Stubbing out his fourth cigarette in an hour and taking another sip of Veuve Clicquot, Eddie Griffin sits back and says, “At this stage of the game it ain’t about pushin’. It’s about havin’ fun.
“Nuttin’ left to prove. Been there, done that.”
If you lost track of the 45-year-old comedian in the years since “Malcolm & Eddie” or “Undercover Brother,” he doesn’t seem worried about it.
For the past 17 months, Griffin has been an almost-undercover Las Vegas headliner, working a 150-seat converted restaurant inside the Rio. And he seems fine with that.
The Rio is 10 minutes from his house, where four of his nine children still live with him. For the past year, the low-profile residency has given life a new routine: doing his unfiltered stand-up at the Rio Monday through Wednesday, then hitting the road on weekends to work as far out of town as London, Dubai and Norway.
“Here in Vegas you can smoke anywhere. Damn near smoke at the grocery store,” he says of the main motivator for moving from Los Angeles two years ago. “I found some great schools for the kids. The people here are just cool.”
Usually in Las Vegas, a performer who sticks around more than a year, doing solid business with an average ticket price of about $90, would be asking — or asked — to move into a bigger room. But Griffin says he wouldn’t change a thing, unless it’s seeing a little more of himself on signage in and around the Rio.
“I don’t want that kind of pressure, selling out a thousand seats on the three slowest nights of the week.”
Besides, the King’s Room reminds him of The Comedy Store in West Hollywood. That’s where he first broke through in the 1980s, after his mother in Kansas City told him, “You’re a big fish in a small pond. Go out to the ocean and see if you’re a whale.”
As a little fish, Griffin worked as a busboy in a Kansas City comedy club before going onstage to answer a dare from a cousin. “I took his $50. First time onstage, 45 minutes, standing ovation.”
But even then, “They said I was a little blue to their tastes. I said, ‘What is blue?’ I didn’t even know the lingo.”
Griffin didn’t meet his father until he was 16. Those who have seen his autobiographical concert movie “Dysfunctional Family,” or short-lived 2009 reality show “Going for Broke,” know about the male role models in his life. One uncle was a pimp and the other a pornographer.
”Personal porn,” Griffin says, flashing his sly smile. “He’ll bring you by the house and give you a bag of popcorn and put on a video of him. … When we did the reality show (the producer and crew) thought I was joking.” So Griffin sent them to his uncle’s house to find out for themselves.
When the film commenced, “They ran up the street.”
I tell him that comedian Ralphie May believes no great comic ever had a normal childhood.
“What’s normal?” he counters. “Normality is an illusion, a standard set by society over the years. What’s normal for one person ain’t normal for another.”
Griffin says he might have been genetically programmed to be a pilot. As a child he was obsessed with model airplanes, and in 10th grade he won free flight lessons. When he finally met his dad, he learned he had been a military pilot, “so it was in my blood since birth.”
But so was comedy.
Griffin was the class clown but never thought of comedy “as a business” until he started performing in clubs. After that, he said, “I never questioned that it wouldn’t work out. When I put my mind to something, it’s done. I don’t take no for an answer.”
He found his way to Hollywood, where Eric Tannenbaum, head of Columbia TriStar Television, saw his stand-up and paired him with Malcolm-Jamal Warner for the UPN sitcom “Malcolm & Eddie” in 1996.
Four seasons of that led to the ’70s blaxploitation spoof “Undercover Brother” in 2002.
“One of my favorites.”
Like a lot of people, Griffin assumed it would be a long-running franchise. “Everybody asks for a part two. To this day,” he says. But he shrugs off the lack of a sequel as “politics.” “Somehow Universal got scared of it.”
After that came the point at which Griffin fell off the mainstream radar. He explains at least some of that time as a break devoted to raising his children; the youngest is now 3 and the oldest, Eddie Jr., 28, runs lights and sound for his dad and gets local club work as a DJ.
Because his own father wasn’t around, “I always prided myself on stopping that pattern in one generation. I’m going to be the father I always wanted,” he said.
Griffin does act alongside Danny Trejo in the upcoming action comedy “Mucho Dinero,” which was shot last year and still awaiting release. He also pursues music — which “gives the savage in me peace” — when not globe-hopping as a stand-up.
Anyone can learn to tell a joke, but “comedians are born, looking at things through skewed eyes. Our perception of the world is … different,” he says.
“We see it all differently, looking behind and seeing the wizard pressing buttons when everyone else is amazed at what the wizard is doing.”
He says he never writes a joke down. “True blues don’t write, it’s just natural,” he says. Besides, he is “cursed with a photographic memory.”
“I lay in bed and play the show back in my head, and say, ‘OK, laugh needed. That was tight, keep it. Drop that, tighten this up, bring that over here, add this in and see if it works.”
Griffin is about ready to go onstage and do all that, having completed both this interview and some voice-over promos for gigs in cities he will visit soon.
It’s a fairly seamless transition from this backstage area of the old steakhouse to the stage that awaits him. He will refill his Veuve and take the glass, along with his pack of smokes, out to the stage with him.
“I just walk on. Say one little prayer, that’s it,” he said.
“You live up there,” he adds, explaining that he’s not doing a show per se. “I’m giving you part of my life right now.”
Contact Mike Weatherford at email@example.com or 702-383-0288.