us director Jordan Peele, the hottest commodity in Hollywood. How often do you hug your agent?

(Laughs) I just try to stay busy. And I’m still down to jump on a rap hook like I did with “Threat” on Jay-Z’s album. And I still do stand-up. Those are the kind of things you do to just be a part of the culture, man. You realize as you get older that you don’t want to start to look like the old dude in the club. But I keep my swag, and I still got my hats. (Laughs)

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."