the laugh track

A funny thing happened on the way to a UPN sitcom for Baltimore's Mo'Nique. Now that she's arrived, the comic actress knows she has the makeup to be a star.

August 30, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- There is a studio in the heart of seedy, old Hollywood near Sunset and Vine that they call "The Factory." From the outside it looks like two adjoining, pock-marked, abandoned buildings behind a weedy lot.

But inside, there are makeup rooms, dressing rooms, sleek conference rooms, photography studios and soundstages. It is a full-service publicity studio, and the product made on its assembly line is image -- as in, "Image is everything." Its special brand: African-American television images.

On a late Friday afternoon in July, as the rest of Hollywood is already into rush hour or happy hour, this is where you find Mo'Nique, the 31-year-old comedian and actress from Baltimore who is about to make her network television series debut. She is sitting in a high-backed canvas director's chair in a makeup room gearing up for several more hours in front of the cameras, headed toward the home stretch of another 14-hour day.

Mo'Nique is getting the star treatment; makeup people, publicists, still photographers, television camera operators and producers from the UPN network fuss over her. They are trying to capture the persona of a large, loving and raucous character with attitude to burn and package it for consumption to millions of viewers in a new sitcom called "The Parkers."

In the series, Mo'Nique plays Nikki Parker, a 35-year-old single mom from the Leimert Park section of Los Angeles who decides to enroll in junior college with her 18-year-old daughter, Kim, played by Countess Vaughn. Last year, Vaughn won an NAACP Image Award for her performance as Kim Parker on UPN's one bona-fide hit sitcom, "Moesha," starring Brandy.

Being a spinoff of "Moesha" and following it at 8: 30 p.m. in UPN's Monday night lineup already separates "The Parkers" from the pack of new fall shows. But something else truly distinguishes "The Parkers": Of the 37 new series from the six major networks, only two feature African-American characters -- "The Parkers" and "Grown Ups," which stars sitcom veteran Jaleel White and is also on UPN.

This underscores how difficult and improbable the journey from Woodlawn in Baltimore to that high-backed director's chair in Hollywood is for a performer like Mo'Nique.

"I am working long, long days. I'm up at 5: 30, out of the house at 7: 30, at the set by 8-something-a.m., and then I'm not back home until 8 at night," Mo'Nique says, looking straight ahead into a wall of mirrors as a base coat of "lightened chestnut" is applied to the comedian's face.

"But, you know what? I love it. This is easy," she continues. "Hard is being out on the road, driving and praying and playing some dead-end bar to three drunks at 3 a.m. in some place in Mississippi or Alabama or somewhere.

"Really, I'm telling you, compared to that, this is real easy. This is where I always dreamed of being. And, without sounding conceited, I always knew this day would come -- that some day I would be sitting right here in this chair in makeup getting ready to make a network TV show. This is where the journey was always supposed to take me," she says.

Two for the show

The journey started in 1991 when Mo'Nique, a graduate of Milford Mill High School who was working as a customer sales representative for MCI, went onstage on a dare from her older brother, Steven Imes III, to try stand-up comedy on amateur night at a local club. She was an instant success.

And, in a way, so was Imes. When the club manager offered Mo'Nique $25 to perform at the club a week later, Imes stepped in and said she wouldn't perform for a penny less than $30. The club manager agreed, and big brother Steve, who had bombed a few weeks earlier as a comic on the same stage, has been her manager ever since.

Mo'Nique kept her day job at MCI but started playing area comedy clubs at night and out-of-town rooms on the weekends.

"Being a woman out there in some of those places wasn't the easiest thing, but it was something I had to do to learn my craft. But talk about hard work and long hours," she says.

After about a year, she quit the day job. It was about the same time that Imes got a call inviting Mo'Nique to perform at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem on the "Showtime at the Apollo" syndicated television show.

Imes says the trip to the Apollo was typical of those early days for the new manager and would-be star. Imes used rent money to buy Mo'Nique an outfit for her first national television appearance -- a purchasing decision that didn't please his wife. By the time he and Mo'Nique got in the car in Baltimore to drive to New York, all they had left was about $20 between them.

"And most of that was exhausted by tolls," he says. "On the way back, after we paid the tolls to get out of New York, we had enough for a hot dog, a bag of chips and a Coke, which we shared."

But onstage, Mo'Nique had done well enough to be invited back to the Apollo, as well as to get appearances on such TV showcases as HBO's "Russel Simmons Def Comedy Jam" and "BET Comic View."

Their own club

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