During the '80s and '90s, Marsha Warfield's fame rose to incredible heights, thanks to her roles on the TV shows Night Court and Empty Nest. She also has been in films ranging from Mask to D.C. Cab, and even hosted her own talk show
Warfield recently came out retirement to perform stand-up comedya journey that will bring her to Chicago and Rosemont on Feb. 6-9. Ahead of those shows, she talked with Windy City Times about coming out in 2017 ( with Warfield's mother asking her not to do so while the parent was alive ); the issues surrounding Kevin Hart hosting the Oscars; Richard Pryor's sexuality; and more.
Windy City Times: I didn't know you grew up in Chicago.
Marsha Warfield: Yes. I grew up in Chicago, and I was redlined and gerrymandered; I was sent to school because different lines were drawn. Schools were so overcrowded then; I think they're less crowded nowbut they're probably no less segregated. Back then, you learned a lot about people; I don't know about the book-learning, though. [Laughs]
WCT: Regarding segregation, it's still [prevalent]. There's a lot of diversity, but there's a lot of division.
MW: Yeahand I've made jokes about it. When Obama, at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, said, "There's no Black America, there's no white America…," I asked, "Where the hell is HE from?" [Both laugh.] I've been all over this country and I don't care where he is. "We'll get a car and make a loop around this city and hit all those Americas, and be back in time for you to say the next sentence."
WCT: How often do people see you and say, "Hey, Roz?" [She played Roz Russell on Night Court.]
MW: Now, it hardly happensif ever. When I go to the store, people will stop me and say, "Hey, I hate to bother you … but could you hand me that can?" [Interviewer laughs.] I started Night Court 33 years ago; there are people with children who've never heard of the show.
WCT: That show really did catapult you into the public eye. I remember that you were even featured on In Living Color…
MW: YeahKeenan [Ivory Wayans] played me, with boobs and a mustache.
WCT: So when you see something like that, what's your reaction?
MW: How did he know? [Interviewer laughs.]
WCT: So you just took it with a grain of salt.
MW: Well, it's nice when people… It takes a certain level of recognition and public acceptance for an impression to even be viable. It's very flattering; you have to look at it like that.
WCT: You've worked with so many people. I know you've been asked about Richard Pryor's sexuality, and you said he was open with everyone.
MW: Well, he talked about it in his act and in interviews. It was the kind I think other people were uncomfortable with, so they didn't really talk about it. I never knew him to hold back on anything; he was brutally honest.
WCT: Regarding your own sexuality, when did you know about yourself?
MW: You know when you're young, but you don't KNOW. I've been different all my life. I thought a lot of things people did were stupid, like the way men and women related to each other. As far as being gay, I had no concept of homosexuality growing up, so I had no box to put myself into. I called myself open to suggestionbut I got married and dated [men], but had no concept of homosexuality until I met a woman I fell in love with. Now, it's like, "Duh."
WCT: It's amazing to see how far we've come, in some respects. Schools have gay-straight alliances but, back in the day, there was just drama club.
MW: [Laughs] Well, I had the church. The church has always been full of [gay people], whether they were out or not. People knew who was gay in the church, but they were never accepted. We, in the Black community, have a very conflicted relationship with homosexuality; it's "Love the sinner, hate the sin." It's not really love at all. We have to get past that [way of thinking], but we have to acknowledge that it's a reality.
WCT: I also saw a 2018 article that said you were conflicted about Bill Cosby. Do you still feel conflicted about him?
MW: Yeah, in a way. Here again, there's that intersectionality bugaboo that makes everything … not black and white. Bill Cosby was a hero long before he was Cliff Huxtable. He was a comedian; he wasn't Pryor, but he was Bill Cosby.
WCT: In some ways, he was an anti-Pryor, being clean-cut.
MW: Right. That's what he stood fornow we call it "respectability politics," but back then that was what you were supposed to do. For this to be revealed and for someone to allude to [the assaults], and to have no vehicle to reveal this… I was horrified [to learn about Cosby], but I had no outlet.
WCT: You're back in the stand-up arena. I hear that stand-up is very difficult. Do you agree with that?
MW: Well, until I hear some people sing. [Both laugh.] Everything is difficult if you can't do it. I always thought people who could look at an empty space and take some nails and wood and build something are geniuses. You give ME some wood, bricks and a piece of paperand you'll come back next year and see wood, bricks and a piece of paper. [Interviewer laughs.] So you could say stand-up is hard to do but, for me, it's the most natural thing in the world.
WCT: Do you think audiences are too easily offended nowadays?
MW: I think there are too many comedians and too many wimps. They don't understand that it is an art form. Audiences have always been sensitive. When I started, you had to send everything to the censors before you could be on TVand it had to be approved; we don't do that anymore.
With nightclubs, we all know about Lenny Bruce. It wasn't just Pryor; there were many people knocking on those doors. There was the "seven dirty words" bit from George Carlin. Saturday Night Live broke barriers in being bold. Audiences have always been the moral arbiter of what's acceptable, and they still areand now you have the internet. Now, people can get together in bigger groups when they're upset. But you still have to bump that line, you still have to push that envelope and you still have to know where the boundaries areand I don't think anything's changed about that.
WCT: What are your thoughts about Kevin Hart and the whole Oscars controversy?
MW: You don't know how many times you might have to apologize for something. He took his own stand, and that's fine. But no one did anything to him; he took himself out as Oscars hostand he took himself out again. People can take whatever stand they want.
Regarding the Oscars, I think there's a familiarity problem. But with technology now, you can have your own Oscars if you want toand you might be a bigger draw than the [actual ceremony].
WCT: Now what can audiences expect at your upcoming Chicago-area shows?
MW: Me. [Both laugh.] It's not Marsha Warfield 1984, because she was a different woman; she was a closeted gay woman who was in the public eyethere was that "don't ask, don't tell" kind of thing.
At this point, you can't get me to stop talking about all the ways I'm rediscovering myself and taking a stand on issuesyou know, being Black, being old, being gay, being a woman. Where certain things need to be indicted, I indict them.
Comedy isn't just comedy, by the way. It's never "just a joke." It's a thought, an opinion, an observationthere's has to be substance to it or you might as well say, "bird, cat, dog, face."
WCT: What's one thing about you that would surprise some people?
MW: I'm not that tough. I cry all the time. When we did the last episode of Night Court, everyone went around and said something; I started, "I just want to say…"and I was the only one who started blubbering. I care about a lot of stuff, and I get emotional sometimes.
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