The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Sinbad

IF you grew up in the ’90s, then your first frame of reference to “Sinbad” is almost certainly not that of a sailor. Between his work on the small screen with A Different World, his feature film work in Houseguest and Jingle All the Way, and his stand-up comedy, the man born as David Adkins is surely the first and foremost Sinbad in your mind. As such, you’ll no doubt be thrilled to learn that he’s back with a new stand-up special, Make Me Wanna Holla, which premieres tonight on Comedy Central. We had a chance to chat with Sinbad recently about his new comedy effort, his back catalog of films and TV series, and how our next look at him is likely to be on YouTube.


Bullz-Eye: Being that pop culture has such a short-term memory problem, it’s got to drive you crazy that you’ve never really gone away, and yet this new special is causing people to say, “Sinbad’s back?”

Sinbad: You know, it’s funny, man. This is the thing with pop culture: I guess you’d say the difference is… Well, there’s always been old school and new school, but when I was coming up, you knew who the old cats were, and it wasn’t like they had less value. I look at Quincy Jones and cats like that, and to me they just got better and better, and you wanted to be like them. Now, if you’re not in the public eye on a daily basis, you’re just gone. I mean, like, gone gone. Like, “I think he’s dead!” [Laughs.]

BE: Have you had to endure any false death claims on social media?

S: Oh, I was one of the first ones the internet killed. [Laughs.] They killed me twice! But I keep coming back!

BE: For those who haven’t been following your stand-up, you’re still following the same general format, as far as the type of material you do, right?

S: Well, the material always changes. I don’t know what the format is, though. To me, the only format is that it’s got to be funny.

BE: The press release for your new special notes that you’ve got the comedy bookended with performances by your musical alter-ego, Memphis Red.

S: Oh, yeah! Well, I’ve been dabbling in music lately, but as a matter of fact, I started out my life as a musician, and I’ve just had more fun going back that way and doing things. I’m trying to find a way to do it so it doesn’t throw people off too much but so I can still have fun with it.

BE: Music’s something that’s been associated with your career a fair amount over the years, most notably with the ‘70s Soul Music Festival.  

S: Oh, yeah, man. Music is it, bro.

BE: When you first started exploring music, who were your first influences?

S: Oh, man, look, I’m coming from the era where you’re looking at… Well, anything that was funky, really: Earth, Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye and the Motown sound, blues, all that stuff. I’m from the ‘60s and the ‘70s.

BE: What led to the shift to comedy?

S: There was no shift, really, as much as… Look, this was when there was no one way to get into the entertainment game. As a matter of fact, it made more sense to be in a band than to be a stand-up comic, ‘cause there was no blueprint for how to be a comedian. I just thought I was gonna be famous, and I didn’t know how, whether it was gonna be basketball or being in a band, and then somebody would say, “Hey, he’s funny! Put him on TV!”

BE: So how old were you when you did your first stand-up gig?

S: Um…the first time I ever walked onstage was when I was – I think – a sophomore in college. One of my assistant coaches says, “Hey, man, why don’t you do this thing? Get on stage and tell some jokes!” So I did. But then I didn’t do it again until I was in the military.

BE: Was that because the first performance went so poorly?

S: Well, I was playing college ball at the time, so I was just doing it for fun. And, you know, there was no comedy clubs, no coffee houses, no places for me to try and work it out.

BE: Was there a particular point when you decided to take a shot at going in front of the camera for sitcom work, or was that just a matter of career evolution?

S: You know what it was? I was in the Air Force, and I saw Tops in Blue. They’re pretty big, if you look ‘em up. They performed at halftime at Super Bowls and everything. They were a traveling military entertainment unit. And when I saw ‘em, my mouth dropped open, and I said, “That’s it.” I saw the host, the emcee guy, and I said, “I’m taking his job.” [Laughs.]

BE: A few months ago, I did an interview with Pamela Adlon, and we talked about her experience on The Redd Foxx Show. What did you learn from him as far as making the move from stand-up to sitcom?

S: Well, the very first day of taping, I was doing my stuff, man, and I thought I was being funny and trying to nail my acting, and he told me… [Does a Redd Foxx impression.] “That’s very funny. But you might want to stand on your mark next time, see?” He taught me the technique of being funny but still hitting your mark. Because with stand-up, you’re all over the stage, but he taught me how not to lose the funny and how to make it work for the camera.

BE: You went from work with Redd Foxx to working for Bill Cosby.

S: Not a bad thing, huh? [Laughs.]

BE: So how was the overall experience of working on A Different World? That was a pretty long-term gig for you.

S: A Different World was… I only did three or four years, but to me, working for Cosby was like a dream come true, and to go into that spin-off and do what I think was one of the most influential sitcoms of all time… It was funny and poignant at the same time. The cast just had a little reunion with Oprah a couple of days ago, and we were talking about how, God, some of the subject matters were just… I mean, on that supposedly squeaky-clean show, we had episodes where sponsors turned their backs because we touched on AIDS for the first time, and we talked about date rape. We did some pretty cool stuff.

BE: A lot of times people will look back at shows from the ‘80s and ‘90s and be, like, “Oh, look, it’s a very special episodes,” but a lot of those episodes were really important to the kids who watched them at the time.

S: Oh, they were! Because we were touching on things that America didn’t want to touch.

BE: As a comic-book geek, I feel obligated to make note of the fact that you were, to my knowledge, the first person to play a live-action version of Black Lightning.

S: Man, people don’t even know who Black Lightning is. [Laughs.] But my son, who wants to be a film director one day, promised me that someday he’ll shoot a Black Lightning film. He’s a very unique character.

BE: Well, fingers crossed, but people keep talking about a Black Panther film, too, and that still hasn’t happened.

S: Man, how long have they been teasing us with a Black Panther film? 20 years? They’ve been teasing us about a Black Panther film forever. They’re talking about making a Mandrake the Magician movie, and they still won’t touch Black Panther.

BE: At least they did an animated series.

S: Yeah, they did the animated version, but, you know, the perfect guy back in the day would’ve been Wesley Snipes. I mean, my God…

BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

S: You know, it’s funny, all my projects kind of got love later. [Laughs.] It wasn’t at Blockbuster the week it came out, but you see they still play ‘em almost every day on TV! But my favorite project was a thing I did for HBO called The Cherokee Kid, about black cowboys. I’d like to have done a sequel to that.

BE: I know you executive-produced it, but how did you find your way into it in the first place?

S: Well, there was a script that was laying there, it was originally for Martin Lawrence, and I found it and I said, “Wait a minute!” The way it was written, it was kind of like a slave comedy, but since I was a black cowboy semi-historian, I said, “I can rewrite this and make it funny but also talk about something we haven’t talked about in our history: the black west.”

BE: Looking at the credits, there’s some impressive names in the mix, most notably Paris Barclay, who’s a pretty legendary TV director at this point.

S: Oh, man, yeah! And I had to fight with HBO to use Paris! But he’s an amazing guy. And you look at the cast, and you’ve got Burt Reynolds, Gregory Hines…come on, dude! [Laughs.]

BE: And music by Stanley Clarke, which isn’t bad, either.

S: I had to fight HBO on that one, too! [Laughs.] I asked for him, they said, “Who is Stanley Clarke?” and I said, “Look, instead of embarrassing yourself, why don’t you do a little research?”

BE: Your first significant film role was in Necessary Roughness. How was that for you?

S: You know, it was my first time being on a film set, being with these people and shooting this movie, but Stanley Dragoti, who directed it, I’ll forget him, because we were doing stuff that wasn’t funny, and I said, “Hey, man, let me just do something, and you catch it.” So after awhile, he would just go, like, “Sinbad, gimme something!” [Laughs.] It was the first time somebody trusted me as a comic to try something that wasn’t on paper.

BE: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question plenty of times, but how did you enjoy working with Phil Hartman?

S: Man, Phil… Phil was… You know why we worked so well together? It’s almost like Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, ‘cause we were different enough in style that we could both be as big as we could be. We weren’t fighting for space, because our spaces were different. It was nice. It was like dancing with somebody who was the perfect dance partner.

BE: Do you have a favorite story that kind of sums up Phil?

S: Oh, man, Phil was a hippie! [Laughs.] Phil would tell me stories, and…he looked like a square, conservative dude, but he did cover illustrations for Rolling Stone, he designed album covers, he was a surfer dude… I found that out, and I was, like, “What?

BE: If someone wanted to play catch-up with your stand-up, what specials would you recommend?

S: Well, the last one before this was the one called Where You Been? and that was probably the first special in, like, what, 10 years? Because back in the day you didn’t do a special every other year. Back in the day, you’d do specials every four or five years. I figure life has to simmer. You have to do things. My favorite special is still my very first one, which is Brain Damaged.

BE: If someone enjoyed that special and came to this new one, would they find a significant difference in tone?

S: Well, what’s different is that you can see the growth of a comedian. You see where, as I got older, the things I’m talking about changed from being a father. But if you look at Cosby and Pryor, with each album, there’s still things that are the same. It’s like a Santana album. He just needs to create a new guitar solo, he doesn’t need to define new notes. I want the same Santana things, just a reinterpretation of them.

BE: Are you looking to do more acting, or are you just enjoying being on the road?

S: Oh, no, I’m looking for more movies and more…well, the right TV series. Right now, they don’t know how to put together a sitcom to save their lives, but if they let us help them, we might could get one on the air. But I’m looking for that right moment.

BE: You turned up on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia a few years ago. Would an FX series appeal to you, maybe something like what Louis C.K.’s doing?

S: Of course! But, y’see, the reason it worked for Sunny and for Louie is that they put those shows together themselves. Hollywood could never put a show like that together for someone else, because Hollywood doesn’t have that kind of vision. So I’m sitting down with my son, and we’re just writing our own stuff. We’re gonna do some things on YouTube.

BE: Do you have a timeline on when we’ll see those things?

S: Well, we’re working on ‘em right now, so we’re hoping in the next couple of months?

BE: To close, just because it didn’t come up at any other point, how did you enjoy the experience of getting dramatic and working on Showtime’s Resurrection Blvd.?

S: You know, man, I just wish it’d gone one more season. ‘Cause I was gonna get to kill somebody. [Laughs.] I just needed that one good kill moment.

BE: So that’s your big goal? To kill somebody on screen?

S: Hey, man, some people have to recreate themselves by doing porn. I just want to kill somebody! [Laughs.]