No, we’re not insane. And yes, we mean those Wayanses. You know, the 10 brothers and sisters — and their many offspring — who brought you Homey the Clown and the Homeboy Shopping Network.
Consider the numbers. Over the past 20 years, Wayans sibs like Kim (Juwanna Mann) and Damon (ABC’s My Wife and Kids) have written, directed, produced, and/or starred in more than 45 movies and television shows. In Living Color, the Emmy-winning 1990s sketch show that Keenen Ivory created, is one of BET’s biggest syndication hits. And the family boasts a combined domestic box office of over a billion bucks — a hefty $331 million of which comes from the powerhouse trio at the forefront of the Wayans dynasty, Keenen, 48, and brothers Shawn, 35, and Marlon, 33.
”They have a real sense of what makes people laugh,” says Joe Roth, whose Revolution Studios produced the trio’s last two movies. ”They’ve figured out a way to do [comedy] while expanding their audience and keeping the costs below the norm. It’s very smart.”
That’s right, the goofy guys behind White Chicks and July 14’s Little Man are extremely savvy businessmen. How do they do it? Raised in the New York City projects, the Wayans kids learned a strong work ethic from their parents, and had comedy as an outlet. (”We called my dad an entre-poor-neur,” cracks Marlon.) So now, in this age of ballooning budgets, the low-overhead and all-in-the-family approach championed by Keenen, Shawn, and Marlon has turned out to be a golden goose for studios. Take White Chicks: Budgeted at $37 million, the cross-dressing comedy grossed $70 million and sold an estimated 4 million DVDs. Even the $50 million Little Man, in which the 6’2” Marlon is digitally transformed into a 2’3” jewel thief, is a bargain for a CGI flick. ”That’s the beauty of comedy — it’s not expensive,” says Marlon. ”And with us, it’s a package. You got your writers, stars, producers, and director. When you have [that] at a budget, you can make a movie.”
The brothers first proved how effective that formula can be with 2000’s Scary Movie. Back then, they had been focusing on edgier flicks like 1996’s Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, and decided it was time to go for the mainstream. ”Keenen always taught us to [be] inclusive,” Marlon explains. ”You want to hit every demographic.” And that’s exactly what their little horror spoof did. The R-rated comedy cost just $19 million…and took in a staggering $157 million. It remains the top grosser of the franchise.
Why, then, with such an impressive track record, don’t the Wayanses get more recognition? Genre, for one. Comedies can be cash cows, but the brothers’ broad humor hasn’t exactly made them critical darlings. Then there’s the matter of race. It’s incredibly hard for a black filmmaker to be seen as truly mainstream, even with the numbers to back it up. In 2000, much was made of the fact that Scary Movie was the highest-grossing film ever directed by an African American. (It still holds that title.) But six years and many hits later, such distinctions seem meaningless. ”They made back-to-back smashes,” says BET entertainment president Reginald Hudlin. ”That’s a big deal for anyone.” And with their worldwide grosses totaling more than half a billion dollars, Keenen, Shawn, and Marlon are one of the few U.S. comedy teams — black, white, whatever — whose humor translates overseas. (White Chicks‘ foreign b.o. actually beat Adam Sandler’s The Longest Yard.)