Back in the mid-90s when he went to Clark Atlanta University, Kenya Barris used to do standup at the nearby Uptown Comedy Corner. One night, comedian Chris Tucker showed up unexpectedly, bumping Barris to a later time on the schedule — and, ultimately, shaking his confidence.
Tucker’s routine was so good, in fact, it made Barris reconsider his career path.
“I knew I wanted to do it, but I knew I couldn’t be a standup because I sucked at it,” Barris said, laughing. “I just didn’t have what it takes.”
He started “selling jokes” for $25 each to successful standup comedians like the Late Bernie Mac. Selling jokes helped him realize he had the ability to write comedy from others’ points of view. He started writing television scripts.
These days, Barris, 42, is the writer and producer of “Black-ish,” the popular ABC show — now in its third season — he created. He was in Atlanta over the weekend to receive an award from his alma mater.
Barris was one of six recognized Saturday during Clark Atlanta University’s 9th annual Spirit of Greatness Gala, highlighting alumni and pioneers making a positive impact in their communities and beyond.
The gala is Clark Atlanta University Alumni Association’s signature event and benefits the learning institution’s scholarship fund, having raised more than $1.5 million for Clark Atlanta University students since its inception.
Clark Atlanta University President Ronald A. Johnson said graduates like Barris have “shaped and informed the course of history for more than 150 years, and we are honored to support and celebrate their excellence.”
Barris, a 1996 graduate of Clark Atlanta University, now resides in Los Angeles. He was born and raised in Inglewood, Calif., surrounded by poverty.
“I grew up broke,” Barris said. “We were in a situation where everybody around us was broke too, and we didn’t even know it. I didn’t know until I got out of that situation and looked around.”
Having achieved success, Barris said his top priority is providing for his children and making sure they’re “not in the same position I was in.”
It’s also his children (he has six of them) who inspired him years back to create “Black-ish.”
Prior to the show, he was already a successful television writer, helping create shows like “America’s Next Top Model.” His wife, Rainbow (“the real-life Rainbow”), was a doctor.
“Things started financially changing for me …” Barris said. “I looked around at my kids, and they were not the example of little black kids I remembered. I was like, ‘this is not what little black kids are like.’ And, I looked around at all their friends … and they were not like the little white kids I remembered.”
Added Barris: “I kind of realized that was what the next generation of people were like — a sort of blending.”
Barris said he gets along with and admires the actors on his show, including Laurence Fishburne (who plays “Pops”) and Anthony Anderson (Andre Johnson).
“(Fishburne) is fantastic,” Barris said. “Sometimes, I’ll be on the set, and I’ll be like ‘am I really giving notes to Laurence Fishburne?’ … And, Anthony (Anderson), he’s like my brother. We’re from similar situations. He’s from Compton, and I’m from Inglewood. We both grew up with nothing.”
Going from rags to riches with his large family, Barris also drew inspiration for “Black-ish” from the change of lifestyle.
“We’re taught to give your kids more than you had, but in doing that what do they lose?” Barris said. “That’s a cross-cultural thing. Wherever you put your kids in a new situation … you leave behind the values and morals you had. In the gaining of giving them more, what do they lose? I think that’s (an idea) the main characters are based around.”
Achieving success as a writer has been a journey of persistence, Barris said. “Whether TV, film or literary … you’ve got to stick with it and stay focused. Don’t let outside stuff take that away from you.”
His favorite book on the craft is Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which he said “is the best book on writing.”
He said he’s followed King’s advice on the importance of writing in the same place and at the same time every day “until it becomes Pavlovian. Even though there are days you don’t want to write, if you’re there at the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing, your mind will kick in, and you know it’s time to write.”
Being honored in Atlanta over the weekend for his achievements as a television writer, creator and producer “feels great. It means a lot.”
“I love Atlanta,” Barris said. “There’s a lot of black people doing stuff … There’s a lot of black people here with an education and jobs. You don’t see it across the country. You don’t see as much upwardly mobile people coming from the black community.”
Coming back to Atlanta more than 20 years after that fateful evening at Uptown Comedy Corner, Barris feels grateful he chose another career path than stand-up comedy and “blessed” by how far he’s come.
“The journey has been everything,” he said.
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Other alumni honored by Clark Atlanta University Saturday during the 9th Annual Spirit of Greatness Gala
• The Honorable Brenda Hill Cole, Fulton County State Court Senior Judge
• Horace Henry, world-renowned photographer
• Anthony White, Emmy-award winning videographer and journalist
• Al B. Reid, vice president of corporate development at Abbott Laboratories
• Steve Ewing, president and owner of Wade Ford