The fish-out-of-water sitcom premise is one that can yield comedy dividends if executed properly. In the case of the CBS series The Neighborhood, creator Jim Reynolds uses his real-life experience of being the patriarch of a white Midwestern family moving into a predominantly African-American community to great effect. But even with the best material, a show is only as good as its leads. In this case, Reynolds’ secret weapon is Cedric the Entertainer, who not only serves as lead character Calvin Butler, but is also an executive producer on The Neighborhood. Born Cedric Antonio Kyles, the Missouri native already had a deal in place with the network for developing different projects when he was approached with the concept the former Big Bang Theory writer had come up with.
“[CBS] wanted us to meet and see if I was interested in this show. They were definitely into having me on the network,” Kyles recalled. “They loved this idea, it just needed a lot more shaping. I ended up meeting with Jim, walked through it and went through the creative process of making sure that we were trying to say the same things. We were able to come to an understanding and were able to come out with this great show. It’s been a really fun ride.”
Max Greenfield (New Girl, Ugly Betty) plays Dave Johnson, a professional conflict negotiator who moves to an L.A. neighborhood with his school principal wife (Beth Behrs of Two Broke Girls) and son Grover (Hank Greenspan). While Butler matriarch Tina (Tichina Arnold of Everybody Hates Chris) and adult sons Malcolm (Sheaun McKinney of Vice Principals) and Martin (Marcel Spears) are accepting of their new neighbors, Kyles’ Butler is concerned the Johnsons will disrupt the culture on the block and doesn’t appreciate the new guy’s extreme neighborliness. As both an executive and lead on the show, the veteran stand-up comedian is ideally hoping the cast provokes as much conversation as it does laughs.
“As a creative person, I needed to be able to have the power to have the influence on that. So that’s where my executive producer title comes from. I really helped to shape the show we have on the air now. I continue to make sure that this voice is present. Being that we’re 22 episodes in and people have all kind of crazy ideas about what the episode should be, I kind of stay grounded and focused on telling the story of Calvin, Dave Johnson and their families and how these two families come to live next to each other,” he said. “I think we have a really great cast and from the point of view of trying to make sure that we tell the story from both sides without having one side be right or wrong. It feels like the right way to do things, and that’s what makes it so people can watch it and not assume that we’re attacking anybody. We’re only being these people.”
Growing up in Berkeley, MO, Kyles graduated from Southeast Missouri University with a degree in mass communication and a minor in theater. Despite post-college jobs that included stints as a substitute teacher and a State Farm insurance claims adjuster, Kyles’ appetite for performing was whetted during a 10-grade talent show singing baritone in a group covering the Ray, Goodman & Brown R&B chestnut “Special Lady” (“The crowd went crazy and I knew I could do this.”). It was during his State Farm time that Kyles was encouraged by a stand-up comedy acquaintance who was constantly borrowing the former’s quips for his own act. The latter eventually enrolled Kyles in a local 1987 open-mic contest, in which he won the $500 first prize (“And I was rich!”). It was during the first three years of a career that found the insurance adjuster hitting the comedy club stages at night where the comic earned the moniker “Cedric the Entertainer.”
“The first part of my career, I definitely likened myself to a singer, which is kind of how the name The Entertainer came about,” he explained. “I would sing. I would do poems. I would do a few minutes’ worth of jokes. But I would do all these things on stage that wasn’t just about comedy. That’s how I got the moniker The Entertainer and not just something I made up. It was something that I used to do when I came to the stage.”
That Swiss Army knife-approach of tackling different projects has served Kyles well. He’s not only parlayed his malleability into a number of hit television shows (The Steve Harvey Show, The Last O.G.), but myriad film roles (Barbershop, The Original Kings of Comedy, Ice Age) and even a 2008 stint on Broadway starring in a revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo alongside John Leguizamo and Haley Joel Osment. Kyle prides himself as a performer whose career trajectory was informed by a desire to always be continually progressing via different artistic projects and challenges. Failure even provided him with the example of staying true to oneself, a point driven home by good friend Steve Harvey.
“I had performed at a big corporate event in New York and there were a lot of agents and people that I thought were important. I had given them way too much credit for being better than me and I tried to change my set and everything, thinking I was making them happy. And I bombed,” he recalled. “Steve walked up after me and went off on the whole crowd. He let this crowd have it, basically saying, ‘Y’all sit up in your offices with your suits on and don’t know funny. This is one of the funniest dudes in the world.’ He went off and they were dying because he was literally letting them have it about themselves. They were laughing so hard and I was watching it. And he came off and said, ‘Never change for this. Never change for people. Let them come to you.’ I was already successful. I had a deal and was making money. To have that experience thinking you have to change for somebody because you want to be loved is just the wrong attitude. I try to tell that to other comics and I try to do that consistently with myself.”
The Neighborhood airs on CBS. Check local listings for air times.
Stay tuned for Cedric the Entertainer’s favorite comedians.