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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The 36-Year-Old Virgin

If you’re one of the many who paid to see the $150 million–earning Knocked Up last summer, then Craig Robinson’s face should trigger a laugh or three. In his first mainstream film role, he made an impression as a nightclub bouncer denying entry to the pregnant heroine (Katherine Heigl) and her 40-plus-year-old sister (Apatow’s wife, Leslie Mann). Largely improvised, the scene is Robinson at his best, equal parts scolding and sweet as he tells Mann, “It’s not that you’re not hot. I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. But I can’t let you in ’cause you old as fuck—for this club, not, you know, for the Earth.”

Now, a year later, Robinson is starring in Pineapple Express, the latest Apatow outing for which the producer has teamed up with Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen. Needless to say, he’s thrilled. “It’s like being a role-player on a championship team’s bench,” he says. “Come in, shoot a three, then go back to flirting with the cheerleaders. But now I’m trying to become a starter.”

His early days are the stuff of Apatow’s films, in fact—full of dead-end jobs, rejection and girl trouble. After graduating in 1994 from Illinois State University, the Chicagoan followed in his mother’s footsteps, working as an elementary school music teacher by day. But by night, he’d work the mics as a struggling stand-up comic. One particularly unforgiving gig was at a place known as Heckler’s Heaven—a Chicago bar that regularly held open-mic nights and was known for its make-or-break audiences. There, if your joke bombed, you’d be assaulted by a cavalcade of rubber chickens, culminating in an offstage yanking à la Sandman Simms. “Man, did I suck the first time I played there,” says Robinson. “With all the boos, you’d have thought it was bin Laden onstage.”

Undeterred, he decided to cull from his own experiences: embarrassing, relatable and hilarious anecdotes from his college days, delivered with a twist. “I figured I’d at least be original,” he says. So he took the stage armed with funny real-life stories and his Roland JV-30 keyboard. “One night when I was in college, I [booty-called some girl and] started singing a Craig Robinson original: ‘Can I Have Some Booty?’” he says. Although amused, shorty wasn’t buying it. “She was laughing, but more at me than with me,” he recalls. Still, he thought: What made one girl giggle could surely make a crowd cheer, right?

Robinson took that logic all the way back to Heckler’s Heaven. And then one night, sitting behind his instrument, switching from spoken-word to singsong, he suddenly didn’t suck. “The crowd was hypnotized,” he says. “I’ve never done a stand-up set without that keyboard since. It’s crazy what not scoring some booty can do for a brother.”

In the realm of up-and-coming black comedians, Robinson is a fresh voice. Rather than shocking and awing like Dave Chappelle, or tapping into our sociopolitical subconscious like Chris Rock, Robinson takes on the everyday—guys-versus-girls issues—with a subdued, sardonic approach. “I sincerely believe in the hope that there’s somebody out there for everybody,” he deadpans. “And the more I date, the more I realize that my person died at birth or something.” His punch lines are delivered with the same matter-of-factness as their setups, leaving audiences simultaneously disarmed and intrigued. “He’s this big guy with a sweet, teddy-bear quality,” says Judd Apatow. “He can get away with being vicious because you’re always sensing the nice sweetheart behind it.”

Robinson really owes it all to heartache. First seen in 2002 on the short-lived HBO variety series Sketch Pad, his “Somebody’s Fuckin’ My Lady”—a narrative slow jam in the vein of the Ron Isley–R. Kelly “Mr. Biggs” duets—is a five-minute ode to infidelity, with Robinson as Chucky the keyboardist and his friend Jerry Minor as crooner L. Witherspoon.

Highlight? As Minor dials the number found in his girl’s pocket, Robinson’s phone rings. Robinson’s defense, delivered with the smoothness of Gerald Levert, is sung so unflinchingly that you can’t tell whether Chucky is feeling remorse or achievement: “I can’t help it, it’s like every time she says, ‘Hello,’ she’s saying, ‘Hello, Chucky, I wanna fuck you!’” (It’s on YouTube—watch it.)

It was enough to win Apatow over. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen anything funnier,” he says. Apparently Bill Maher concurred, inviting the duo to perform the heartbreaker on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher a year later. And then came veteran casting director Allison Jones, who, in 2005, called Robinson to read for a single-episode role on NBC’s The Office. “His character [mailroom employee Darryl] was never meant to be a regular,” says Jones, “but the producers loved Craig so much that they started writing for him more and more. His ability to improv is truly a force of nature.” Once an extra, his character is now an Office mainstay, primed for even more screen time on the show’s sixth season.

The can’t-help-but-laugh-at misery of “Somebody’s Fuckin’ My Lady” continued. In late 2006, Apatow invited both Robinson and Minor to perform at a Knocked Up release benefit in Los Angeles, honoring Seth Rogen for the “charity work he was thinking about maybe doing one day.” Playing to a crowded room of movie-studio executives, Robinson was dynamite. “I remember thinking, ‘Things are really heating up,’” he says of that time. “My stand-up shows were already more crowded thanks to The Office, but after that, I could hear the big screens calling.”

For Knocked Up, Jones continued her pro-Robinson campaign, joining forces with Apatow to handpick Robinson for the aforementioned nightclub-bouncer scene. “After that, I became the president of the Craig Robinson fan club,” says Apatow. Chris Rock, who had caught a prerelease, private Knocked Up screening, was such a fan of the scene that he personally called Robinson to cast him in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Hump de Bump” video, which Rock directed. “I was eating lunch in Los Angeles recently, and he happened to walk by my table,” says Robinson. “He points to me and shouts, ‘This guy is going to be big! Just wait and see.’”

In Pineapple Express, the stoner action comedy, he plays Matheson, a completely inept and sentimental hit man hired to kill two potheads (Rogen and Spider-Man’s James Franco) who’ve witnessed a mob murder. Clad in ragged British Knight sneakers, camouflage pajama pants and a sky-blue sleeveless vest, he’s like a poor man’s Mr. T.

Indeed, Pineapple Express marks Robinson’s official induction as the first black member of Apatow’s hilarious, genius, money-raking crew. “The man’s got a level of funk that us white Jews can’t compete with,” says Rogen, who will costar with Robinson again in the forthcoming Zack & Miri Make a Porno. “He brings it every time. When you think he’s chilled out, he’s really concocting something special.” Off-camera, there’s a camaraderie as well. “We both share a similar love for music, weed and strippers,” says Rogen, wryly. “People can’t make fun of me for listening to N.W.A. when Craig is riding shotgun.”

Of course, fame can be a fickle game. Before Pineapple Express’ success can even be measured, director David Gordon Green is writing two scripts specifically for the big fella. “They’re fun, aggressive roles that’ll take advantage of his one-of-a-kind wit,” says Green. But is there risk he’ll soon fizzle or, worse, be a flash in the pan? “His appeal is universal. I really think he’s our next great comic actor,” says Green. Apatow concurs: “He’s one of those guys that you just want to know more about when you watch him. The more people see of him, the more of a demand there’ll be. It’s just a matter of time.”

For his part, Robinson doesn’t seem worried. “I’m able to watch geniuses like Steve Carrell and Seth [Rogen] firsthand, and that’s been my training ground,” he says. “I see what it takes to be the lead, and it’s not for no punks. And please believe: I’m no punk.”

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