When Dewayne Perkins joined the writing staff of the weekly Netflix show ‚ÄúThe Break with Michelle Wolf‚ÄĚ back in March, one of his first assignments was to help write material for Wolf‚Äôs appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
It‚Äôs a mostly behind-the-scenes job for now, but Perkins is a performer to keep an eye on. He‚Äôs already appeared on-camera dressed to the nines as Beyonce. He‚Äôs also the brainchild behind the recent Comedy Central video ‚ÄúThe Blackening‚ÄĚ spoofing horror movie tropes. And he‚Äôs developing a half-hour comedy with Red Arrow Studios after he and fellow Second City alum Aasia LaShay Bullock won best short-form video at the New York TV Festival last year.
The Chicago native will be back in town Friday performing at iO Theater with his improv team 3Peat, which includes some of the sharpest black comedy performers in town. (Like Perkins, a few members are currently working out of New York, including ‚ÄúSaturday Night Live‚ÄĚ cast member Chris Redd and ‚ÄúThe Late Show with Stephen Colbert‚ÄĚ writer John Thibodeaux.)
We caught up ahead of Perkins‚Äô return to Chicago. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: You‚Äôre a sketch and improv guy and you also do stand-up, so what‚Äôs it been like writing for somebody else on the Netflix show?
A: It was difficult at first because I have been writing in my own voice for so long and I have such a specific point of view ‚ÄĒ and to turn that all off and then find a way to write specifically for someone who is the complete opposite of me was a challenge. But it was one I really wanted to take on. Now it‚Äôs great. It‚Äôs been a nice balance because I‚Äôm bringing something to the show that nobody else can bring. And the show is also bringing out parts of my own art that I didn‚Äôt know I had access to.
Q: Like what?
A: Well, I‚Äôm realizing the power of a platform. I can get Michelle to say things that I wouldn‚Äôt be able to say because when I say things about race it becomes an instant message. Sometimes I‚Äôm like, I just want to have a throwaway joke. But my opinion of whiteness, because of the history of race, it has so much weight to it and I‚Äôm like, I‚Äôm not trying to do a TED talk! I‚Äôm just trying to crack a joke! But because of where the country is right now, everything just feels like it has such high stakes.
Whereas Michelle‚Äôs not representing blackness ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs just an opinion or a joke. So I think writing on a show like this is really fun because I don‚Äôt have to think about how people are perceiving my race, because that‚Äôs not a factor. I can just write jokes.
I think the work that I‚Äôm doing with Michelle is giving me a certain level of clout and attention and so, yeah, there are times when I think, ‚ÄúI wish I could say these things‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ and I could in my own stand-up ‚ÄĒ but it wouldn‚Äôt be on a platform as big as a Netflix show.
My goal is to have a similar platform in the future and this is only showing me what that would be like. So I think the experience of writing for the show is so much more than just writing ‚ÄĒ it‚Äôs about really seeing how to build a platform and then what you can use it for.
I do think though, because I‚Äôm the lone black person at the job, that I‚Äôm just like, oh, I don‚Äôt want to represent all blackness. My opinions reflect me. I have the intellectual prowess to talk about race but it‚Äôs my opinion as Dewayne the writer, not Dewayne the black person in the space of this show.
Q: That‚Äôs a specific kind of pressure when you‚Äôre the only black writer on the show.
A: I mean, it‚Äôs just pressure of a person of color in the world. No matter what the job is, you know what you want to give off but you don‚Äôt know how people will perceive you. If they do judge all black people by my actions and my words, will that be a good impression? That‚Äôs just something I think about period, in life. I don‚Äôt want to represent black people poorly. But I don‚Äôt think that‚Äôs amplified here at all because I addressed it very early on.
Like, I think working at Second City prepared me for all of this in terms of race dynamics. Because historically Second City‚Äôs been predominantly white, and it was important to have those kinds of transparent conversations with higher-ups, like: ‚ÄúOK, I‚Äôm the only black person. What do you think I bring to the show that‚Äôs not just my race?‚ÄĚ
Q: I loved ‚ÄúThe Blackening‚ÄĚ video 3Peat did for Comedy Central. It felt like such a great calling card for what the group can do, hopefully on TV in some future incarnation.
A: That would be a dream job, to work with my friends on a sketch show. ‚ÄúThe Blackening‚ÄĚ was a sketch that I wrote while I was still at Second City.
I love the idea of horror because I find the idea of horror movies to be very comical. I‚Äôm obsessed with humans and the way that we react to things ‚ÄĒ and horror movies reveal how dumb humans are pretty often! I‚Äôll be like, ‚ÄúThat was a dumb thing to do! You died because of a dumb decision!‚ÄĚ
So I‚Äôm really aware of horror movie tropes, including the fact that they‚Äôre predominantly white with maybe a token black person who always gets killed first. So that‚Äôs why it starts off with: ‚ÄúYou know how in horror movies, the psycho killer always kills the black person first? Well, when he saw that we were all black it kind of (messed) up his mind ‚Ä¶ he sent me in here to tell you that he‚Äôll spare the rest of us if we give him the person that‚Äôs (pause) the blackest.‚ÄĚ
The idea of having a roomful of token black people was hilarious to me. The token black person always exists in relation to white people, but what if there are no white people? So now all of those tropes have to go out the window. That was funny to me, to flip it on its head. I love that sketch.
Q: How did you find your way into comedy?
A: I grew up on the South Side near Marquette Park. In high school I was a football player and I was a running back because I was very swift, but I didn‚Äôt like it ‚ÄĒ everybody was way too serious! Every time I got the football I wasn‚Äôt running for a touchdown, I was running out of fear and I was like, ‚ÄúThis is terrible, I don‚Äôt want to do this! It hurts to get tackled.‚ÄĚ The only reason I joined the football team was because in elementary school I was bullied and on TV the football players were the cool kids, so I forced myself to be part of the popular group. That didn‚Äôt work out but I needed something to do and I found improv.
The coach of the improv team at my high school convinced me to audition for DePaul University‚Äôs conservatory ‚ÄĒ I had never taken an acting class ‚ÄĒ so when I got in I was like, that‚Äôs a sign. I should do this.
And my freshman year at DePaul, my dorm had a free trip to Second City, which is just one train stop away. And I was like, ‚ÄúI‚Äôve lived here my entire life, what is this place?‚ÄĚ The show I saw was with Edgar Blackmon (currently co-starring on Freeform‚Äôs ‚ÄúAlone Together‚ÄĚ) and Sam Richardson (who‚Äôs known for ‚ÄúVeep‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúDetroiters‚ÄĚ) and I was like, ‚ÄúOoooh, this is fun. I can do this.‚ÄĚ
Second City brought some of the best people in my life. There‚Äôs a small club of black people and whenever a new black person comes in, they reach out to the last black person who was there. It‚Äôs this feeling that we‚Äôre in this together.
Q: I have to ask about your bit as Beyonce on ‚ÄúThe Break.‚ÄĚ How did that come about?
A: When Beyonce and Jay-Z dropped their new album, Michelle came in and she was like, ‚ÄúI just think it‚Äôs so funny how at their concerts he just stands there and raps and Beyonce‚Äôs doing all these crazy moves. She does all the dancing.‚ÄĚ I have never played Beyonce before this, but because I‚Äôve danced for so long, people knew I could do that part.
So Michelle‚Äôs idea was for a bit that showed that dynamic, where she would be Jay-Z just basically standing there and I would be Beyonce doing all the choreography.
Q: The reason it‚Äôs so funny is because it‚Äôs not jokey ‚ÄĒ you totally commit and you pull it off. The look, the body language, the strut, all of it. Which is very different from what a show like ‚ÄúSNL‚ÄĚ would do, which is typically very outsized and exaggerated and almost cartoonish.
A: I took it so serious and that‚Äôs why it was so funny! I can dance in heels, these are just skills that I have! And I was like, ‚ÄúI am Beyonce in this moment.‚ÄĚ
You can be a serious comedian. But I think most of my comedic point of view comes from cartoons. Like, I love a shenanigan.
3Peat performs at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday at iO Theater‚Äôs Bentwood Comedy Festival (featuring a lineup of notable iO aumi) www.bentwoodfestival.com.