Comedian Mark Christopher Lawrence is a multi-dimensional artist who has successes in television, movies, comedy and theater. He is probably most well-known for his role as “Big Mike,” the manager of the “Buy More” in the hit television series “Chuck” — or for his role as “Mix Master Tone-Def” in the movie, “Fear of a Black Hat.” He is a thespian, too, having played roles such as “Fezziwig” in “A Christmas Carol” and “Grazziano” in “The Merchant of Venice.”
And then, there’s Lawrence the entrepreneur. He co-founded the “Black Theater Artist’s Workshop” with partners Barry Shabak Henley and Tarabu Betserai Kirkland. Lawrence’s own company, “Prayer Dudz,” produces Gospel Comedy DVDs, with the first in the series, “Shout!,” fresh out of the oven.
Lawrence currently serves as vice president of “Moxie Theatre of Encinitas.” An “Associate Guest Artist in Residence” at University of California at San Diego’s (UCSD) “Thurgood Marshall College,” Lawrence helps bring an awareness to the college’s newly launched African-American Studies minor. An artist with great heart, Lawrence also contributes his time, talent and dollars to several charities.
Lawrence, the bon vivant, enjoys gourmet cuisine and has cooked ever since he was in high school. In fact, good cooking is part of his company’s business plan.
Recently, AmericasComedy.Com had the pleasure to become better acquainted with Mark Christopher Lawrence.
Hellishly hilarious, but so clean he can perform in church
Lawrence’s act is impeccably clean and hilarious . . . church and any-other-venue appropriate, proving that “vulgar” and “funny” aren’t interdependent or synonymous. He feels no pressure to alter his work.
“I do what I do,” says Lawrence.
And, it doesn’t matter just how “blue” his openers are. Lawrence keeps it clean.
Favorite projects to date
Lawrence’s talent is so diverse, that the projects closest to his heart are varied and for different reasons.
“‘Terminator II’ because it changed the way we watch movies — with those special effects. It really changed the world of special effects. And, ‘Fear of a Black Hat’ because it is the only thing I’ve ever done that I watch and I don’t sit there and go, ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I should have done it like that.’ I did the voice of Ed Washington in ‘Adventures in Odyssey,’ a radio drama, which is part of the ‘Focus on the Family’ series. I really enjoyed doing that just because of the family values. I think those are some of my favorite things.”
The demand to grow and improve
Continual growth is important to Lawrence, as well as the ability to respond to the unique demands of each night, which is why Lawrence’s first love is theater, with stand-up comedy finishing a close second.
“I like theater better than all of them because, as an actor, that’s where you really grow and you have the opportunity to get better every night. It’s different every night. A close second would be stand-up because you get sort of the same feeling, except for there’s that extra feeling that you have to be funny, whereas, in a play, there are so many variables involved. You don’t know what your fellow actors have gone through throughout the day or the audience has gone through throughout the day, and so the actors and the audience give you something different each time. As a comic, you’re up there by yourself and, no matter what you went through throughout the day, you’ve got to bring it. If you fail, it’s because you failed.”
Growing up in Compton, Calif. wasn’t easy. The Crips and the Bloods were actively growing and recruiting at the time. Lawrence credits his mom for giving him a strong foundation and his high school English teacher, Mrs. Schilling, for saving his life.
“There probably were about eighteen guys within a year of my age either side, and of those eighteen guys, three of us are doing well. The rest are dead, in jail or hooked on crack.”
A strong mom
“My mother is clearly a very strong person. Growing up, she was very no-nonsense. She was a single mother with three kids who worked hard. She worked at ‘Douglas Aircraft’ in my younger years. And, she really instilled in us values (today, there is a lot of non-parenting going on). Given her challenges, she was able to give us the foundation we needed to make some good decisions in life. To this day, I talk to her when I have a problem. I can call her and talk things out with her. That’s great. My mother’s a very strong Christian woman and I think that plays a lot into the way I was raised.”
“Mrs. Schilling saved my life.”
Mrs. Schilling was Lawrence’s high school English teacher who continually pushed him to demand more of himself and to try new things. When asked to paint a word-picture of Mrs. Schilling, Lawrence waxed poetic. He responded that Mrs. Schilling was “Phyllis Diller-esque” — her hair was “always kind of wild” and so was her personality. Misty-eyed, Lawrence described her with the following syncopation:
“I think of Mrs. Schilling and I think about where I am. It would have been so easy for me to get involved in the wrong things growing up, because I grew up in a really tough neighborhood. She gave me something else to do. My first play she talked me into doing.”
“I truly believe that, had I not met her, there’s a great possibility I’d be dead today. She changed my life and saved it. Even though my mother was really a strong-souled person, the people I was hanging around with at that time when I met Mrs. Schilling clearly were bad influences. I grew up on the street in Compton called Killenplace, strangely enough. And Mrs. Schilling changed my life.”
“I was like the dumbest guy in the toughest English class in my school. My two best friends who I hung out with on the football team and on the wrestling team in high school said, ‘How did you get into that English class? What are you doing in there?’ I said, ‘I’m surviving.’ And that’s where I met Mrs. Schilling.”
“All of a sudden, I didn’t have a fifth period class and she talked me into coming to her fifth period class, which was speech. Once I got in there, she said, ‘Oh, you can’t pass this class unless you go to tournaments.’ I went to a speech tournament and got hooked. I loved it. I was terrified. I was doing a ten-minute speech in about four-minutes and thirty-eight seconds. But I clearly relished in it and ended up with a scholarship to UCSD from it. I love her!”
Practicing in the backyard
Lawrence’s best friend in high school and he decided to do comedy as a duo. They practiced their comedy routine in his backyard. One night, they decided that they were ready to do their three-minute bit on stage at “The Comedy Store.”
“So, we stood in line at ‘The Comedy Store’ in Hollywood and got on at midnight. We had some friends that were there and we were funny.”
Bitten by the comedy bug
Lawrence had been seriously bitten by the comedy bug by the time college rolled around. He attended UCSD on a debate scholarship, but debated only one semester, just long enough to fulfill the requirements of the scholarship. Lawrence’s focus was on competing in individual events — speech to entertain (which is stand-up with a message) and oral interpretation of literature — in which he excelled. Lawrence’s good friend Lester Barry, who is now a minister and a stand-up comic, and he performed at open mics.
“We would split the money, if one of us was in the money, just to help supplement . . . eating. I started working professionally as an actor in 1984, while I was still at UCSD.”
Making it work . . . step by step
After Lawrence graduated from college, he went to work with the “San Francisco Mime Troupe.” When that gig was over, he didn’t have a job. So, he began pursuing comedy on a regular basis.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I can make this work.’ Just how? So I went back to San Francisco where they were doing the ‘San Francisco Comedy Competition’ and I made it to semi-finals. And that made me go, ‘Okay, I can be a professional comedian because I’m in the semi-finals.’”
An act is born
Every week, Lawrence did a five-minute bit on “Dare to Laugh,” a cable television show. The director wanted Lawrence to do his bit in a show in Tacoma, Wash.
“So, on the plane, she said to me, ‘By the way, Speedy couldn’t come, so I need you to do a half-hour.’ And so I took out a business card and started writing down all my little five-minute bits. I just stared at that all the way, because now I’m terrified. I get there and I do thirty-seven minutes. I had a great set and, when I came off stage, I said to myself, ‘Wow! I have an act.’”
Shortly after the Tacoma gig, “Comedy Isle” had a competition in which Lawrence participated. From that, Lawrence got a two-week booking, his first. Within a year, Lawrence was headlining.
Writing it down
Lawrence jots down ideas for jokes everyday. When something strikes him, he writes it down.
“Sometimes, I’ll go back and a nice bit will come out of it. Other times, I’ll go back and and go, ‘What was I thinking about? What was that supposed to be?’ But I was talking with Scott Wood, who is a Christian comic, and he maps out time everyday to sit down and write. But he writes one-liners, so it’s easy to map out time to do it that way. I sort of tell stories, so I have to wait for things to come to me and then stretch them. And then, what happened? And then what happened? And then what happened?”
Structured, but not verbatim
Lawrence writes the joke out completely, but he doesn’t rehearse it. He writes it out so he knows “exactly what it is.” When he puts the joke on stage, he doesn’t try to say it verbatim.
“It’s not important to me that it comes out verbatim. Just the set-up and the punch need to be verbatim, usually. But, most of the time, if I try to do it verbatim, it sounds rehearsed. I write it out, just in case there’s something that comes out of that writing process that’s really brilliant and I go, ‘Whoa, that’s really good. I have to make sure that I say this part every time.’ And, also, I write it out so I know where it is. Often, when I get on stage and start talking, better stuff comes out.”
Advice for young comics
People often ask Lawrence what advice he’d give to a young comic.
“I always say this, ‘Know what you’re going to say because, especially, when you’re very new at it, if you don’t know what you’re going to say, you’re not going to be funny — even if you’re funny around your friends. You need to know what you’re going to say.’ That’s why I write the thing out and, hopefully, make it funnier.”
Sometimes poems just happen
Lawrence writes poetry, although he does not consider himself a poet. When questioned further as to how his poems are born, he replied, “I don’t know. Every once in awhile, something will just pop out of my head. Like I was on the train one day, and I kept passing by these little mile marker things that you could see from the train — and it kind of looked like headstones to me. I just started writing words down and when I finished, it was this little, short poem about a graveyard. So things just kind of pop into my head. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a poem today about such-and-such.’ I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”
Lawrence discovered that he could cook in the eleventh grade, when his mother was cooking Thanksgiving dinner and her back went out. Lawrence finished dinner for about twenty people, asking his mom throughout the process, “What do I do now?”
“Really, my mother was very practical in that every time — I was the baby, my brother was six years older — every time she taught him to do something, we all learned it. When my brother was learning to cook, we were all learning to cook. My brother was taught to do the laundry, we all learned to do the laundry.”
By the time Lawrence was in college, he was well-adept in the kitchen. Plus, Lawrence was always in the kitchen watching the cooks at the restaurants where he worked as a waiter and bartender.
“. . . People knew I could cook and they would buy food and I’d cook and we’d have dinner at my house and I could keep some leftovers. Now I’m at a point where, when I go to places and I taste something I like, I go home and make it. So, no formal training as a chef, but it’s one of those natural things. If I decided that that was the way I wanted to go, it would be an easy transition. I actually have an element in my business plan that opens a restaurant at the theater where I shot ‘Shout!’”
A bigger place to be
Lawrence has successfully designed his company to be diverse enough to create as many opportunities to work in as many different media and venues as possible, but his brand isn’t as well known as he’d like yet.
“I think as a comic, there’s a bigger place I can be with a bigger following. My swagger is really strong right now. Now is the time to really focus on building a following and getting to that place where ‘Mark Christopher Lawrence’ as a brand becomes recognizable, so that I can do an arena or a very large theater. That’s what I’m working for. I’d like to be next level all across the board.”
About the Author: Jennifer A Gordon is the author of "A Woman's Mind Half Naked," an empowered woman, and a lover of life in general and comedy in particular.